Small Manufacturers Thrive Along Shenango Corridor

FARRELL, Pa. – When in 1984 Bertram Tool & Machine Co. moved to its building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Farrell, Pa., the once bustling steel industry was already well into decline.

The company, established in 1972 in Sharon, Pa., once manufactured and machined parts for the former Sharon Steel Corp., at that time the largest employer in Shenango Valley.

That work ended during the mid-1980s as the large steelmaking operations in the region, one by one, shut their doors.

But like many businesses along this industrial corridor, Bertram Tool improvised, invested in new machinery, and today is a thriving small business with customers all across the country, says its president, Helmut Bertram.

“We don’t have a lot of local customers,” Bertram says. “But I get the feeling that everybody’s busy. We certainly are.”

Bertram’s business has survived the volatile ride that has beset the manufacturing community in the Shenango Valley over the last half-century. The Valley’s major industrial thoroughfare – a single road that knits together the communities of Sharon, Farrell, Wheatland and Hermitage – has undergone substantial changes since this industrial section of the community was established in the 19th century.

Many incarnations later, the 4.5-mile corridor still thrives. Moving south, it begins as Dock Street in Sharon, transitions to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Farrell, and then becomes Broadway Avenue in the borough of Wheatland and the city of Hermitage.

The thoroughfare today represents a cross-section of manufacturing and industry in the region. What was once a major operation of Sharon Steel in Farrell is today NLMK Pennsylvania, a division of the giant Russian conglomerate, NLMK Group. Solar Atmospheres provides vacuum heat-treating and brazing services for metal components. CCL Container, which manufactures aluminum bottles and containers, recently finished a major expansion of its plant in Hermitage. Daffin Candies maintains a sprawling production plant along the southern section of the corridor.

Sharon Tube, part of the Wheatland Tube division of JMC Steel Group, operates a precision tube mill in Wheatland along Broadway, while Voestalpine, headquartered in Austria, has a plant in Farrell.

Bertram says his company manufactures components used in medical equipment, safety equipment and many other applications, including forming rolls used at nearby Wheatland Tube.

New investment in automation and technology has allowed the company to be more competitive in the industrial market, Bertram adds. “We do a lot of specialty work,” he says. “All segments in the industry are hot right now.”

The company has undergone one major expansion and two smaller additions since it moved in 1984.

“I can’t keep up with quoting,” he says. “These are good problems to have, and a sign that there’s a lot of business to be had.”

Those signs are evident throughout the entire corridor, Bertram observes. “NLMK seems to be very busy. We see railroad cars backed up and loaded with steel slabs.”

Others doing business along the industrial corridor agree.

“There’s been an industrial rebound,” observes Jodi Smith, who along with her husband, Frank, own the Golden Apple Inn, a restaurant that sits smack in the middle of the industrial section in Wheatland. “There’s a lot of building going on.”

Employees of these nearby companies – mostly managers and office workers – stop in for lunch and business has never been better. “This building is 120 years old,” Smith says. “We bought it and renovated it 15 years ago. Business is tremendous.”

She always had faith that the corridor would eventually rebound, Smith says, so she and her husband remodeled the old building into a quaint diner that today is paneled with old barn wood on the inside and decorated with acoustic guitars that Frank collects.

Initially, this entire section of Wheatland was zoned residential, Smith recalls. Then, in 1985, deadly tornadoes swept through the Mahoning and Shenango valleys and this section of Wheatland was hit particularly hard.

“After the tornado, the borough rezoned the area to accommodate business. Wheatland is now a growing area,” Smith says.

One advantage the corridor possesses is that it’s part of Pennsylvania’s Keystone Opportunity Zone program. Should a company in such a zone build or expand, taxes on real estate are forgiven until 2023.

Randy Seitz, CEO of Penn-Northwest Development Corp., which administers a variety of programs to boost business and industrial development throughout the county, describes the Dock Street/Broadway thoroughfare as “a hot corridor” with thriving companies and continued interest from others. “Then again, all of Mercer County is hot right now,” he adds.

Seitz sees growing interest along the length of the industrial corridor. Among the latest projects is a proposed tenant for the Stateline Industrial Park in Hermitage.

“We’re working with a food processing company for that site,” he reports. “It’s a good time to be in Mercer County.”

Pictured: Helmut Bertram, president of Bertram Tool & Machine, Farrell, and supervisor John Rydarowicz, display components.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.