A Former Amazon Executive is Helping to Bring Manufacturing to the Site of a Shuttered Aluminum Mill

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
May 02 2023 |
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, left, cited his administration’s economic development policies as a reason for Re:Build Manufacturing’s decision to invest in the state. Photo courtesy Office of Gov. Josh Shapiro

Re:Build Manufacturing joined Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro on Monday to announce an $81 million investment to “create a major, innovation-focused manufacturing operation” at the New Kensington Advanced Manufacturing Park.

Like many cities in Pennsylvania, New Kensington used to be a mill town.

Aluminum maker Alcoa first opened a factory in the city way back in 1891. Alcoa prospered in New Kensington for decades, as the company’s main production and research facilities were located there. That also galvanized economic growth in the city, which is located about 18 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

But in 1971, Alcoa closed its doors in New Kensington. And, just like other factory cities across the Industrial Heartland, the city struggled to regain its footing.

More than five decades later, the old Alcoa site is about to see new life.

Re:Build Manufacturing, a Massachusetts company dedicated to growing manufacturing in the United States, joined with Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and other government leaders on Monday to announce an $81 million investment at the old Alcoa site. Re:Build will construct a 175,000 square foot facility that will be home to a variety of advanced manufacturing operations serving an eclectic mix of industries, including energy, life sciences, robotics, electric mobility, satellite communications, and aerospace.

The upcoming facility is an example of industrial policy in action, as Re:Build is partnering with the Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC) on the project. The company will invest $50 million, with RIDC pitching in $31 million via grants from the state and county, along with a contribution from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Most of the $31 million will go toward renovations at the site, which is in “serious disrepair.”

The new Re:Build factory is expected to create 300 new jobs when completed, along with about 100 construction jobs. Re:Build is also leading the effort to recruit a skilled workforce, partnering with nearby Westmoreland County Community College and other vocational training institutions.

Job creation isn’t likely to stop at the site, however. RIDC President Donald F. Smith noted that the Re:Build factory is expected to create a big multiplier effect across the region, calling it a “tremendous catalytic opportunity.”

“The presence of this high-quality, innovative force in the manufacturing sector, bringing hundreds of jobs to this community, will be a spark for investment in the entire region,” he added.

Miles Arnone, Re:Build’s CEO, pointed out that these are going to be good jobs, too.

“Re:Build is committed to reindustrializing America and doing so in communities that have been abandoned by companies chasing cheap labor around the world, including in China,” Arnone said. “We understand that for the U.S. to thrive, more Americans need to work in the high-paying, long-term jobs that manufacturing can provide.”

Re:Build is the brainchild of Jeff Wilke, a former Amazon executive who grow up in the Industrial Heartland and recalled seeing “firsthand the impacts of the rise and fall of American manufacturing on the well-being of our country.” As Re:Build’s chairman, Wilke is now dedicated to bringing back some of America’s manufacturing prowess to “help our nation secure a more resilient future.”

The goal isn’t to try to beat other nations in a race-to-the-bottom scenario. Rather, Re:Build is aiming to lead the way on technology and innovation.

Since its formation in 2020, Re:Build has hired more than 850 people and purchased 11 advanced manufacturing companies nationwide. The New Kensington site will be the first time the company will oversee a full-scale production site, and Re:Build ultimately is hoping to create a national network of similar facilities that can provide manufacturing services across a variety of industries, and at competitive prices.

“We’re not going to compete with foreign manufacturers who depend on low wages, scant environmental regulations, and theft of intellectual property by using the same flawed strategies,” Wilke said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Rather, we’ll compete because we will arm our incredibly skilled team members in our plants with the latest advances in material science, computer science, AI, machine automation and advances in mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering.”

Also helping out on the project: Billionaire Thomas Tull, the former chairman and CEO of Legendary Entertainment and current minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tull is Re:Build’s leading investor and sits on its board.

“I believe that being able to make things again in this country is extremely important not only for jobs and economic development but, frankly, for national security,” Tull said, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We have to be able to make sure that we’re resilient and prepared for just about anything.”

Arnone echoed those remarks.

“As a country, we’ve sort of engaged in this consensual delusion for about 40 years that it was more important to have cheap fittings than to have quality jobs,” Arnone said. “We’ve seen the impact of that on our country these last decades as we watched our companies feed China and help them build their economy at our own expense and the expense of people that live in communities like Western Pennsylvania.”

He continued: “What we hope to achieve here in establishing this facility is bring many hundreds of important, high-skill manufacturing jobs where people can, over the long term, build their own economic story, where they can participate in the American dream by gaining skills, improving their productivity, increasing their wages and creating that virtuous cycle that builds communities.”