Economics / Manufacturing

Johnstown is hitching its wagon to Pittsburgh tech

Johnstown used to thrive on big defense contracts. Now the seat of Cambria County is hoping to replicate some of Pittsburgh's tech success.

Pittsburgh tech talent trekked to Johnstown for a day. (GIF via YouTube via "This Town Won't Die", Scintillate Films, LLC)
This story is part of Grow PA, a reported series on economic development across 10 Pennsylvania counties underwritten by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. Sign up for our weekly curated email here.
In a local twist on the trade delegation concept, a group of Pittsburgh business people made the 70-mile trek to Johnstown last week as part of an ongoing effort to foster economic development between the two cities.

Real estate is cheaper and more plentiful in Johnstown, and the competition for software engineers is not as fierce as it is in Pittsburgh, which now hosts Uber, Google and Facebook offices. Smaller manufacturers may be able to find a place in the supply chain of one of Johnstown’s larger contractors.

That’s just part of the pitch that Cambria County Grants Facilitator John Dubnansky and his colleagues in Johnstown economic development are making as part of the ongoing Bridge to Pittsburgh initiative.

“Johnstown has been a distressed community for two decades,” said Dubnansky. “We’re trying to show that to operate here, to do business here, we can do things a little quicker. We’re big enough and have enough resources to help your business, but we’re small enough that we can easily get our hands around problems.”

Johnstown has a lot in common with its neighbor to the west. Its largest employer is healthcare, and it has a University of Pittsburgh campus. Like Pittsburgh, the industries that bolstered Johnstown’s local economy, such as steel, are no longer the economic drivers they once were.

Perhaps the biggest blow to Johnstown’s economy in recent years has been the scaling back of its defense contracts. The late Congressman John Murtha, who died in 2010, is credited with bringing billions of dollars in defense and military research contracts to companies based in Cambria County (earning him the dubious nickname “Pork Barrel King”).

Some of the results of Murtha’s efforts are still apparent in a visit to Johnstown, the seat of Cambria County.

The Department of Defense's Office of Economic Adjustment funded a 2015 study that looked at the impact of defense cuts in Johnstown.

But the Department of Defense made more than $782 million in spending cuts between 2010 and 2012, which had a devastating impact on the region, according to Michael Hruska, president and CEO of Johnstown tech company Problem Solutions.

Recognizing the severe blow to the Johnstown-area economy, the DoD’s Office of Economic Adjustment funded a 2015 study that looked at the impact of the defense cuts, with an eye toward “economic diversification.”

That means a defense contractor like Concurrent Technologies Corp. is also working on water purification systems. Aerospace company Martin Baker, best known for its ejector seats, also makes parachutes.

The Cambria County Defense Transition Study included the idea of a Bridge to Pittsburgh, a metaphorical connection that would foster mutually beneficial ideas and investment between the two cities.

Last fall, Cambria County economic development officials reached out to the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

A contingent from Pittsburgh gets wined and dined at the former Bethlehem Steel mechanic shop in Johnstown during the Bridge to Cambria visit June 7. (Photo by Kim Lyons)

“They said to us, ‘Hey, we want to work with you guys, how can we make this happen?’” said Jonathan Kersting, vice president of communications for the Tech Council.

That conversation led to the June 7 road trip that brought about two dozen Pittsburghers to Johnstown. They toured Concurrent Technologies Corp., Martin Baker and machining company JWF Industries to get a taste of what the companies are doing.

The group also visited Hruska’s company Problem Solutions, which makes software for mobile devices, IoT devices and fosters startup tech companies.

“I think they were surprised by the level of technology products we are producing here,” said Hruska.

The tour was just the latest in an ongoing effort to connect Johnstown with Pittsburgh in mutually beneficial ways, Hruska said. The DOD report helped them think in terms of creating recipes, of finding the right ingredients to create success.

What I can tell you about Johnstown is that they don’t have silos the way we do.

“We need to have a ‘How can I help you?’ attitude,” Hruska said. “That means making sure that we listen to people’s needs even if we’re not quite a fit for what they do. If someone tells us, ‘Hey, I need a lawnmower,’ we should be able to say ‘OK, I’ll help you find someone here who can get you that lawnmower.’”

Kersting said next steps call for bringing representatives of Johnstown to Pittsburgh to meet with members of the Tech Council and other organizations, to keep the conversation going.

“What I’ve been most impressed with is how well everyone in Johnstown works together. They’re all trying to row in the same direction, to get more companies and entrepreneurs out there,” said Kersting. Pittsburgh companies, he added, tend to put up walls and don’t always seek out connections.

“I feel like we don’t work with each other enough. What I can tell you about Johnstown is that they don’t have silos the way we do,” he said. “They work more closely together. Maybe it’s because it’s a smaller town and they have a sense of urgency about getting things back on track.”

Hruska agreed that the process of connecting the two regions would continue. “Our neighbor to the west is growing, and we need to build this bridge both ways,” he said. “It’s up to us to get in the car or van or bus and visit, get to the the events that are going in Pittsburgh.”

Series: Grow PA

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