A plaque on Smallman Street in the Strip District marks the birthplace of the aluminum industry in the United States.
And the sign at the foot of the C.L. Schmitt Bridge welcomes people to New Kensington, “Aluminum Industry’s Birthplace.”
Western Pennsylvania is proud of its legacy bringing aluminum — from household items like the tea kettle and aluminum foil to parts for automobiles, airplane wings and the space shuttle — to the world.
Last week, Alcoa, the company that started as The Pittsburgh Reduction Co. in the Strip District and built New Kensington around its factories and labs, announced it would return its headquarters to Pittsburgh . The move won’t bring a flood of new jobs to the city. Ten people, including CEO Ron Harvey and CFO William Oplinger, will relocate to Pittsburgh, a sign that the company is serious about making Pittsburgh its new home, experts said.
Alcoa’s return to Pittsburgh might be more important as a symbol for the city than a benefit to the economy.
“This is where it started,” said Bruce Cooper, an Alcoa retiree who spent 38 years at the company, all of them in Pittsburgh. “So it seems reasonable that the headquarters should be in Pittsburgh.”
Alcoa announced Wednesday that it will move out of its Park Avenue headquarters in New York, where about 15 people worked on one floor, and relocate to its office on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. The company received no tax breaks or other government subsidies to make the move. The state, county and city told Alcoa it would work to accommodate the company with things like adding certain flight destinations from Pittsburgh International Airport.
Alcoa was born and grew up in Western Pennsylvania. For more than a century, the company called the area home. And when the company buried a line in its annual report in 2006 that it would be moving its headquarters to New York , it stung. At the time, people compared it to losing the Steelers, Pirates or Penguins.
“It felt like they were abandoning the roots of the company a little bit,” Cooper said.
Cooper, 73, of Adams in Butler County said he retired in 2005 and vowed never to work in the New York office.
“I think there was pain when the folks went to the New York office, so I think that’s why there’s a lot of enthusiasm when they announced they were coming back,” Cooper said.
Alcoa’s exit from Pittsburgh came during a particularly low time for the city. James Weber, a professor of business ethics at Duquesne University and the executive director of the school’s institute for ethics in business, said that when he came to Pittsburgh in the 1980s, the city had many corporate headquarters. Heinz, Westinghouse, U.S. Steel, PNC, Mellon, Rockwell, Federated Investors and more called Pittsburgh home. It had one of the highest concentrations of corporate headquarters in the country, a remarkable feat considering the city’s size.
Those corporations did more than just employ people. They contributed to the arts and culture of the city. They sponsored everything from the ballet and symphony to slow-pitch baseball teams. Their names went atop buildings and on foundations.
People’s connections to the major corporations in Pittsburgh weren’t just that they worked there or their neighbor worked there, Weber said. It was deeper.
“They really got involved,” Weber said. “There was a real strong connection to the city, not just economically, but socially.”
But over the next two decades, the great corporate headquarters of Pittsburgh’s Downtown either moved or shriveled. In the last decade, Pittsburgh has built itself back up, Weber said. And now one of its Fortune 500 children is coming back home.
“Moving back is a very important resurrection economically, but also socially,” Weber said. “Maybe they started to see that Pittsburgh really is a good place to live and work and a good place to put a headquarters.”
Weber said Alcoa’s move might cause other companies mulling a relocation to consider Pittsburgh. Cooper hopes Alcoa’s other half, Arconic, takes notice of how great Pittsburgh is and comes back.
“It’s an exciting town to be in,” Cooper said. And New York, “It’s so dog-gone expensive.”
Alcoa split in 2016 . Alcoa kept the company’s aluminum commodity business, and Arconic was created to run the aerospace and automotive aspects of the company.
Arconic shares space with Alcoa at the North Shore building. The two businesses operate on separate floors but share a cafeteria. Arconic also employs people at its technical center in Upper Burrell.
Arconic has made no mention of following Alcoa back to Pittsburgh, despite its CEO stepping down last week among other leadership turmoil at the newer company. But that doesn’t temper Cooper’s enthusiasm right now.
“The direction changed. It went from people going away to people coming back,” he said. “And that just feels good.”
Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-336-8448, [email protected] or on Twitter at @tinynotebook.