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Bakery Square’s tech woos Obama

Natasha Lindstrom

The shoppers browsing the racks at Anthropologie, gym rats working up a sweat at LA Fitness and customers sipping on lattes at Coffee Tree Roasters may not realize it, but they’re within a complex that houses some of the city’s most innovative projects.

Inside the main tower at Bakery Square in Larimer, researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs test sophisticated wheelchairs and prosthetics, while UPMC’s Technology Development Center employees work to perfect an app they hope will transform the way doctors access patient records.

Across a small patch of parking lot, the entrepreneurs and so-called “tinkerers” at TechShop share 3-D printers and other equipment worth more than $1 million to pursue inventions and begin their own startups. That tinkering has caught the attention of the White House.

On Tuesday afternoon, President Obama is set to visit TechShop’s 16,000-square-foot facility in Bakery Square at an event closed to the public. The complex’s other tenants are hopeful that Obama will squeeze in a few extra minutes to check out their work, too, said Matthew Hannan, research assistant at the VA’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories. Bakery Square grew its reputation as a high-tech hub when it attracted Google in 2010, and the Internet giant will become an anchor tenant at Bakery Square 2.0, now under construction across Penn Avenue.

“We think the President has chosen Bakery Square because he can kind of view this all in one spot,” said Todd Reidbord, a principal of Walnut Capital Partners, developer of both Bakery Square projects.

TechShop is a member-based fabrication studio and workshop that specializes in constructing prototypes.

“It doesn’t matter whether you have an artistic ability, or whether you have skills in computer science or whether you have skills in running a laser,” Pittsburgh Technology Council President and CEO Audrey Russo said. “You can come in here with your idea and you can sit down, you can get the support and you can be part of a community.”

TechShop has seven locations outside Pittsburgh. Three are near the heart of Northern California’s Silicon Valley – San Jose, San Carlos and San Francisco. The others are in Allen Park, Mich.; Arlington, Va.; Round Rock, Texas; and Chandler, Ariz.

Obama’s remarks will likely focus on growing the economy through innovative ventures like TechShop.

But “all presidential visits are political,” and Tuesday’s stop will mark a strategic move, said Joe DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College. It’s the third time this year Obama has visited the region — a “swing part of the state vital to capture Western Pennsylvania,” DiSarro said.

“I think it’s very, very smart politics,” DiSarro said. “You key in on an area in which you’re likely to get a favorable response from the people and the leadership there, you know you’re going to get positive press out of it and you know indirectly, or not so indirectly, you are helping Democrats capture the governor’s race.”

Obama will likely use the visit to emphasize the importance of public-private partnerships, DiSarro said, and attempt to demonstrate that government redevelopment dollars can promote job growth. Bakery Square benefited from federal dollars, and Walnut Capital’s Reidbord noted its commuters also benefit from the $15 million federal grant awarded to develop the East Liberty Transit Center near Shady and Penn avenues.

Obama last visited the Pittsburgh area on April 16 when he and Vice President Joe Biden spoke about job training at the Community College of Allegheny County’s West Hills Center. On Jan. 28, the day after he delivered the State of the Union address, the president visited U.S. Steel’s Irvin Plant in West Mifflin, where he signed an executive order developing a new type of retirement savings account.

DiSarro said Obama’s frequent visits to Southwestern Pennsylvania could be a boon for Democrats, both in the tight congressional races in 2016, and the statewide elections this November.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see (gubernatorial candidate) Mr. (Tom) Wolf around that area in the near future, picking up on the coattails of the president,” DiSarro said.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or [email protected].


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