Forget Silicon Valley, these tech companies are moving to Braddock

MeterFeeder was one of the first ripples in Braddock.

The tech startup was working to sell the borough on its parking fee-collection software in 2015 when local officials mentioned a newly refurbished office space in town that might suit the young company.

“We had been living in Silicon Valley and sharing an apartment for $4,000 a month,” co-founder Jim Gibbs told The Incline. “They said here’s this large office for $650 per month in Braddock, and it was newly renovated. It didn’t make any sense for us to turn that down.” 

The company arrived in Braddock soon after, in the spring of 2016. A number of other tech outfits have done the same — RoBotany, Unicentric, Phillips Tank & Structure — with more reportedly on the way. 

For local officials, companies like these represent the future — or at least their hope for a future in which businesses return to main street, the local tax base is rebuilt, and Braddock can finally exit the state’s oversight program for financially distressed municipalities after some three decades in fiscal purgatory. 

PunkToad / Flickr

In companies like MeterFeeder, these officials see ripples that might someday become a wave, with more tech companies lured from Silicon Valley to the Mon Valley by an abundance of affordable commercial space just a stone’s throw from the “tech hub” of Pittsburgh. 

There are hurdles to this vision. The area is publicly grappling with the environmental legacy of its legacy industries and related air quality concerns. Some locals fear the kind of gentrification that accompanied an ongoing economic resurgence and development push in Pittsburgh’s East End. And the local landscape, in tech terms, is still very much a pioneer landscape.

Redevelopment officials remain optimistic, though. They see momentum now that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. They can offer the low overhead that any money-conscious startup needs, the dark fiber and high-speed internet that tech companies require, and, increasingly, the kinds of cultural amenities these companies crave. And, while cautiously optimistic, they see the curtain rising on a second act once thought impossible in Braddock and the nearby river towns like it. 

‘Critical mass’

Chuck Starrett has never seen anything like this. 

In three decades with the Enterprise Zone Corporation of Braddock, a nonprofit economic development group, Starrett said he’s never seen a level of interest in Braddock like the one he’s seeing now. 

“To me, it’s quite a transformation that’s taking place,” Starrett said, sounding somewhat awestruck. “A few years ago, our group was very concerned about where things were going.” 

Jason Togyer of the nonprofit Mon Valley Initiative describes it as a snowball or domino effect: One business comes to Braddock, followed by two, followed by three.

“You saw this with Lawrenceville and East Liberty: Someone has to be the first and second to come in, but once you get a critical mass, more will follow.” Togyer added, “And maybe that’s what we’re seeing in Braddock now.” 

Their reasons for coming vary. 

MeterFeeder was drawn to the borough’s extreme affordability, which offers startups like it an exponentially longer runway. Unicentric, which had set up shop in the Strip District years before that neighborhood attained tech hub status, saw a similar opportunity to be “on the leading edge of a transformation” in Braddock, founder Evan Indianer explained. 

That enthusiasm was not necessarily shared company-wide.

“The first issue somebody could articulate was crime,” Indianer recalled of the employee response. “And I said, ‘OK, let’s take a look.’ And so we looked up the crime statistics and, sure enough, (the number of reported incidents) was much worse in the Strip than it was in Braddock.”  

The company bought and renovated an old church in the shadow of Braddock’s shrunken but still pivotal steel mill and moved in. That was nearly five years ago. 

“Now you have vertical farming next to a steel mill and our software company across the street,” Indianer said. “If that’s not a triangle …” 

He added, “But people aren’t necessarily going to come here just because there are lower costs. There’s an excitement here, an opportunity here, and it’s different than other areas where there are distressed communities that have inexpensive property. We came here because there was an excitement …” 

John and Gisele Fetterman dine with Anthony Bourdain at Superior Motors in Braddock for a 2017 episode of Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” series. / Photo courtesy of Josh Ferrell / CNN

The tipping point in all this may be more accurately described as tipping points. 

Some credit former Braddock mayor and current Pennsylvania Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman with elevating Braddock’s profile on the national stage and laying the groundwork for any eventual renaissance. The Fetterman Era also saw the arrival of linchpin businesses like Superior Motors, Brew Gentlemen, and more, which continue to stoke Braddock’s media mentions even while he’s in Harrisburg. Others credit decades of behind-the-scenes triage efforts put into motion following the steel industry’s collapse, the fallout from which cannot be overstated in a once-booming milltown like this one. 

“The exodus of businesses and jobs didn’t happen overnight. It was a long process and rebuilding it has been a long process,” Togyer said. “There was a legacy of pollution and blight that had to be cleaned up. These things had to be fixed before you even had a startup business come in.”

Togyer added, “And as someone who grew up and still lives in the Mon Valley, I would have liked for it to happen much more quickly.” 

How quickly the process moves now remains to be seen, but redevelopment officials say they aren’t content to wait and see — or rely on word of mouth alone. They also aren’t content to repeat anyone else’s mistakes. 

Summoning a tech wave on Pittsburgh’s “East Shore”

Pittsburgh’s newly christened “East Shore” doesn’t actually belong to the city. 

Instead, the name refers collectively to the adjacent Mon River towns of Braddock, North Braddock, Rankin, and Swissvale — none of which count themselves among Pittsburgh’s 90-odd neighborhoods, but all of which continue to struggle with economic stagnation.

“East Shore” is a slogan, a sometimes ridiculed one, meant to highlight these towns just outside the city limits as a natural extension of Pittsburgh and, in turn, one of the largest tourist destinations and economies in the country. 

Starrett’s Enterprise Zone Corporation of Braddock is behind the campaign, which he calls an attempt to counter a negative public image by inviting people to see for themselves the change underway in places like Swissvale and Braddock. (Learn more about the effort here, via PublicSource.) 

But touting the breadth of economic transformations to the outside world often means downplaying them to locals uneasy about the potential long-term consequences.

Braddock Mayor Chardae Jones said borough officials understand the tension that exists around this subject. And despite repeated assurances from the likes of Fetterman that the one-square-mile borough is “gentrification proof” or at least light years from seeing the kind of squeeze felt in nearby East Liberty, officials like Jones say they’re working to ensure a rising tide lifts all boats — and that a majority white industry like tech engages the residents of this majority black community.

Braddock Mayor Chardae Jones is pictured in the Braddock Borough Municipal Building. / The Incline

“When anyone comes to the table with us, we say ‘Can you promise any training and, if not, can you promise to hire some people from the community?’” Jones said, pointing to MeterFeeder’s promotion of free learn-to-code resources as an example. 

“The people make Braddock special, not just the low cost of rent,” Gibbs added, saying, “They were here first. They are the reason why this area is still a good place to be and a good place to grow your company.”

‘Tech-centric’

Mayor Jones is quick to point out that Braddock’s economy is a long way from white-collar. 

While a handful of tech companies have come to town or expressed interest in coming to town, she said the majority of commercial interest in Braddock is still in the manufacturing or warehousing sector. 

Still, redevelopment officials see startups and tech startups, in particular, as a component of Braddock’s revitalization push and the push to redevelop neighboring communities. 

“To become a tech hub would be optimistic, pie-in-the-sky,” Jones said. “I see Braddock’s economy becoming more tech-centric, and I give it about three years, especially with the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County’s project underway.”   

That project is a county-led effort to rehab dozens of dilapidated properties in Braddock and clear back taxes in an attempt to encourage local and non-local businesses and entrepreneurs to take the properties on. 

And it dovetails with efforts to attract tech companies to other Mon River towns, as well. In Swissvale, the Carrie Furnaces redevelopment project, a holdover from the region’s failed Amazon HQ2 bid, is expected to draw tech and other companies there. 

“Is some place like Braddock or the Carrie Furnace site poised to become the next Lawrenceville or Strip District or East Liberty in terms of attracting tech companies? I don’t know; it’s too early to say,” Togyer explained. “But I think it has the right ingredients in place. The question will be how well they strike that balance while meeting the needs of existing residents and businesses.”

Gibbs at MeterFeeder said any hesitation outside businesses or tech startups may have about the logistics of moving to Braddock — a number of MeterFeeder’s employees commute there daily — will be overcome by success stories emerging with the borough’s dateline. 

“I think what’s slowing things down is people being afraid to cross a bridge or go through a tunnel before saying ‘I am intentionally moving my office to Braddock.’ I think there needs to be more stimulus. (…) But once people hear, ‘Hey, such and such a company just had a hundred-million-dollar exit and their rent was $1,000 a month,’ that’s when all of a sudden people are going to start seriously talking about Braddock as an option,” Gibbs said. 

Increasingly, people like Togyer see an air of inevitability around this scenario. 

“But it’s not going to be an overnight transformation,” he cautions. “It’s gonna take another five to 10 years to see where and how this plays out.”