Innovation Works in the Northside received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) last October, aimed at helping to remediate the sharp decline of coal industry jobs in the region. The organization plans to use its funding to move regional employment from coal industry jobs to ones in the tech sector.

By Sophia Mastroianni

Photo by Neil Strebig

This story is the second one in a three-part series on the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) economic development initiatives in Pittsburgh. ARC is a regional economic development agency that provided $1.7 million in grants to fund economic development plans in Pittsburgh in October 2018. Plans are aimed at helping to remediate the sharp decline of coal industry jobs in the region.

Innovation Works, located at Nova Place in the Northside, received $1,035,000 for a program called Western Pennsylvania Small Business Services for Coal-Impacted Communities (SBS). The SBS targets 24 counties, including Washington, Fayette and Greene County, that were impacted by the loss of coal-production jobs, and helps move employment there into other manufacturing sectors.

According to Rich Lunak, president and CEO of Innovation Works, southwestern Pennsylvania felt the impact of the decline of the coal industry and as the industry changed, so did the economy. It became a more diversified one focused on technology. Innovation Works is the Ben Franklin Technology Partner of southwestern Pennsylvania. Joining together with the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence (IEE), it will use grant funds for coworking spaces, business-support services to main-street organizations and incubators to service business owners, in order to make entrepreneurship accessible to anyone, regardless of whether or not their community historically benefited from the coal economy.

“We are in the communities and available for businesses to reach out to us,” said Robert Stein, the Executive Director for the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence. “We work with local economic development organizations, local colleges, county commissioners and local state legislators . . . to make sure everyone has access to this [opportunity].”

Innovation Works works with high-growth, startup companies in southwestern Pennsylvania, to solidify the gaps left in communities impacted by a lack of coal production. Their mission is to make the region a national tech hub.

The organization focuses on rural communities, hoping to assist in getting local community members employed again. Although Innovation Works hopes to strengthen the tech sector, various jobs come from machine manufacturers, explained Lunak, like plastic manufacturers, circuit board manufacturers and an array of technology-based manufacturers.

“Even though [jobs] may be in a high-tech industry, you can employ a broad set of workers . . . in terms of manufacturing service call centers, shipping, receiving, [and] accounting,” Lunak said.

One successful IEE program is Mining Your Business, which provides programming services to coal-impacted workers who want to start their own business. Mining Your Business, a six-week, no-cost seminar, had 25 pre-venture entrepreneurs and existing small business owners graduate in 2017. Planning for Profits and Problem Solvers seminars also expressed similar success rates. IEE and Innovation Works plan to make 2019 a successful year for entrepreneurial growth.