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Economy & Business

An Industrial Giant Returns To Pittsburgh


The aluminum maker Alcoa is one of America's best-known industrial companies. It called Pittsburgh home for more than a century, until 2006 when it decamped for Midtown Manhattan. As John Miller of member station WESA in Pittsburgh reports, now Alcoa is leaving New York and returning to its roots.

JOHN MILLER, BYLINE: It's rush hour on a bustling street near downtown Pittsburgh. Uber's self-driving cars, symbolic of this city's rebirth, drive past tech startup offices and condos. But in Pittsburgh, the industrial past is never far away. A nearby plaque celebrates the invention of commercial aluminum by a young engineer named Charles Martin Hall. It was here in Pittsburgh in 1888 that Hall helped found what became an industrial giant, aluminum maker Alcoa.

Today the company will leave Park Avenue in New York and move its headquarters to a gleaming building on the Allegheny River. Pittsburgh is celebrating the return of a hometown hero. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

RICH FITZGERALD: It's a big deal. We're excited that one of Pittsburgh's kind of founding industrial partners of years ago is coming back. And it's a great mix with what's going on and the new technology, the new Pittsburgh, in robotics and artificial intelligence and all the things that are going on here around medical technology. So we're glad to have them back.

MILLER: Alcoa's return to Western Pennsylvania comes at a crucial time for U.S. manufacturing. President Trump promised to bring factory jobs back to places like Pittsburgh. Here's Trump during a January 2016 campaign speech at a scrap aluminum plant near Pittsburgh.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are going to put American steel and aluminum back into the backbone of our country.


TRUMP: This alone will create massive numbers of jobs.

MILLER: But the Trump administration has so far not delivered on campaign promises to impose sweeping protective import tariffs on foreign goods.

TOM CONWAY: And, hopefully, they want to do something. But so far, it's been a lot of rhetoric, as it has been on steel. And they slowed themselves down on these things. And while they slow themselves down, the imports rush in.

MILLER: That's Tom Conway of the United Steelworkers. He wants new tariffs but says Alcoa has so many plants around the world that tariffs would likely end up hurting its own bottom line. So even though Alcoa is coming back to Pittsburgh, it probably wouldn't bring the smelters back. The truth is that making aluminum is just not America's - or Pittsburgh's - game anymore. Instead, Pittsburgh is basing its revival on attracting tech firms like Uber, Google and Duolingo; hospitals and world-class universities like Carnegie Mellon.

And even without factories in its backyard, Alcoa is still a huge deal. From its headquarters on the Allegheny, its executives will oversee mines, plants and smelters all over the globe in places like Iceland, Norway, Canada and Saudi Arabia.

For NPR News in Pittsburgh, I'm John Miller.