Thorn Hill Industrial Park

Ask any lifelong resident of a certain age, and they’ll tell you about Thorn Hill. It was a reform school - a correctional institution for boys under 16 sentenced by Juvenile Court to be straightened out and trained in useful skills. It was what boys in the Pittsburgh area were solemnly warned would be their fate unless they stopped doing whatever it was they were doing.

Thorn Industrial ParkThat was then. Today, you’re more likely to hope that your child actually ends up in Thorn Hill which, for the past 30 years, has been the site of the largest industrial park in western Pennsylvania and currently home to more than 70 businesses representing a wide variety of industries. With its nearly thousand acre site that straddles the Marshall-Cranberry line, Thorn Hill Industrial Park was originally conceived as a response by Pittsburgh’s corporate and civic leaders, starting in the 1950s, to a growing difficulty that threatened the region’s economy.

This was the problem, according to RIDC Vice President Timothy White: “When the Regional Industrial Development Corporation was formed in the 1950s, there was a boom in light industry happening all over the country. At that time, Pittsburgh was a heavy industrial city - steel, glass, chemicals, and so on, but with less light industry, such as consumer goods or finished products. But all the usable sites along the rivers had been taken by heavy industry. We were at a regional disadvantage because there was very little flat, buildable land.

“One of the main reasons RIDC was formed was to make more pad-ready sites for light industrial companies to expand and thrive in Western PA. So many of the big corporations pitched in to seed-fund RIDC and to engineer deals with civic leaders for the first three industrial parks - RIDC Park in O’Hara Township, Thorn Hill Industrial Park, and RIDC Park West in the airport area. Then, as new highways opened up, they became extremely successful.”

A Different Focus

Unlike many other business parks in the region which mainly offer Class A office space, RIDC’s focus is on accommodating light manufacturing, distribution, R&D, and assembly-type operations - businesses that advance the region’s export economy, White pointed out. And it appears to be working. “We’re doing pretty well compared to other regions,” he said. “The recession did hit us, but comparatively speaking, we’re doing better. We’re seeing a lot of growth in Cranberry and the surrounding areas.”

Like Thorn Hill, whose reform school campus was mainly open farm land before it became an industrial park, RIDC’s O’Hara and airport area sites also began as undeveloped greenfields outside the city. But in the 1980s and with the region’s primary steel industry collapsing, RIDC made a strategic switch: they began redeveloping brownfields - sites formerly occupied by mills and factories of the struggling heavy industries.

As a privately-funded nonprofit organization that paid more than $4 million real estate taxes last year, and with leaders from the region’s top corporate, government, academic and professional institutions on its board, RIDC has been able to form partnerships and take on projects that wouldn’t make financial sense for private developers. “Our goal is to create jobs and build the economy in Pennsylvania,” White said. “We try to find ways to put the pieces together to make development happen at these sites.”

Growing Bigger & Better

Today, RIDC’s footprint extends to eleven counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania and includes such diverse projects as re-booting the former Tech 21 project in Marshall, taking down the former VW-Sony plant in Westmoreland, creating Pullman Center Business Park in Butler, financing six new buildings on CMU’s campus, widening Warrendale-Bayne Road, and redeveloping the massive four million square foot site of the old Westinghouse Electric plant in Turtle Creek. Here in Cranberry, RIDC is currently partnering with Elmhurst Corporation in the speculative development of two flex-space industrial buildings along Commonwealth Drive, totaling 96,000 square feet. There are even four empty parcels still available in the Township, along Thorn Hill Drive Extension.

“You have to work with the local leadership,” White explained, “The agendas and level at which leaders want to be engaged varies by municipality and county. But Cranberry’s been very supportive. They’re progressive, they’re forward-thinking in their development activities. We have had a positive and collaborative partnership with Cranberry Township.”