John Conturo, the owner of Conturo Prototyping, stands in his shop at the Lexington Technology Park in Point Breeze North. Photo by Ann Belser.

The final two proposals for the reuse of the Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum have both been rejected by the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA), leaving the future of the building in the heart of Homewood in limbo.

The URA issued its request for information “and project concepts” from developers in July 2021, “looking for feasible project concepts that include, but are not limited to, industrial and commercial components that align with the neighborhood plan and provide benefits to the community.”

Four finalists were chosen by the Homewood Community Development Collaborative but two of those were eliminated by the URA as it vetted the proposals. The two ideas that remained were for a roller rink and a prototyping machine shop.

Then on Monday, Oct. 3, Rico Rucker Sr., a businessman who owns a cleaning company and developed the roller rink proposal, attended a meeting of the Hill District Collaborative to hear about plans for the Lower Hill. There, Rucker says, Greg Flisram, executive director of the URA, pulled him aside and told him that his plan for the Coliseum had been eliminated.

The next day, both Rucker and John Conturo, owner of Conturo Prototyping, received an email notification from the URA stating that it was rejecting all of the proposals. The letter went on to say, “We were excited by your enthusiastic interest in the property but concluded that our 2021-2022 RFI process was an insufficient method to arrive at a strong proposal to place in front of our Board for further consideration.”

The URA would not answer emails seeking comment on the decision.

Rico Rucker of Homewood submitted a proposal to the URA to revive the Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum as a roller rink. Photo by Ann Belser.

“They have broken me,” Rucker said after he found out his proposal was rejected.

Conturo says through all the years he has worked to build the business and train people from the area as machinists, he has not received any help from the government. He says he doesn’t want to leave Pittsburgh, but the city is forcing his hand.

“I could go to Braddock and they would give me a building, but I want to stay in the city,” he adds.

Conturo started his prototyping business in 2016 when he was 24 years old by buying a used computer numerical control machine (CNC) and locating it in the basement of the Lexington Technology Park. Through the years, Conturo Prototyping has grown to employ 32 people across two shifts and now has annual revenue of $4 million, according to his proposal.

The plan was to relocate the machine shop to the Coliseum, use another section of the building for a machinists training center, and create a community space along Frankstown Avenue in the rest of the building.

Shaud El operates a milling machine at Conturo Prototyping. Photo by Ann Belser.

Conturo’s company is currently making parts for the computers that will be used in autonomous trucks, the feet for the lunar lander that will be part of NASA’s Artemis mission to the moon, and the wheels for the lunar rover.

Conturo says that in order to grow his business, he needs a building that does not have a basement, because the machines are so heavy they have to sit on the ground. And he wants to own the building because his rent tripled after the URA sold Lexington Technology Park to East Liberty-based ICON.

He has been trying to buy the Coliseum for three years, including the last 14 months as part of the URA’s process. He said there are two buildings in the East End that fit his criteria: the Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum and the Hunt Armory. No other buildings there are big enough, without pillars, and without a basement.

In his statement to the URA after receiving the news, Conturo writes:

“All that I ask is that everyone here clearly understands the implications of this decision. This decision implies that Pittsburgh does not value our business nor our workforce. This decision implies that Pittsburgh, the Steel City, no longer values the power that manufacturing has to lift generations of hard-working people into prosperity regardless of race, sex or age. …  Most importantly, this decision implies that Pittsburgh values fantasy over reality.”

Ann Belser

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.