URBN fulfillment center

Indiana County economic development officials have joined with international retailer Urban Outfitters Inc. to unveil the planned construction of an 836,000-square-foot fulfillment center at the Windy Ridge Business & Technology Park southwest of Indiana in White Township.

When it begins operation next summer, the center will put 225 people to work, the most jobs created by a single employer in Indiana County in more than five decades.

As a corporate parent, URBN, the company taking root at Windy Ridge, is anchored by Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters, a “lifestyle retailer dedicated to inspiring customers through a unique combination of product, creativity and cultural understanding,” according to its website. But the Indiana center, a corporate leader said, will serve as a major point in the eastern U.S. pipeline between suppliers and the consumers and retail outlets for URBN’s family of brands including Anthropologie, Free People, BHLDN (pronounced Beholden), Terrain and the Vetri Family.

The huge structure could cover an area of 21 football fields under one roof.

The launch date today culminates a year of talks between URBN and Indiana County’s economic development team, including the county commissioners, the Office of Planning and Development and the Indiana County Development Corporation (ICDC).

Early negotiation led to Indiana County’s emergence from a field of three locations — the others in the Carolinas and in eastern Pennsylvania — regarded as “finalists” to win URBN’s $30 million plan.

Partners in the Indiana County Center for Economic Operations (CEO) offered a menu of site options and served URBN’s choice of 48.5 acres of the industrial park, including 13.4 acres of the adjacent “Turnbull Property” that ICDC purchased in March so the center can be constructed as close as possible to Route 422.

David Ziel

Dave Ziel

In a more passive form of courting the $2.22 billion corporation, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation undertook off-site improvements to tip the scale in favor of Indiana. PennDOT modernized the interchange of Route 286 and the Route 422 bypass, and widened Route 286 to include a traffic signal and two exclusive left turn lanes into Windy Ridge, which has managed to attract but one tenant, Creps United Publications, in the eight years since the industrial park went under development.

County planning director Byron Stauffer Jr. shepherded the plan through local governments to win a package of lucrative tax breaks, the latest of which was granted Wednesday morning by the Indiana County board of commissioners. The board voted to expand the Keystone Opportunity Zone designation at Windy Ridge to take in the Turnbull property and to extend the life of the KOZ tax breaks. URBN will pay real estate tax on the current assessed value for 10 more years, through the end of 2029, before the value is revised to reflect the new center.

Yet for all the government wooing, URBN settled on Indiana because of the community that it is, said Chief Development Officer David Ziel.

“Everyone’s interested in URBN,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with a lot of representatives and senators that represent the entire state. The relationship with Dave Reed … and of course Senator (Don) White as well. Indiana and Dave Reed became a really big focal point for me and Urban Outfitters. And in my first visits to Indiana County, I’ve met Byron (Stauffer) and I’ve met your community.

“And what brings us here is really simple: It’s the people, the quality of the people, the university, IUP is a big factor,” Ziel went on. “I’ve spent time with the president of the university and, quite candidly, over all these visits, I’ve grown fond of the people you have here, too, and I think you’ve got a resilient workforce.”

What also gave Indiana a competitive advantage, according to Ziel, is the absence of huge, ready-to-occupy business centers that he said are seen sitting empty at almost every turn in eastern Pennsylvania. The explosion of “speculative building” prior to tenants coming in tends to oversaturate the region and limit the hiring potential in the east, Ziel said.

He spared no praise for Stauffer, the county’s “forward-thinking” point man in the yearlong campaign to bring URBN to Windy Ridge.

“I deal with many, many heads of economic development in many, many towns and regions, and Byron is really quite exceptional,” Ziel said. “Knowing that we had a partner who could really put a project together, knowing how we feel about your people, knowing that we want to be in the commonwealth, we feel really good about the decision, from the business perspective and people perspective. We think URBN will be an exceptional partner to the community.”

The deal was sealed and delivered early Wednesday afternoon when ICDC closed on the sale of the site to URBN for $5.58 million.

With a footprint 1.6 times that of the Indiana Mall, the URBN center arguably will be the most sprawling structure ever erected in Indiana County. Ziel envisions it growing further to 1 million square feet.

An accelerated construction schedule calls for URBN’s general contractors to take over the site in mid-October and have the building ready for occupancy by August.

Ziel said construction alone would put 600 local people to work.

“The Indiana-Armstrong Builders Association has been working with the general contractor already and providing lists of members who can provide the services that they are looking for,” Stauffer said.

As to the permanent workforce, the job descriptions haven’t been posted yet, largely because URBN hasn’t settled on the game plan for the site. Ziel refers to it as nothing more than a fulfillment center for now.

“It will fulfill,” Ziel said. “When we open the fulfillment center, it will handle all of our brands. The types of uses of this facility to support our brands are still in the works; however, when those decisions are made, you’ll see, if not all the brands, a majority of them represented in its function.”

The divisions sell a mix of consumer products ranging from clothing and footwear, to beauty accessories and active wear, to furniture and kitchenware.

When URBN decides on the center’s mission, then the hiring will begin. Assuredly, there will be blue-collar and white-collar work: technical positions, skilled labor, general labor, supervision and management.

Ziel said URBN plans to assign one executive from its Philadelphia headquarters to run the Windy Ridge center and to hire all the rest, as many as 500 people, as URBN ramps up the operation.

The people hired at URBN will be treated like a community, Ziel said.

“Urban Outfitters is a world-class company with world-class benefits and what I call a world-class culture for the employee,” Ziel said. “This facility, regardless of the purpose, will have an extremely diversified employee base.

“We will have a dog-friendly work environment,” Ziel said. “At our campus, one of the reasons we ended up at the Navy yard (in Philadelphia), is that our founder actually killed a real estate deal because they would not allow us to have dogs. So we’ve been on ‘Good Morning America’ for our campus.

“We have over 800 dogs registered and come with their owners, so when you walk onto our campus it’s fascinating,” Ziel said “We have dogs in every building, everywhere.”

The staff at the PA Career Link office on Indian Springs Road will be briefed today on the job application process for the URBN center.

Stauffer said nearly every agency with a hand in workforce development will have a part in staffing the URBN center.

“The whole CEO team, the commissioners, the school board, the township, the planning commission, the chamber of commerce has been actively engaged on the workforce front … the development corporation, Indiana County Tourist Bureau … Tri-County WIB, IUP career services, Indiana County Technology Center and the school districts,” Stauffer said. “Indiana County attempts to partner with all its businesses, but the philosophy that URBN has portrayed to us certainly matches the way we try to do business as well.”

The number of new jobs exceeds other one-time influxes of opportunities since the late 19502 to mid-1960s when Campus Sportswear, Robertshaw Controls, Fisher Scientific and Season-All Industries opened their manufacturing centers in White Township and the electric utilities opened a string of coal-fired power generating plants in the area, according to Dana Henry, of the county planning office.

In a three-way site selection phase last year, Indiana bested a proposed site in North Carolina and an active URBN site in Lancaster County. In Gap, 15 miles east of Lancaster, Urban Outfitters spent $110 million on a 1.6-million-square-foot distribution center that opened in 2015 and is now seeking tax incentives for a planned $100 million expansion at the site.

Founded in Philadelphia in the 1970s, URBN leaders have given Pennsylvania top priority for its expansion.

“We made a distinct decision about eight years ago to that we wanted to locate all of our corporate offices and infrastructure as well as our East Coast fulfillment and distribution facilities in the state of Pennsylvania,” Ziel said.

“I’ve worked feverishly to execute that plan. Where we reside in Philadelphia, those historic buildings have become our world headquarters and that was Phase I of our big expansion. Committing to the Lancaster area for our direct-to-consumer East Coast fulfillment has been a big initiative.

“I’ve also worked on putting URBN in a position to grow outside of the Navy yard and Lancaster, and that is what brings us to Indiana. Our goals have been to provide jobs … within the commonwealth, that will suit our overall growth needs.”

URBN, a publicly traded corporation (URBN on NASDAQ), opened at $40.22 a share Wednesday and closed up more than a dollar at $41.62. Shares have ranged from $21.76 to $52.50 over the past 52 weeks.

Staff writer/Web Editor, The Indiana (Pa.) Gazette

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the Indiana Area and Homer-Center school boards and White Township, Center Township, Homer City and Burrell Township, and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.