At the Forefront of the Strip’s Renaissance
    Chuck Hammel

    Chuck Hammel

    Chuck Hammel is often billed as the person who kickstarted the Strip District in its current renaissance phase. After all, it was his never-give-up attitude and his savvy business acumen that finally got the Cork Factory Lofts built nearly a decade ago. That was seen as the starting point for other developments throughout the Strip. He’s also the owner of the ambitious 2500 Smallman Street project, for which 11 condos are being built, priced at more than $1 million each. Expect to see some involvement from him in the Produce Terminal project as well.

    Just as Hammel has been a pioneer in the transformation of the Strip to what it is today and what it is evolving to, he was also instrumental in helping to transform the Less-Than-Truckload (LTL) industry as well.

    Yet, Hammel remains humble, not only about his involvement in the success of the Strip District, but when talking about his thriving and successful transportation business—Pitt Ohio—headquartered in the same neighborhood, as well. His family background probably has a lot to do with that.

    Growing up, Hammel’s father always believed that if you want to run a company successfully, you need to learn every aspect of how to run your business. It’s a lesson that Hammel, owner and president of Pitt Ohio, carries with him to this day.

    “My dad started Pitt Ohio as an extension of his own transportation company, Hammel Express, in the 1970s,” recalls Hammel. “I worked for him at Hammel Express as a member of the union, where I learned the business from the ground up. My dad told me that if you’re going to operate this business someday you have to know every job as well or better than the people doing it. I began working out on the dock loading freight, then started driving the trucks, and later worked in the offices.”

    The Cork Factory

    Freight transportation spans three generations of the Hammel family. Hammel’s grandfather, Charles Sr., was the first in the family to get started in the industry. He started Hammel Express in 1919 with just a horse, a buggy, and one customer. In the 1940s Charles’s son, Charles Jr., took over the family business, which became the foundation from which Hammel began to learn about, and love, the transportation industry.

    During the recession in the late 1970s, Charles Jr. began to realize that they were at a competitive disadvantage because many companies were starting to ship products longer distances—to locations where Hammel Express didn’t have any operational authority. However, he also saw a great opportunity to provide next-day service to his customers between states. So he decided to help his sons start their own business, which became Pitt Ohio Express.

    Charles Jr. and his two brothers, Bob and Ken, bought three trucks and leased a small one-door warehouse in East Liverpool, Ohio. In 1979, they began moving freight between Pittsburgh and Ohio, which is why the business was named Pitt Ohio Express.

    “What we didn’t realize at the time was that none of our competitors moved freight overnight between states like we did,” says Hammel. “That gave us a competitive advantage since we were on the front end of just-in-time inventory. Companies needed to know when their freight was going to be there and most wanted it the next day if possible. We were the only ones that would travel 100 or 250 miles to deliver it the next day.”

    As a result, the company began to grow rapidly. Between 1979 and 1983, the company opened terminals in Cleveland, Baltimore, Norristown, Pennsylvania, and Charleston, West Virginia. Over the next 10 years, the company opened six more terminals throughout Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The company built its business on providing outstanding service to customers along with stretching next-day lanes farther than any other carrier in the LTL industry. In 2011, Pitt Ohio Express changed its name to Pitt Ohio to better reflect the transportation-solutions provider that it had become.

    The Yards

    Today, Pitt Ohio has 24 locations, employs 3,200 employees, and has about 1,900 trucks on the road every day. Its geographic footprint extends west to Chicago, east to New Jersey, north to the New York state border, and south to the northern end of the North Carolina border.

    Hammel is the only sibling who remains as owner—he bought out his brothers’ shares of the company about a decade ago. But it remains a family business as the next generation is being prepared to someday take over. Two of Hammel’s four sons now work at the company, while the two younger sons are still in college.

    Charitable giving is important to Hammel as well. His company is highly involved in various community and industry-related organizations. In fact, Pitt Ohio has been recognized by the Association of Fundraising Professionals of Western Pennsylvania with a 2012 National Philanthropy Award for Outstanding Philanthropic Organization. The Make-A-Wish Foundation nominated Pitt Ohio for this award and reached out to other charities it supports, including Autism Speaks, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and Neighbors in the Strip, which submitted letters of support for the nomination.

    The company also gives back to the Pittsburgh region and the Strip District as well. Since 2004, the Great American Cleanup of PA has been sponsored by Keep America Beautiful. In conjunction with this nationwide effort and Earth Day, Pitt Ohio organized its own companywide Pitt Ohio Cleanup. Employees, friends, and family participate by cleaning up litter and trash along the roadsides and neighborhoods.  In 2014, Pitt Ohio’s corporate office added to this beautification project and focused on the Rails to Trails area, a walking trail used by Strip District residents, people who work in the Strip, and the community at large.

    And when disaster strikes, Pitt Ohio provides support in a variety of ways, including in-kind, monetary donations, and employee volunteers to help in times of crises. For example, employee donations were made to the American Red Cross for tsunami aid to victims in 2004. In the aftermath of hurricanes, Pitt Ohio donated its trucks to deliver relief supplies to those affected by Katrina in Mississippi and Louisiana in 2005. Employees donated relief supplies to those affected by Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York in 2012 and also assisted those affected by the floods in Pittsburgh in 2013.

    Sustainability is part of Pitt Ohio’s efforts as well. Earlier this year, its truck terminal in Harmar received enough points to officially certify the location as LEED Gold. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification requires a building to meet certain sustainability standards in water, energy, and material usage efficiency, all of which the terminal has met and surpassed. Out of a possible 60 points needed to obtain a Gold ranking, the terminal received 63 on the LEED scale.

    The 55,000-square-foot terminal utilizes a low-emitting Energy Star roof positioned to reflect the highest percentage of the sun’s rays, cooling the surrounding area and lowering air-conditioning costs. In replacement of incandescent bulbs, 150 LED lights are used, saving about $2,000 a year in electricity. A geothermal well was put in place to utilize the earth’s temperature as a heat source in the winter and a heat sink in the summer.

    The project also uses renewable solar and wind energy, with a 60kw photovoltaic array and a WindStax Turbine. The energy-cost savings, when all forms of innovation are taken into account, are over 45 percent when compared to a conventional building.

    The terminal is the company’s second LEED Gold certified building. The 22,000-square-foot Maintenance Shop Building located in Cincinnati received Gold distinction in late 2016 as well.

    Transportation, charitable giving, and green building are not Hammel’s only interests. He has always had his eye on real estate development. One project always fascinated him—the old Armstrong Cork Company facility, now known as the Cork Factory, located at 2349 Railroad Street, between 23rd and 24th streets in the Strip District.

    “I always loved that property,” he says. “I can remember as a young guy in my 20s, every so often in the Sunday paper, the real estate section would feature a rendering of the Cork Factory. But nothing ever came to fruition. Every few years, it seemed like someone else would come in and try to do something with it. I just loved the thought of renovating that location.”

    York Hanover of Canada had planned to build an apartment building in the mid-1980s but sold the company to Preservation Investments Inc. of Boston in 1993 after failing to come up with financing. But they dropped out after a year. During a bankruptcy hearing in 1996, Hammel and some business partners ended up buying the property for $1.05 million.

    But even Hammel admits he had some problems getting the project off the ground. He went through two project developers before he found the right partner in 2004. That’s when Dan McCaffery of McCaffery Interests joined Hammel and Bob Beynon of Beynon and Company of Pittsburgh. Development soon got under way and construction began in 2005.

    “I’m not a developer—I do not know the first thing about it,” says Hammel. “My goal was to find the right person with the experience to come in and develop the Cork Factory.”

    While others urged Hammel to convert the space to offices, he was always adamantly opposed to the idea. Having traveled throughout the country, Hammel saw that other cities were developing industrial locations, similar to the Strip District, into residential areas. He saw its potential and stuck to his convictions.

    “I always thought this would be a great location for residential living,” he says. ”We didn’t need offices. We needed residential in the Strip. After Dan McCaffery became involved, the project began to finally take shape. That was the key to the success of the Cork Factory. We brought in the right people to develop it.”

    Today, the Cork Factory has 297 units, along with the adjacent 96-unit Lot 24 apartments and a 427-car garage with retail tenants.

    Yet, Hammel’s real estate interests didn’t just end with the Cork Factory. In 2014, construction began on one of Pitt Ohio’s 1950s warehouses at 2500 Smallman Street. The 65,000-square-foot building is home to 11 connected condos ranging from 4,100 to 6,000 square feet. Hammel wanted to redevelop the structure into a LEED-certified project.

    While the shell of the building was built to LEED standards, the condos would all need to follow LEED guidelines for the entire project to be certified, notes Hammel. “It will be up to each of the owners as they build out their condos to adhere to LEED standards.”

    After moving his truck terminal to Harmar in 2013, Hammel worked with Oxford Development to build The Yards at 3 Crossings at its former Railroad Street site. The Yards, a 300-unit pet-friendly community that opened in the spring of 2016, offers residents sustainably designed and modern studio and one- and two-bedroom apartments—and an acre of green space along the Allegheny River.

    Hammel also plans to partner with McCaffery again as that company begins to draw up plans for the long-awaited Produce Terminal project.

    Whether it’s his business or his real estate projects, there’s no doubt that Chuck Hammel has been a key component of the Strip District’s revitalization efforts. And it’s because of the love he has for the neighborhood.

    “I love how eclectic the neighborhood is and how wonderful the people are,” he says. “It’s not like any other area in the city, or for that matter, like any other area in the country that I’ve been to. It’s got this gritty, cool feel to it where you can mix high tech, wholesale foods, and residential. It’s such a great mix of different uses unlike any other place I know of.”

    Daniel Casciato is a full-time freelance writer and social media specialist from Pittsburgh. In addition to writing for The Strip!, he writes health, legal, real estate, and technology-related articles for trade and consumer magazines and has his own copywriting business. His website is