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Delayed decision on grants leaves redevelopment plans in limbo

| Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Animal Rescue League adoptions counselor Julia Blake returns 3-month-old pit bull puppies Taichi and Saipan to their crates Friday, July 29, 2016, at the Homewood shelter.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Sam Wendel, 26, of Stanton Heights and his sister, Monica, 30, of Brooklyn, cuddle with 3-month-old pit bull puppies Saipan and Taichi on Friday, July 29, 2016, at the Animal Rescue League in Homewood.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Christine Haas, executive director of the Midwife Center for Birth and Women’s Health, tries to keep her hard hat on during a groundbreaking ceremony for the center's expansion on Wednesday, July 6, 2016, in the Strip District.

The Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania took in more than 10,000 abandoned or unwanted animals last year — a nearly 30 percent year-over-year increase — as people surrendered about 6,000 dogs, 3,000 cats and other creatures such as hamsters, rabbits, snakes and turtles.

For decades, demand for services has climbed steadily while the nonprofit animal shelter and hospital's aging facility in East Liberty has fallen deeper into disrepair.

A new 35,000-square-foot facility under construction a few blocks away in Homewood is expected to double the nonprofit's capacity, create a dozen new jobs and draw 25,000 more annual visitors to the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, buoying efforts to revitalize the surrounding neighborhood.

Funding the $15 million project to completion, however, hinges on the delayed decision of whether the nonprofit will get up to $4.5 million in state redevelopment money.

“We've really hit the point where we have gotten funds from all the major funders that are out there and high-end donors,” said Dan Rossi, executive director of the league, which raised $10 million through private fundraising and aims to avoid debt service. “We've been hoping and waiting for over a year now, and it makes it difficult for us just to budget our expenditures.”

Weeks after the passage of the 2016-17 state budget, the Gov. Tom Wolf administration has yet to decide who will get a share of the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program's 2015-16 funding rounds — or disclose how much money will be distributed.

Statewide, $1.6 billion in proposed projects span public works, university and transportation projects and hotel, office space and a pediatric care unit. In Western Pennsylvania, pending requests include more than 100 proposed grants totaling around $400 million.

“We do not have a set timeline for RACP announcements at this time,” Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said Tuesday. “The governor's office makes the final decisions and takes many factors into consideration based on what projects receive funding, most importantly the economic impact of each individual project.”

The uncertainty has left in the lurch hundreds of nonprofit providers, private companies and public agencies seeking a piece of the funding pool to execute renovations and new building projects — many of which have already begun. Projects must be “shovel ready” or in progress to be eligible.

The Midwife Center for Birth and Women's Health broke ground on its expansion in the Strip District on July 6.

The 26-employee nonprofit is seeking $1 million in state redevelopment money to complete the $3.5 million project, which will add two birth suites, more family space, three new exam rooms and more opportunity for treating women suffering from the likes of prenatal or postpartum anxiety and depression, said the center's executive director, Christine Haas.

In the South Side, Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania is waiting to see if it gets close to the $1.5 million it requested from the state pool before beginning work on renovating its workforce training center on Carson Street.

“If we are able to receive this funding, we could start moving forward by the end of the year,” Goodwill spokesman David Tobiczyk said. “If we don't, we will have to adjust our plans accordingly.”

Not knowing whether to rely on state RACP funding is particularly disconcerting for cash-strapped nonprofits trying to avoid unnecessary debt service and construction or financing delays that hike project costs, said Samantha Balbier, executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership. She said she's been flooded by calls from nonprofits who anticipated an announcement in the spring.

“They're in the middle of capital campaigns and facility expansions,” Balbier said, “so timing is everything and being able to get a firm answer one way or another is important.”

In 2014, applications sought a total of $1.1 billion worth of funding and the Gov. Tom Corbett administration awarded about $208 million.

“This is taxpayer money,” Sheridan said. “We want to make sure that this is being efficiently allocated and that we are overseeing taxpayer funding as carefully as we can.”

Nathan Benefield of the free-market think tank the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg slams the program as a way to expedite legislative pet projects based on “political whim.” He likens the process to “press-release economics.”

“A politician issues a big press release about how many jobs we're creating and there's a big ribbon-cutting program, but you don't see the downside of all of it in the long run, which is a high tax burden on thousands of families and small businesses.”

The grant money comes from state debt financed by selling state bonds. Tax money pays the interest on the bonds

Since the 1980s, the program has doled out more than $5 billion. The overall debt for these economic development projects through 2014 was $2.7 billion.

Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce President and former state Sen. Matt Smith lauds the program for having “really helped our region in a huge way over the last 10 years or so,” including major development around Pittsburgh International Airport.

“It's in everyone's best interest to make sure this money gets distributed in the most efficient and timely manner possible,” Smith said.

Said Sheridan of the governor's process, “We actively seek legislative input because we respect their knowledge of their districts.”

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