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Delayed state funding slated to aid projects across W.Pa.

Natasha Lindstrom
| Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, 11:55 p.m.

A $1 million state boost will expedite construction of a temperature-controlled skybridge over Bellefield Avenue in Oakland, a project that will enable medically fragile children at Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind to bypass dangerous treks amid busy traffic and icy winters.

Another $1 million will help the Women's Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh grow its East End physical footprint by 50 percent, with planned renovations expected to increase its available beds from 36 to 48.

In Verona, Riverview Children's Center secured $800,000 toward a 5,000-square-foot expansion to create new space for families and reduce the size of its preschool wait list.

“Oh my god, my cheeks still hurt from smiling so much,” said Betty Lisowski, executive director of Riverview, whose wait list has doubled in three years to about 150 children. “It will definitely expand our capacity and the number of students. I'm just ecstatic.”

After an 18-month hiatus, Pennsylvania's largest redevelopment reimbursement program is poised to bankroll almost $168 million worth of capital projects statewide, records show. That includes at least $37 million slated for capital projects in Western Pennsylvania.

Funding recipients span government, business and nonprofit sectors, with nonprofit organizations in particular clamoring for the type of capital funding they tend to have a hard time raising privately.

“This is a real sigh of relief for a lot of nonprofits because their capital projects have been held up, their financing has been held up,” said Samantha Balbier, executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership. “This is going to get the ball rolling.”

Among local awards committed by the state: $1 million to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium toward a $30.2 million project that will create 19 new animal exhibits; $1.2 million to the city of New Kensington to acquire properties near the Allegheny River; and $1 million to Trammell Crow Company toward its $200 million plans to build 300 apartments, office space and a hotel on the 14-acre brownfield lot east of Station Square.

Statewide, $1.6 billion in proposed projects for the 2015-16 funding round included public works, university and transportation projects and hotel, office space and a pediatric care unit. In Western Pennsylvania, pending requests included more than 100 proposed grants totaling about $400 million.

More money from the redevelopment pot will be committed in coming weeks, Gov. Tom Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said. He would not say how much more would be pledged beyond the $169 million announced between late August and last week.

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

“We're looking for projects that will make the most impact to the local community in terms of job retention and creation,” said Sheridan, “but also what could spur additional investment and economic development.”

The Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program reimburses groups for the costs of projects that demonstrate economic, cultural, civic, recreational or historical value.

This fall marked the first RACP funding announcements since Wolf took the helm as governor in January 2015. The delay stemmed from the state's budget challenges, Sheridan said, including a nine-month impasse over the 2015-16 budget that stretched into March.

With no hard deadlines for the state to determine funding, the uncertainty had left in the lurch hundreds of nonprofit providers, private companies and public agencies — many of which had already begun their projects.

The grant money comes from state debt financed by selling 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.

Choosing the final RACP recipients does not require legislative approval, but eligible projects must come from a Legislature-approved list in the state capital budget.

It was Rep. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, who first phoned Lisowski of Riverview's early childhood center to share confirmation of the award, said Lisowski, who also credited state Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont.

Sheridan noted the program — which doles out money on a reimbursement-basis only — withholds 10 percent of each award until completion of a project's closeout audit.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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