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Pittsburgh's Buhl Foundation to focus efforts on North Side

| Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, 12:17 a.m.
Chasity Cook, 14, of Brightin Heights, uses a computer at the Carnegie Library in the North Side on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. The library is among the beneficiaries of the Buhl Foundation. It helped fund the library's 2009 reopening after it was struck by lightning.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Chasity Cook, 14, of Brightin Heights, uses a computer at the Carnegie Library in the North Side on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. The library is among the beneficiaries of the Buhl Foundation. It helped fund the library's 2009 reopening after it was struck by lightning.
Henry Buhl Jr. co-founded Boggs and Buhl Department Store in Allegheny City, now the North Side.
Henry Buhl Jr. co-founded Boggs and Buhl Department Store in Allegheny City, now the North Side.
Boggs and Buhl Department Store in Allegheny City, now the North Side.
Boggs and Buhl Department Store in Allegheny City, now the North Side.

The Buhl Foundation, which gave away about $3.5 million last year across Allegheny County, likely will begin focusing on the North Side, the foundation's president said.

The namesake of department store owner and Zelienople native Henry Buhl Jr., the foundation began after his death in 1927 and once was among the largest of its kind in the country. Today, its $90 million endowment represents a sliver of the $11.7 billion in assets of the foundations in the seven-county Pittsburgh region. Frederick Thieman, Buhl's president, said the changing landscape is a good reason for the foundation to narrow its focus.

“When we were the only show in town, there was a multitude of opportunities and very few funders,” he said. “Today, that scenario has changed pretty dramatically.”

Buhl made a fortune in retail with his partner, Russell Boggs. The Boggs and Buhl Department Store sat across from what now is the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, and Buhl never forgot that much of his money came from the North Side.

“The Buhl name is part of the North Side,” said City Council President Darlene Harris of Spring Hill in the North Side. “The neighborhood is very excited about it.”

Thieman said the foundation could devote 80 percent of its funding to the neighborhood, up from 20 percent. The North Side consists of about 40,000 people living in 18 smaller neighborhoods.

He said Buhl's board has approved working with the neighborhood toward the transition, but no timetable is set. Diana Bucco, Buhl's vice president, said early talks with residents focused on early education from birth through third grade, workforce development and general revitalization.

Buhl's stamp on the North Side already is evident. It gave the Northside Leadership Conference $175,000 over 10 years for the restoration of the Allegheny Commons and is talking to the group about another six-figure grant for the next phase of revitalizing the Commons.

“Hopefully, it's going to accelerate some of the projects and programs that communities and other nonprofits in our market have on their drawing board, but haven't been able to access sufficient resources” to implement, said Mark Fatla, executive director of the conference.

Fatla noted that the former Garden Theater is being renovated and that rehabilitations of vacant buildings on East Ohio Street on either side of Interstate 279 are a priority, too. Other priorities are attracting jobs and improving public schools in the North Side.

“We've never really had one foundation solely dedicated to the North Side, and there's something wonderful about that,” said Jane Werner, executive director of the Children's Museum.

Buhl has given the museum $2.5 million since 2002. Most of the money went for an expansion in 2004 and the development of Buhl Community Park in Allegheny Square. Werner said she has been talking with Buhl officials about another expansion of the museum into space once occupied by the Carnegie Library that closed as a result of a lightning strike in 2006. The library reopened in 2009 with $1 million in help from Buhl.

North Side leaders said Buhl's makeover is about more than extra cash.

“They can become a stronger partner because of their knowledge and expertise in a way you can't when you're trying to understand the whole region,” Fatla said.

South Side-based City Theatre received a $10,000 grant from Buhl for arts education. Mark R. Power, its managing director, said he's not sure what the change would mean for his group.

“It's up to me as a nonprofit leader to stay nimble and diversify all funding sources coming in to the organization,” he said.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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