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Landmark former school in Pittsburgh's Hill District to incubate startups

| Tuesday, April 22, 2014, 11:09 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Nate Iwuchukwu of Reliable Technology in the Hill District, left, and Rufus Idris, Christian Evangelical Economic Development (CEED) executive director are working to transform the former Miller Street Elementary School on Miller St. in the Hill District to use it as a business incubator.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Rufus Idris, Christian Evangelical Economic Development (CEED) executive director goes over plans to convert the former Miller Street Elementary School on Miller St. in the Hill District to use as a business incubator.
Submitted
An artist rendering of what the former Miller Street Elementary School in the Hill District will look like after it's converted into a business incubator.

A Pittsburgh nonprofit plans to use a landmark former school in the Hill District to nurture small, start-up businesses in Pittsburgh's economically depressed neighborhoods.

Christian Evangelistic Economic Development, a Larimer faith-based organization that helps new businesses, will spend $10 million renovating the old Miller Elementary School, Executive Director Rufus Idris said.

“We do a lot of work with immigrants and refugees who come here with business ideas and are willing to stay,” Idris said. “By the time they leave this space they're strong enough to compete.”

He said the organization has $150,000 to complete design and other work necessary before construction can start. It is seeking federal grants and foundation support to have the building open by 2016.

William J. Gatti Jr., president of Trek Development Group, Downtown, said his company donated the building to the nonprofit because it liked the concept.

Trek purchased the school in 2011 from the Pittsburgh Public Schools for $110,000, according to Allegheny County tax records.

It paid $44,877 in a separate 2012 transaction to buy the school auditorium, which it has since turned into eight apartments. All are rented, Gatti said.

“We want their mission to work and we want a good use for that building,” Gatti said.

Pittsburgh Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle said the project would increase business opportunities in the Hill and preserve a signature neighborhood building.

Built in 1906 — the gym and auditorium were added in 1939 — the school was one of the first in Pittsburgh to educate black children. Pittsburgh Public Schools closed Miller in a cost-cutting move after the 2005-06 school year. The school's curriculum during its final years focused on African culture.

“It holds a great significance for many who live in the Lower Hill,” Lavelle said. “When it closed the last thing the community wanted was to see it become an abandoned building.”

Plans call for a mix of office, community and light manufacturing space, which businesses can rent for up to two years at market rates. Anyone can apply, but the nonprofit will give priority to minorities and clients who qualify for rent subsidies, Idris said. The organization will offer loans to be used as start-up capital when businesses leave.

The nonprofit plans a large day-care center for the basement, commercial kitchen, fabric shop, laboratory for manufacturing cosmetics and body care products, and space where immigrant groups can hold social functions.

Carl Redwood, co-director of the Hill District Consensus Group, said residents are supportive.

“It would be advantageous to the community in many ways,” he said.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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