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Greater Hill District Development Growth Fund provides recovery blueprint for former Civic Arena site

Tom Fontaine
| Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, 10:50 p.m.

Hill District Consensus Group co-director Carl Redwood emerged as an early critic of the Greater Hill District Development Growth Fund, created four years ago with $3 million in casino proceeds to revitalize the Pittsburgh neighborhood.

Redwood and others questioned where those controlling the money steered it. He doesn't anymore.

“Now there's a process in place that every grant goes through. Everything is vetted at the community level, and the fund provides support to a broad range of projects throughout the Hill,” said Redwood, whose Consensus Group received a $10,000 grant last March to help install a playground at Centre Avenue's Weil Elementary School.

Neighborhood leaders think the Growth Fund could serve as a blueprint for a revitalization fund that will be formed as part of the Penguins' $440 million redevelopment of the former Civic Arena site. A tax abatement plan is expected to generate $20 million over 25 years for projects across the Hill and neighboring Uptown.

Urban Redevelopment Authority Chairman Kevin Acklin, who is Mayor Bill Peduto's chief of staff and chief development officer, said the plan “serves as the linchpin for incentivizing investment on the former Civic Arena site in a way that rebuilds the greater Hill District and Uptown neighborhoods.”

Determining who would control the money remained one of the last snags in summer negotiations between city, team and neighborhood leaders. An agreement known as the Community Collaboration and Implementation Plan set various conditions for the project, including how much housing should be for lower-income residents, how much work should be for minority- and women-owned businesses, and who would control the revitalization fund.

City officials argued — successfully — that the money should be in the hands of a public agency. The URA will control the money and vote on all spending, though the board that manages the existing Hill District Growth Fund will serve as an advisory board to the city authority.

Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, said giving control of the money to the Hill District Growth Fund — which is managed by the POISE Foundation, an African-American community fund — or the neighborhood's Hill District Federal Credit Union could have boosted their capital and further strengthened financial institutions largely serving the black community.

“It would have been a double dose of positive,” he said, adding the city could have been given some control over the money or how it is spent.

The Hill District Growth Fund has doled out nearly $1.4 million to date, records show. It plans to award six $10,000 grants this year.

The Hill Community Development Corp. has received $800,000, in four $200,000 installments awarded annually since 2011, to support the nonprofit's operations. The development corporation is scheduled to receive its final payment this year, under terms of a contract with Rivers Casino, which provided the $3 million.

Corporation CEO Marimba Milliones said the funding has helped “our ability to advance a community-driven agenda,” including work to promote business development along Centre Avenue and to boost home ownership throughout the Hill, among other things. The corporation is audited annually.

Efforts to build a Shop ‘n Save grocery store in the Hill received a combined $365,000, including a $250,000 loan through the Hill credit union that is expected to be paid back by 2020.

The credit union received $50,000 to increase its capital to meet federal regulations requiring credit unions to have reserves equaling at least 7 percent of their total assets. With the infusion of the $250,000 from the Growth Fund, the credit union needed more money to meet the reserve requirements, said CEO Richard Witherspoon.

The credit union received a combined $30,000 it used to provide grants to three neighborhood small businesses.

“It's a wonderful resource for the Hill District,” Witherspoon said of the Growth Fund.

Detroit businessman Don Barden promised $3 million each to the Hill and the North Side when he won a license to develop Pittsburgh's casino in 2006. Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm led an investor group that took over the casino's construction when Barden ran out of money in 2008; the new group agreed to uphold Barden's commitment to the neighborhoods.

Rivers Casino opened on the North Shore in 2009.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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