While almost every other property owner in Pittsburgh was waiting to hear Judge Stanton Wettick’s ruling on tax assessments, Jan. 12, Community Empowerment Association founder Rashad Byrdsong was at the Urban Redevelopment Authority board meeting learning his agency had been approved for $250,000 in new funding.
Authority Executive Director Rob Stephany said the funding item was not even on the meeting agenda, he “walked it in” because it is important.
The funds will allow CEA to amend some of its mortgage agreements, and more importantly, move all of its city operations into a new centralized location—the old Holy Rosary School building on Kelly Street.
“I really want to thank the board for its insight in investing in the East End,” said Byrdsong. “I know we’ve had our differences at times, but this is a vote of confidence in the community. It’s not about me, it’s about supporting needed community services. They really stepped up.”
The differences Byrdsong referred to came to a head in the summer when he sought to purchase the URA-owned former Rite Aid building CEA had occupied for six years only to learn the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity had made an offer to buy it also. The battle dragged into September without resolution and Byrdsong began looking elsewhere. He did not have to look far.
The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh had closed the 100-year-old Holy Rosary School a year earlier. Byrdsong said, with the help of Father David Taylor and the URA, CEA got its building.
“After all that fighting, it really was a blessing because we ended up with a better building all around,” he said. “Father Taylor and (URA board member) state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Lawrenceville, were instrumental in making this happen. And what’s kind of funny now, the Alphas decided not to buy the building either. So all that fighting was for nothing.”
In addition to continuing CEA’s anti-violence, mentoring and after-school initiatives, Byrdsong said he also plans to make the building available as a community multi-purpose center.
“We are partnering with the August Wilson Center to offer arts and crafts initiatives, as well as, health related programming and screenings through the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health,” he said. “A lot of county services are fragmented, so we’re trying to establish a single point of contact for multiple African-American service providers throughout the East End.”
Another advantage, he noted is that CEA, the YMCA, the Carnegie Library and the Community College of Allegheny County will all be clustered tightly together.
With the URA looking to also invest in bricks-and-mortar projects like a new senior housing and retail facility, Byrdsong said, people are excited about Homewood being revitalized. With that in mind he is seeking to find some workforce development funding so he can train community residents to take advantage of coming development jobs. But he has to get into the new building first.
Since the church occupied the building for 100 years, it was “grandfathered in” and did not have to meet some building code changes made in the interim. Byrdsong, however, does.
“We have to update the fire alarms, smoke detectors, some wiring, things like that before the city will sign off on our occupancy permit,” he said. “But we should move everything from our Lexington Avenue and Fluery Way locations in here by late February or March. We’ll still maintain our satellite offices in McKeesport and Clairton for Mon Valley residents.”
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