A 1,500-seat entertainment venue on Chartiers Avenue is the anchor project for an entirely revamped streetscape in McKees Rocks. In Lawrenceville, a community organization is creating jobs for the 29 percent of its population that lives in poverty. In Oakland, efforts to increase home ownership and revitalize business districts are in full throttle.
But if a bill passed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives clears its way through the Senate, those projects, along with dozens of other community development organizations and initiatives in neighborhoods and towns across southwestern Pennsylvania—including many communities in the city of Pittsburgh—could be gone with the blink of an eye.
House Bill 2188, passed Tuesday evening, would put a two-year freeze on the Neighborhood Assistance Program, which includes all of the tax credits that allow many community development organizations to function, effectively suspending many of their programs and much of their work for the foreseeable future. For organizations like the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation, it’s basically a death sentence.
“It would stop everything,” says Taris Vrcek, the MRCDC’s executive director. “Everything would to a halt. We’d be closed up and none of this work is happening. The physical work that’s started would be left hanging, and I don’t think we’d even be back in two years.”
If passed, the bill would defund community development organizations in Bloomfield/Garfield, Hazelwood, the Hill District, East Liberty, Lawrenceville, Mount Washington, the North Side, Wilkinsburg, Jeannette and Beltzhoover—just to name a few—at various levels. But CDCs wouldn’t be the only ones to suffer if NAP were to go away. It’s part of a legislative package that state legislators are considering in an attempt to balance the state’s budget.
“Let’s not be balancing the budget on the backs of the neighborhoods which are helping keep Pittsburgh and the region competitive,” says Chris Sandvig, policy director for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. “These programs generate a lot of revenue for the state. The NAP has created an excellent way for businesses of all stripes to invest in the neighborhoods in which they conduct business so that they can conduct more business and invest in community in ways they might not be able to otherwise. It’s a true public-private partnership, and it’s one which businesses like.”
Some on the business side are equally upset. Bill Schenck of TriState Capital says the NAP makes it easier for private businesses to partner with public organizations and nonprofits to help revive communities.
“You can give a lot more money to a CDC than you could if you were giving to a tax credit program,” he says. “If you look at the South Side and East Liberty, those communities have come back because they’ve had full-time people working on economic development. If the NAP goes away, where’s the money coming from to pay their salaries?”
Additionally, Schenck says that pulling the plug on NAP could leave entire communities hung out to dry, noting that communities believe in the plans their CDCs develop in conjunction with private enterprise.
“If there’s a two-year hiatus or nothing happens, they lose hope,” he says. “This is something that requires sustained progress. If you stop the progress, you stop some of the hope.”
The bill would also strip $825,000 in funding from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, $98,000 from Auberle and $36,000 from Goodwill of Southwestern PA/YouthWorks, among other organizations outside the community development realm, including research and development tax credits crucial to the continued growth of Pittsburgh’s thriving technology community.
“But for this assistance, many of these new businesses would not come to [Lawrenceville],” says Lawrenceville Corporation Executive Director Matthew Galluzzo. “When you talk about the utility of tax credits to spur development, we’re on the ground and we’re doing that. This is where it’s happening.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an official with one Pittsburgh neighborhood CDC said the bill’s passage would force their organization to lay off staff and cut programs. “We’d have trouble keeping the lights on,” he said.
Across town, the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation has long-term plans to revitalize the Centre-Craig business district, make Oakland more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists and increase its community engagement and workforce development services as a part of its Oakland 2025 master plan.
“These programs are effective, work well and produce results, but we need the resources to have the staffing to support them,” says OPDC Executive Director Wanda Wilson. “It seems short-sighted to do away with something so proven to have been effective. It makes it very difficult for us to continue to serve the needs of the neighborhood. These are vulnerable populations that need the services we’re providing.”