Pittsburgh foundations take active role in region’s rejuvenation
By Maria Saporta
PITTSBURGH – In 2002, several Pittsburgh philanthropic foundations joined together to buy a 178-acre brownfield site – Hazelwood Green – next to acres of land next to the Monongahela River.
The group included the Benedum Foundation, the R.K. Mellon Foundation and the Heinz Endowments – a ground-breaking move that demonstrated the influence that foundations hold in Pittsburgh and their willingness to take risks that foundations in other cities would avoid.
“That was the last big tract of land available on the waterfront,” Maxwell King, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation, told a delegation of nearly 120 Atlanta leaders in Pittsburgh on the annual LINK trip.
What LINK delegates discovered was a philanthropic community used to working together and willing to establish common goals.
Virtually every Pittsburgh leader who has addressed the LINK delegation has said the same thing: “If it’s not for everyone, it’s not for us.”
Grant Oliphant, president of the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments, said everyone has adopted the same message, yet they describe it in different ways: “A Just Pittsburgh,” “100 percent Pittsburgh,” “All in Pittsburgh.”
The sentiment is still the same, he said. The community is adopting a set of policies to make sure no one is left behind. Beginning with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, everyone who addressed the LINK delegation spoke about equity and inclusion – whether the speakers came from business, academia, business or the philanthropic sector.
“It’s stunning how much there is a shared consensus and a shared vision,” observed Andrew Feiler, an Atlanta developer. “I think we would all agree that Atlanta does not have a shared vision.”
Members of the Atlanta delegation also were impressed by how engaged and outspoken Pittsburgh’s philanthropic leaders were when talking about their community. By comparison, Atlanta’s foundation leaders tend to work behind the scenes – rarely taking a public position about local and regional issues.
“When I arrived here 28 years ago, I hated the place. (The city was) 30 years behind in terms of race, and 20 years behind in terms of women. People talked about the city in past tense,” Oliphant said. “When I came here, I saw a city broken by economic decline – a city with small ambitions and broken dreams.”
The Pittsburgh region went from a population peak of nearly 2.75 million people in 1970 to losing more than 300,000 residents and 150,000 jobs as its industrial economy collapsed.
“We were waiting for somebody big to come down and save us,” Oliphant said. “People have stopped waiting. They are embodying the change.”
King said the Pittsburgh renaissance in the past couple of decades is more than “eds and meds” – the educational and medical sectors focused on innovation.
“There’s a lot of truth to that. But I don’t think that’s been the driver,” King said. “I think the driver is the quality of life.”
For example, King described how Jack Heinz, who chaired both the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Community Foundation, acquired numerous older downtown buildings and helped create a thriving cluster of arts and cultural organizations.
“It changed a red-light district into a cultural district,” King said.
Now that Pittsburgh is turning around, Oliphant said people recognize the dangers of displacement due to higher rents and housing costs. “The idea of Hazelwood Green is to show it is possible to develop a community that is transitional and not do it in a way that is detrimental to the people who live there,” Oliphant said.
At one point, Oliphant said he was surprised to be speaking to a group from Atlanta.
“I always assumed Atlanta has this figured out,” he said, adding there’s a saying in Pittsburgh. “Do you know where Pittsburgh’s black middle class lives? Atlanta.”
The outmigration of its black middle class and younger population has created “the other Pittsburgh” – communities where people are separated by class and race.
“We are headed as a society in a direction that we cannot possibly sustain,” he said. “We recognize that the pain of others is shared by all.”
Not only do Pittsburgh’s foundation leaders meet among themselves, they also hold regular meetings with city and county government leaders as well as the business community to discuss their initiatives – which explains why there is a common narrative.
Alicia Philipp, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, said the amount of money that the foundations in Pittsburgh give away each year is similar to the amount given away in Atlanta. The total endowments of the two foundation communities also are comparable.
“We have got a vibrant philanthropic community in Atlanta,” Philipp said. “Do we all speak with one voice? No. I don’t feel that connection happens between philanthropy and government.”
Philipp went on to say that issues in the Atlanta region are complex.
“We have had a 125 percent increase in suburban poverty, but we don’t have our foundations working in the suburbs,” she said about the disconnect. “Philanthropy is not the only answer. We need a strong governmental sector and a strong corporate sector.”
Oliphant did give Atlanta advice based on his years of work in Pittsburgh.“Adopt policies that create a more lovable city,” he said. “We are not there yet. We have work to do.”
After he spoke, the LINK delegation gave Oliphant an extended standing ovation.