Director Carol Shrieve at the Carnegie of Homestead.
The children's room at the Carnegie of Homestead.
The batting cage at the Carnegie of Homestead.
The under-renovation gym at the Carnegie of Homestead.
By Joyce Gannon / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In 1898, industrial baron Andrew Carnegie showed up in Munhall to dedicate another of his classically designed libraries — this one on a hill overlooking his Homestead steel operations.
Besides providing his Carnegie Steel workers and their families a place to read and borrow books for free, the vast structure housed a pool, billiard hall and gymnasium that the philanthropist figured would promote wellness; and a 1,000-seat music hall to encourage culture in the community.
More than a century later, most mills along the Monongahela River are long shuttered. But kids flock to a cutting-edge technology center in the basement of the library after school to work on iPads, a 3-D printer and robotics projects.
Around another corridor in the basement, baseball players practice their swings in batting cages that feature a virtual pitcher on a computer screen.
Upstairs, members of a fitness center work out on treadmills and other equipment.
Besides providing a place for swim lessons as it has for decades, the original pool is now a testing site for underwater robotic vehicles built by high school students.
The daily buzz of activity in the old building signifies a healthy turnaround from a period during the Great Recession when the historic facility faced possible closure.
“We were not flourishing,” said Carol Shrieve, director of administration, who said a cash-flow analysis then showed it might have to shut down in 10 years.
U.S. Steel Corp., the successor to Carnegie Steel, governed the nonprofit library for most of the 20th century. It provided funding from a $1 million trust established by Mr. Carnegie, turned the facility over to an independent board in the late 1980s after the Pittsburgh steelmaker closed its sprawling Homestead Works.
Without corporate support and when the financial crash of 2008 diminished the endowment’s value, the board had to rethink how to manage the community landmark and make it self-sustaining.
The cost of running the facility totals about $900,000 a year, said Ms. Shrieve. That includes steep utility costs for the aging, French Renaissance-style building that retains much of its original wood and high ceilings.
“We were facing a budget deficit and started to explore different ways to generate revenue on our own,” said Phil Herrle, the current board president.
Among the actions the board took were staff cuts. Board members and volunteers stepped up to help manage the facility.
Ms. Shrieve, who joined the board in 2010 and became full-time director of administration in 2012, was among those who helped craft a strategy to generate revenues through more diverse programs and to seek outside funding sources.
By then the facility had gotten some buzz — and income — from high-profile entertainment acts it began booking at its music hall in 2007.
That venue “blossomed into a revenue generator for us and an economic driver for the community,” said Ms. Shrieve, who noted that restaurants and hotels at the nearby Waterfront retail complex in Homestead saw increased business from a steady lineup of concerts featuring well-known names such as Boz Scaggs, David Crosby and Melissa Etheridge. Paula Poundstone and Gregg Allman are among the acts booked for 2016.
Concerts weren’t enough to support the whole facility and its activities — many of which are still free to students and the community.
So the nonprofit began to reach out more aggressively to foundations for larger grants to fund educational programs — especially technology-oriented learning. “Our goal and mission is not just old-fashioned check-out book services,” said Mr. Herrle. “It’s knowledge services.”
The educational fundraising effort paid off last year when the library launched its STEAM Lab offering after-school activities in science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The colorful room has bright green accent walls and tables and chairs selected with help from students.
The DSF Charitable Foundation contributed $50,000 for construction, and the Sprout Fund provided a $15,000 grant for programs. Other support included $10,000 from the Homestead Lions Club and $7,000 from the Friends of the Library, a volunteer fundraising group.
The library partnered with The Heinz Endowments and the Idea Foundry, a nonprofit business accelerator, to provide laptops that feature creative software. Google, the Silicon Valley-based search engine giant with operations in East Liberty, contributed its Google Maker Camp project kits.
For its robotics club, the library sought support from Carnegie Mellon University. The Office of Naval Research and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Foundation funded the underwater robotics program where Propel Andrew Street High School students test robots in the pool.
A significant revenue boost came from a 2013 tax referendum that pumps a little over $200,000 annually into the operating fund from property owners in Homestead, West Homestead and Munhall.
The board hopes to grow income generated by renting space for private events such as meetings, small conferences and bridal showers. Community organizations still use the facility at no charge for programs that are open to the public.
“It’s normal for us to have three parties a weekend,” said Ms. Shrieve.
Donations from the Buncher, Allegheny and Hillman foundations helped fund a new boiler for the heating system.
To fund the Athletic Club, 700 members pay monthly or yearly dues, and visitors can pay for day passes; groups also pay to use the high-tech batting cages located in a space that was once a bowling alley.
Revenues after expenses have risen from $86,473 in 2011 to $362,000 in 2014, according to federal tax filings.
“We’re just starting to get to the point where we can show we’re sustainable,” said Mr. Herrle.
Two years ago, the facility dropped the word library from its official name and rebranded as The Carnegie of Homestead.
“We are so much more than a library,” said Ms. Shrieve, who tapped her own artistic talent — she has a degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh — to help design the new logo that features an image of steel mill stacks and an open book.
The 50-year-old director, whose career included managing an art department and a call center for a manufacturing business, was taking time off to raise her son when she joined the Carnegie Homestead’s board and made it a priority to revive the facility in the town where she grew up.
“I went from managing 150 people to 20. You would think that would be a walk in the park. It wasn’t.” she said.
“But I’m so passionate about what this place does for the Mon Valley. It’s so rich in heritage. When U.S. Steel handed over the keys, the community would not let it close. As long as we’re fiscally responsible, we should be around another 100 years.”
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580.
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