Mount Washington trail-building program expected to branch out
December 6, 2015 12:00 AM
The work of the Emerald Trail Corps is expected to branch out citywide. The corps created the Emerald View Park Trail, a portion of which is shown above, with a 180-degree bend and the Pittsburgh skyline in the background. The corps will become the Pittsburgh Conservation Corps and expand its focus beyond trail-building.
Ilyssa Manspeizer prepares to trim an errant branch in the walking trail during the fall of 2013.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The work of a corps of young men who built 10 miles of trail in Mount Washington’s Emerald View Park has inspired a new venture to be expanded and taken citywide and beyond in the next two years.
An outgrowth of the Emerald Trail Corps will become the Pittsburgh Conservation Corps, in partnership with the Allegheny Land Trust, GTECH — Growth Through Energy and Community Health — Strategies, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and PGH Works.
Ilyssa Manspeizer will leave her position as executive director of the Mount Washington Community Development Corp. this week to head the new organization.
“We have gotten calls from groups that want to develop a [trail] corps and want to know how we did it,” she said. “We have also been invited to work in other areas. There is obviously an interest and a need, and we know there’s a workforce need.”
The Emerald Trail Corps will cease to exist, but some of the crew members will continue in the spinoff, and the larger corps will contract to finish the trail system in Emerald View Park.
City Council established Emerald View Park with 235 acres in 2005. The park will eventually be 290 acres with 19 miles of trails in a ring around Mount Washington and Duquesne Heights, linking Olympia, Grandview and Mount Washington parks and the Grandview Overlook.
The Mount Washington CDC established the Emerald Trail Corps in 2011. Over the years, 44 young men have participated, but the consistent workers topped out at 15. The first groups trained at the A. Philip Randolph Institute in a partnership with the United Steelworkers and GTECH Strategies to employ young men at risk.
They came to the program through references from community organizations including the NAACP. Their work was largely manual labor — moving large rocks, carving trails out of brush, cleaning dump sites, planting trees and re-enforcing land around the slopes.
Its purpose was not long-term employment but preparation for jobs that pay family-sustaining wages, Ms. Manspeizer said. The duration of most of the crew members has been one or two seasons.
They made $10 an hour the first year and $11.50 the second. Workers for the conservation corps will likely earn more than that, Ms. Manspeizer said.
By expanding the focus, the corps will offer more people the chance to learn skills beyond trail-building and maintenance. It will take on partnerships in park development and maintenance and work with neighborhood organizations that are working in landscaping, turning vacant lots into parklets and management and installation of green infrastructure for stormwater management.
“This is an opportunity for job building, for people to add skills and a work history,” Ms. Manspeizer said. The corps will continue to seek references on behalf of promising young adults who are at risk as well as former inmates and returning veterans, she said.
Thomas Guentner, leader of the Emerald Trail Corps, will be program manager, and Shawn Taylor, one of the first recruits who has returned every year, will be crew leader.
Mr. Taylor, of Homewood, said he was motivated to return to the corps “because of the positive atmosphere I got from everyone up there. They were like family and I loved being around them.”
“Everything we’re going into is new, and I’m excited about it,” he said. “One of the projects we have ahead of us is restoration of vacant lots around the city.”
The corps will get up and running with a Hillman Foundation grant of $680,000, but it will rely on additional grants and work contracts to sustain itself.
Training of new workers will begin at the end of March. In the next two months, the administrative team will work on an organizational model, determine a system for contracts and payments, appoint an advisory board and find a home that will accommodate tools and trucks.
Of several conservation corps the Pittsburgh group studied, Seattle’s was most compatible, with the dual purpose of land conservation and job training. It operates as part of the Seattle parks department and provides work for vulnerable people, including the homeless, with case management and other support for self-sufficiency.
“The water authority hires them to manage its bioswales,” Ms. Manspeizer said.
Pittsburgh’s corps already has work lined up when it’s ready.
“We’re excited to be able to employ them in our work in Frick Park initially,” said Heather Sage, director of community projects for the parks conservancy.
The Frick Park Environmental Center, under construction now, “will include an enormous amount of landscaping and [landscape] restoration work. It’s a heavy lift and there’s a role for all kinds of skills to play in that.”
Diana Nelson Jones: email@example.com or 412-263-1626.
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