North Side-Allegheny General bond still strong after 25 years

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Every two years, the Northside Leadership Conference and Allegheny General Hospital renew their vows. They commit to living together fairly and amicably, to talk often, to join forces on a sweep of community projects and always to aim for the win-win.

If it's not a love fest, both sides agree that the partnership they forged 25 years ago has become a really good thing. It is notable for being uncommon and long-lasting, especially considering how it started.

In 1989, the hospital, at North and Cedar avenues, was planning to expand, following a national trend. But the North Side had feisty advocates in 14 neighborhoods represented by the conference.

Of many vexing issues, "the one that brought things to a head" was a plan for a continuing care center on James Street, Mark Masterson, executive director of the Northside Community Development Fund, said. He was director of the East Allegheny Community Council then.

Construction of Interstate 279 North through a wide swath of Deutschtown was still a fresh wound. Many feared they would lose more ground to the hospital. Meanwhile, the LifeFlight helicopter flew a deafening path over people's homes; North Siders needed jobs the hospital wasn't proactive in supplying; and merchants and supply companies just blocks away weren't getting hospital business.

Worries about expansion spiked when the hospital bought the long-vacant Aeberlie Funeral Home across Sandusky Street from its emergency entrance, signaling a westward movement that was already rumored.

"If you looked at where the speculators were buying, it followed a pattern" westward toward Federal Street, Mr. Masterson said.

In partnership, the neighborhood and hospital later worked together to establish a medical building on Federal.

The partnership took a year to forge. Its precursor was a negotiation of issues that included the helicopter's flight path. When all were resolved except the location of the continuing care center, North Side representatives walked out of a meeting.

"They called us back and said, 'We'll move the building,' " Mr. Masterson said.

The two sides had good reasons to inch toward goodwill. Busloads of neighbors would show up at planning meetings contesting the hospital's master plan, costing it legal, architectural and other fees.

"We knew we couldn't keep fighting them," Mr. Masterson said. "They could always hire more lawyers and better negotiators."

Debra Caplan, a senior vice president at the hospital, said leaders who made the first entreaties to the hospital included then-state Rep. Tom Murphy and Observatory Hill activist Dan Onorato. Mr. Murphy became Pittsburgh's mayor; Mr. Onorato became Allegheny County's executive.

"The partnership has been a special part of my life," she said. "It has worked so well because our priorities are for a healthy community, not just in health care but in jobs, education, safety, housing."

Ray Meyer, a conference board member, remembers early commitments from the hospital.

"We discussed how people could get jobs at AGH and we started the jobs fair. Then we started education programs and neighborhood tours. Then we posted pictures of houses for sale" at the hospital. "We started seeing people who worked at the hospital buying homes in the neighborhood and getting involved."

About 14 percent of the hospital's 4,000 employees are North Siders and about 100 employees have bought homes there through the partnership's Workforce Home Benefit program.

Other programs have included training nursing assistants and pharmacy techs for hospital jobs; support for streetscape improvements; outreach to schools to promote healthy lifestyles; pairing students with hospital mentors for job shadowing; health fairs; funds for the restoration of Allegheny Commons Park and vendor fairs for North Side businesses.

The hospital spends $200,000 a year on the partnership, two-thirds of that on in-kind services and support, Ms. Caplan said. The hospital network buys about $1.4 million in goods and services from North Side businesses, she said.

The partnership has leveraged $1 million in outside funds. It has a joint staff person in partnership director Laura Smith.

The two-year renewal is "an update of what we plan to do," said Mark Falta, executive director of the conference. Decisions change to address changing needs, he said. "We have to make pragmatic choices because of the hospital's finances, but the hospital has been steadfast through its financial ups and downs."

Several years ago, the hospital renovated the Aeberlie building with help from the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

"The community was patient with us," Ms. Caplan said. "We hope to turn that into a great educational or administrative space. But whether we are talking about the Aeberlie building or about putting a new boiler in back, we talk."

"Everyone thought it was better to have a partnership than to not," Mr. Meyer said. "It's a give and take thing, like a marriage. We have to be there to support them and they have to be there to support us."


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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