Pittsburgh nonprofit lures expert from Youngstown

Gillespie will lead Neighborhood Allies

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Youngstown's population will take another hit when Presley Gillespie and his family move to Pittsburgh this spring.

The 47-year-old founding director of the Ohio city's Neighborhood Development Corp., which has been nationally cited for its revitalization work, has been hired as the first president of Neighborhood Allies.

That nonprofit formed late last year with a shift in focus from its predecessor, the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development. It restructured to bring a broader range of resources, services and connections to neighborhood organizations, with a focus on distressed areas.

"I fully understand the complexity and challenges that affect low-income families and communities because I lived it all my life," said Mr. Gillespie, a New York City native who graduated from Youngstown State University in organizational communication and management. He met his wife there and remained in Youngstown. They have two children.

He segued into community development work from an 18-year banking career in which his focus was community development lending.

"From early on," he said, "I wanted a career that was fulfilling, to have impact on my community and the people in it." In banking, he said, he raised $100 million in capital for community projects, but banking left him with "the desire to have a more grass-roots impact."

"Community development has to be a calling," he said. "You have to love it. That's what my entire team feels at YNDC, and I hope to build that type of team in Pittsburgh. It requires an entrepreneurial spirit, to be a good talent scout and a risk taker."

When the Raymond John Wean Foundation initiated the startup of Youngstown's first community development organization five years ago, "we strongly urged the board to hire Presley," said Gordon Wean, chairman of the foundation's board.

The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. started with $200,000 that came mostly from the Wean Foundation and has since leveraged more than $3 million from 45 sources.

"We're sorry to see him leaving the Youngstown area, and there are lots of reasons," Mr. Wean said. "To begin with, he's a great guy. But he leaves the organization so strong that I am not as worried as I would have been a few years ago. His relationships are very strong. He just has a great sense for getting people to collaborate. It's quite remarkable.

"[Youngstown] has increased its stake in the YNDC every year because of how good they are," doing some things a city ordinarily would do, Mr. Wean said.

"We are a public-private collaboration that reaches into communities that had tremendous disinvestment. No comparison to Pittsburgh in terms of the devastation, and we still have a lot of work to do."

The YNDC renovated a vacant blighted block, including an abandoned historic house as its headquarters on a solar-powered campus. Its projects include housing reclamation and resale, the Iron Roots Urban Farm, a demonstration kitchen, a training workshop and a loan program for low- and moderate-income home buyers.

The farm should be self-sustaining in three years and employs 10 people, Mr. Gillespie said, adding, "We project to create 40-45 jobs in the next three to five years. The produce we grow is sold in farmers markets, and we are integrating it into retail."

The farm also brings produce to a neighborhood that didn't have access to it before, he said. The farm has spawned micro-enterprises, including the kitchen, where the produce is packaged for sale and where free community cooking and nutrition workshops are held.

"I am so pleased that Neighborhood Allies was able to attract a leader of his caliber to help us work collaboratively to rebuild our communities most in need," said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

The board of Neighborhood Allies has declined to report Mr. Gillespie's salary. With foundation support, its budget for this year is $1.8 million, with $1.2 million to be used for grants.

"Neighborhood Allies will be an intermediary to inspire, strengthen and expand the community development system to become more performance based," Mr. Gillespie said.

In Youngstown, he found a particular challenge.

The Hampton Institute called it "America's fastest shrinking city" in reporting it had lost the most population of any city since the 2010 Census. It has lost 20 percent of its population since 2000. Once known as a mob town, Youngstown also has topped lists of concentrated poverty.

"Part of what excited me about Youngstown, after many decades of disinvestment and abandonment, was a recognition that it was moving beyond the 'woe is me' mentality," Mr. Gillespie said. "People realized it would be smaller but that it could be strong and green. There are exciting visions and commitments. I believe I'm leaving Youngstown in a place where there is tremendous momentum and optimism."

He said Pittsburgh will give him the opportunity to work with "a great board, a legacy foundation community and people who have a great track record in community development." Pittsburgh, he said, "is poised for significant, continued growth."

"We knew we might lose him at some point; he's that kind of talent," Mr. Wean said. "But he's always going to be a friend to us, and it's an honor to have someone we identified get the kind of recognition he has. We must have done something right."

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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