Several years ago, a Family Dollar store was set to open on Frankstown Avenue in Homewood. The building was built, but the chain pulled out, deciding not to locate a store there.
The building has stood vacant since. The Homewood Renaissance Association (HRA) is hoping to breathe new life into it and the community by converting the space into a new community center.
“It will have a 300-seat auditorium, which will be a multi-purpose space,” said the Rev. Gene “Freedom” Blackwell. “It will contain a kitchen where we will not only feed ourselves, but we will also feed the community. It will hold business opportunities and an incubator. It will have a recording studio and recreation amenities."
Blackwell is organizing pastor to the House of Manna Faith Community, which spurred the initiative. The building was donated to the community by Dollar Bank, and funding has been a mix of private and foundation donations along with the help of church volunteers who have donated more than $2 million of time in contractor and service provider talent. The center is slated to open in early 2014.
The North Homewood revitalization effort doesn’t end with the new community center. The HRA is also working to acquire a building that will be renovated for a transitional housing program for the homeless.
“The idea will be to create a holistic program that will have apartments for transitional housing, a clinic, mental health support, Samaritan care, anger and money management, life communication skills and spiritual support,” said Gregg Schwotzer, chairman of the HRA Board.
A new youth home is also in the works. The yet-to-be-named house on Idlewild Street will be renovated and a married couple hired to live there full time — but it will be a sort of drop-in center for kids. Organizers said they want it to be a second home for neighborhood kids.
“We’re trying to rebuild that sense of a village,” said HRA Executive Director Dina “Free” Blackwell, “a true-village where after school they (the kids) know they can stop there for a snack, go downstairs and play a video game or go upstairs to the library and have quiet time.”
In addition, two existing programs are being expanded: HRA’s All 4 Life Program offers job and skill training to young men in Homewood, particularly in home construction and repair. The program’s youth will work to renovate the future youth home.
HRA’s Spirit of Truth Program is hoping to expand from the current 75 boys to more kids — and a mixture of boys and girls. That program combines a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics curriculum with sports activities to provide context for learning.
Those in the community are hoping all of the new and expanded initiatives will boost Homewood.
“I think you’re going to see, no, I know you’re about to see a tremendous transformation in this community,” said City Councilman Ricky Burgess, “and when we lift up Homewood we’ll also be lifting up Larimer, we’ll also be lifting up the Hill District, we’ll also be lifting up the North Side. Why? Because a rising tide raises all boats.”
Gene Blackwell said these are concrete steps that will transform Homewood from a vicious cycle of poverty to a virtuous cycle of hope.