Ronald Chess at the Cowley Rec Center

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By Charlie Wolfson

“You gonna fix it?”

That’s what Ronald Chess asked a reporter taking photos of the long-closed and crumbling Cowley Recreation Center in Troy Hill last week. The question he posed was one the neighborhood has asked of city leaders since a faulty roof forced the community center to close in the 2000s.

“I think if they rebuilt this, this would heighten the whole attitude of the community,” Chess said, adding that there are more families with children in the neighborhood lately who could benefit from community center programming. Chess bought a house on nearby Basin Street in 2005, complete with a view of the building and an adjacent ballfield.

A year ago, the city earmarked $6 million from its federal COVID-19 relief funds to demolish the decrepit structure and build a state-of-the-art new one. But the project was stalled for years prior to this allocation, and community leaders have not heard from the city about when it may move forward.

the Cowley center
Windows are broken on all sides of the Cowley center, which opened in 1939 and was closed due to disrepair in the 2000s. Photo by Charlie Wolfson/PublicSource

The Cowley rebuild is one of the dozens of projects the city plans to fund with its $335 million American Rescue Plan Act [ARPA] allotment. President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats passed ARPA in early 2021, and Pittsburgh adopted a plan to spend its allotment in July 2021.

The city has until the end of 2024 to spend all of its ARPA funds. More than a year later, most of the planned projects, like the Cowley center, have not started yet. The unspent money includes:

  • $15.7 million set aside for seven rec centers, including Cowley
  • $23.2 million for infrastructure, including a long-awaited pedestrian bridge for Brighton Heights and improvements to the rusty and creaky Frazier Street steps in Oakland
  • $16.8 million for the Avenues of Hope initiative, which boosts business districts in underserved neighborhoods, and other community development efforts
  • $41.5 million for affordable housing, including land trusts, homeownership programs and utility assistance
  • $10 million to jumpstart the Pittsburgh Land Bank.

See where the city plans to spend ARPA dollars on capital projects

By the end of June, Pittsburgh had spent $85 million of its allotted $335 million, according to a report the city filed with the U.S. Treasury. Of that $85 million, almost all went toward shoring up the city’s operating budget — staving off layoffs due to revenue shortfalls, reopening hiring that was put off earlier in the pandemic and giving a 3% raise to some employees.

Just a few million dollars so far has been spent on discretionary projects, including $1.2 million on demolition, $2.7 million on electric vehicles and $1 million to aid restaurants with sidewalk seating areas.

Maria Montaño, the spokesperson for Mayor Ed Gainey, said construction projects like the Cowley Rec Center have been slowed by the limited “bandwidth” of the city’s project managers and supply chain issues affecting construction materials. She said many of the original target dates in the ARPA spending plan may have to be revisited and moved back, though she did not provide specifics.

Allegheny County, meanwhile, spent $112 million of its $380 million ARPA allotment through early August. In contrast to the city, just 11% of its ARPA spending to date has gone toward filling in budget gaps. The rest of the spending so far includes:

  • $40 million in development grants
  • $25 million in aid to tourism and hospitality businesses and programs
  • $4.2 million for mental health crisis prevention
  • $5.1 million for volunteer fire and EMS aid
  • Equipment and facility upgrades for courts, senior living centers, the medical examiner and the county controller’s office.

While city bureaucrats slog through the process of contracting and advancing individual projects, the Troy Hill Citizens group is pressing for answers about its long-awaited new rec center. Abby Vanim, the group’s president, said there were no clear answers from city officials at a community meeting last week.

The side entrance of the Cowley Rec Center, with its locked doors and broken windows, with Downtown’s skyscrapers in the background. Photo by Charlie Wolfson/PublicSource

“It’s missing that central community point,” Vanim said of the North Side neighborhood. “Since COVID-19, I think people are really looking forward to places where we can gather as a community.”

She said the neighborhood has come to rely on restaurants and cafes as public gathering points, which have obvious limitations when it comes to hosting community activities, meetings and youth programming.

“There’s a really, really big hole in the community that needs to be filled,” Vanim said.

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @chwolfson.

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