- Carl Suter (right, with "greed" sign) has been battling the West Pittsburgh Partnership for years, including this protest held outside its office this past September.
Since being elected to Pittsburgh City Council earlier this year, Theresa Kail-Smith has spent her first several months working with community groups in the city's western neighborhoods. But there is one group that Kail-Smith, a veteran neighborhood activist, is wary of getting close to.
And it happens to be among the highest-profile organizations in her district.
That group, the West Pittsburgh Partnership, offered Kail-Smith a spot on its board. But she declined the invitation to join the group ... and now seems content with working around it.
"They get an awful lot of public money, and people want to know -- and have a right to know -- what they're doing with it," says Kail-Smith. "And because I didn't know what was going on, I didn't feel comfortable serving on their board."
Formally known as the West Pittsburgh Partnership for Regional Development, the partnership was founded in 1985 to help attract business and housing. But concerns about its transparency and accountability have dogged the organization for years. And Kail-Smith has, it seems, decided to help neighborhood groups create an alternative organization.
She says she's helping the West End-Elliot Citizens Council and other community groups to form a second nonprofit development group ... one that will serve communities that feel slighted by the WPP. Kail-Smith says she used federal money to retain a grant writer to help get the new organization -- as yet unnamed -- rolling.
"The time has passed for [the WPP] to come forward and serve the entire community," says Kail-Smith. "So the community has gone out and started their own organization."
The WPP's president, Lou Bucci, says the organization is focused on guiding development in the area surrounding the West End business district. Such activities, he says, leave little time for feuds with public officials.
"Honestly," he says of the questions surrounding his group, "it's a non-issue."
But that doesn't mean it's going to go away.
Objections to the West Pittsburgh Partnership start with its very name. Bucci and his critics both agree that the organization represents only a tiny sliver of the city's western region -- the neighborhood known to city planners as the West End.
The West End, often referred to the West End Village, is a small community at the foot of the West End Bridge. But as with the phrase "North Side," the "West End" name can also refer to an entire region, one that includes neighborhoods like Crafton Heights, Sheraden, Elliott, Esplen and Fairywood.
Most of those areas, however, lack a community-development corporation (CDC) to help channel public funds into redevelopment or other neighborhood projects. Some residents think Bucci's group, the lone CDC in the area outside of Mount Washington, should fill that void.
"I think a lot of the tension springs from [people thinking] our scope should be broader," says Bucci. "But as far as the West Pittsburgh Partnership is concerned, there is no conflict. The West Pittsburgh Partnership is only concerned with the West End."
"The fact that they ignore the vast majority of West End neighborhoods is the biggest part of my frustration," says Carl Suter, a Crafton Heights resident and longtime WPP critic. "They get a lot of public money and they are focusing only on the West End Village. But that leaves communities like Fairywood, Sheraden and Elliott out in the cold, and that's just not right."
Other than the CDC for Mount Washington, Suter says, "We have community groups, but not CDCs." The WPP is "already set up to help, but they won't."
In the past, Suter says, the West End Village has received a disproportionate share of resources. He points to a $150,000 grant state Sen. Wayne Fontana provided to the partnership. The money is being used to design a master plan to guide future development in the West End Village. Meanwhile, a group Suter is involved in, West Pittsburgh Weed and Seed, got just $29,000 from Fontana to do a community plan for eight neighborhoods nearby.
According to 2000 Census data, those eight neighborhoods -- Elliott, Crafton Heights, Sheraden, Esplen, Chartiers City, Windgap, Fairywood and Westwood -- have a combined population of nearly 20,000 people. Population in the West End Village was just 466.
"We'll do the best we can with it, but that's a big disparity: $150,000 for one [neighborhood] and $29,000 for eight," says Suter.
The problem is that it takes money -- and a sophisticated organization -- to make money. Fontana says that Weed and Seed "didn't have any solid plans," and struggled to put together a solid proposal. By contrast, says Fontana, the WPP "had a clear plan and vision for the West End. They wanted to see a change and were working hard to that end."
"My hope was this plan wouldn't just benefit the West End, but also communities like Elliott and Sheraden," Fontana adds. "But it's very clear that there's some mistrust down there, and that's unfortunate."
Fontana says that if a new CDC is formed in the area, he'll work with it just as he has with the WPP. But he wonders whether the area will be best served by having two CDCs fighting for the same pot of money. "One CDC for that area seems to make the most sense," he says. "If you have more than one of those types of groups, it can become counter-productive, but we'll work with everyone."
Squabbling already seems inevitable.
"I'm going to be more willing to work with a CDC who is more willing to meet with and include the community," Kail-Smith says.
Suter says the WPP has crossed borders when it wanted to. He points to a 2004 property transaction, when the organization bought a piece of property -- in Crafton Heights -- for $1 from the Cleveland-based Ferro Corporation. The property, a former porcelain and glass manufacturing plant, was composed of four parcels of land and several old brick buildings, and had been vacant for years.
Within a month, the WPP had resold the property -- to a company owned by a wife of WPP board member S.M. "Sandy" Stevenson. The organization also gave a $75,000 low-interest loan so Stevenson's wife could purchase the property.
"That Ferro building was in Crafton Heights, but that didn't stop them," says Suter. "They're only for the West End, unless it behooves them to move out into other areas."
Suter also accuses the WPP of not properly disclosing the land transactions. Nonprofit agencies have to file a report on their business dealings, called a Form 990, each year. On those forms, the agency is asked whether it engaged in the "[s]ale, exchange or leasing of property" with board members or their families, and whether any "lending of money or other extension of credit" to board members took place.
When the WPP answered those questions in 2004, however, it marked "no."
In a written statement, WPP Executive Director Dru Simeone said, "It is not uncommon for community development corporations to engage in business transactions with board members." The agency "strictly adheres to adopted conflict of interest policies," she added.
Simeone said the plant had sat empty for years and had become "a dumping ground known for trafficking drugs and prostitution." The only offer on the property was from the company owned by Stevenson's wife.
As for the 990's apparent failure to report business dealings with Stevenson, Simeone writes that "By looking at the 990, you only see half the picture." In addition to the 990, agencies also file an audited report with the IRS, and "The transaction ... is reflected in the audit portion of our filing."
City Paper has confirmed that the audit, performed by the firm Chisler and Marx, discloses the Ferro transactions. Simeone did not respond directly when asked why the 990 itself didn't reflect them.
Matters like that give Kail-Smith pause. So does the fact that while the WPP meets every month, only its annual meeting in March is open to the public. Other meetings are attended only by board members and community representatives.
"There is no public forum or input except once a year during the annual meeting," Kail-Smith says. "That's not right. If they get CBDG [Community Development Block Grant] money then they should be held accountable."
Such complaints are not new. City Paper wrote about many of them more than four years ago [See "How the West Wasn't Won," April 13, 2005]. And as the WPP argued then, Bucci notes today that different CDCs have different policies on opening meetings to the public.
"We're a small neighborhood," he says. "A lot of our work is done with volunteers and there's only so much that we can do. ... We only have one hour once a month, and there's a lot to get done."
But Kail-Smith has been seeking to make the WPP operate more publicly, account for their expenditures and explain how they're helping the community. Earlier this year, for example, she asked City Controller Michael Lamb if his office could audit a CDC. Lamb replied that CDCs are outside his purview.
For the WPP's part, they say they have tried to reach out to Kail-Smith. Simeone sent Kail-Smith an e-mail on Sept. 1 offering to take their differences to mediation.
"West Pittsburgh Partnership again reaches out to you knowing that it is in the best interest of our community," Simeone wrote. "We suggest that an impartial mediator be engaged and that all parties meet to achieve understandings."
"We offered to sit down and try to work out any concerns she had with a neutral party," Bucci says. "What else can we do to try and fix any problems she might have?"
Kail-Smith never responded to the invitation. "I'm not sure what the point of offering to go to mediation was," she says. "I've been willing to work with them, but they have to be willing to work with the entire community. When you take public dollars, that's your responsibility."
Kail-Smith says that when Fontana's $150,000 grant was announced, "I contemplated turning the money down, because there are just too many questions about what they're doing over there." But the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, which disbursed the money, told her that even if city officials turned the money down, the county or some other agency would be used to disburse the money instead. And that would leave her with no say in how it was spent.
So instead, Kail-Smith attached strings to the money. At her bidding, the URA attached stipulations requiring that the WPP "must include a schedule for community meetings. These meetings will be open to all community groups. Notice, location and agenda for each community meeting will be provided at least two weeks in advance to the URA."
Bucci says he'd heard only recently of Kail-Smith's demands, and says they won't do much to change a planning process. "I've heard that's what she wants in the contract," Bucci says, adding that a public-hearing component is built into any master-plan process. That process is scheduled to begin sometime in the next few months, Bucci says.
But Suter, for one, says the plan is missing the larger picture.
"How does it benefit them to turn the West End into the Taj Mahal," Suter asks, "if the rest of the region is crumbling around them?"