On the kind of early spring day that blooms radiantly with signs of renewal and hope, around 300 community leaders met in the Energy Innovation Center for a conference about taking Pittsburgh to next level. The focus? How to make Pittsburgh a world leader in becoming a sustainable, equitable and innovative city.

As one of the hosts, President of the Heinz Endowments Grant Oliphant, said during the event, “There’s no better place” for the conference with its mission to elevate Pittsburgh than the revitalized building dubbed the Energy Innovation Center.

And as more than one conference attendee said, “What a cool building!”

Formerly the Connelley Trade School, the 208,000-square-foot building is the result of a public/private partnership years in the making that will soon hold hundreds of students in 28 apprentice programs, along with five Pittsburgh universities, numerous nonprofits and businesses, a co-working space, design lab and plenty more to come. The basement alone will sport a 9,500-square-foot Community Kitchen facility to engineer new ways to make high volumes of food using fewer chemicals, electricity, paper and gas.

Coming to fruition

Over the past five years, 37 different investors and partners have come together to bring to fruition the Energy Innovation Center with its mission to create “bridges to job creation, entrepreneurship and urban economic revitalization.”

“The Energy Innovation Center is a good example of a public private partnership and the kind of reinventing that Pittsburgh is known for,” says Bill Generett of Urban Innovation21, a public/private venture that supports entrepreneurship that is scheduled to move into the building next week.

In the beginning, as the vacant Connelley School sat long idle on its perch in the Hill District, Congressman Mike Doyle and PA Senator Jim Ferlo convened folks around green jobs and development, which morphed into a group calling Green Innovators. What if we had a place to do this kind of work? they asked.

When the Pittsburgh Public Schools put the Connelley school up for sale, the Green Innovators group jumped, asking Pittsburgh Gateways Corporation to take it on.

“There was literally no money, then as we added more participants, everyone had more expectations,” says Bob Meeder, CEO of Pittsburgh Gateways Corporation.

The project eventually got support across the city from foundations and banks as well as political figures although it was on life support more than once, says Tom Bartnik, the first executive director for Green Innovators.

But the stakes were high. Not only was this an opportunity for Pittsburgh to open a state-of-the-art technical career institute, but it was also a chance to jumpstart the economy of the historic Hill District, a neighborhood which has suffered mightily over the past half century from displacement, high unemployment, urban blight and now, an aging workforce.

At the Shaping Davos event  at the EIC earlier this year. Photo by TC for NEXTpittsburgh.

At the Shaping Davos event at the EIC earlier this year. Photo by TC for NEXTpittsburgh.

Investment in the community was a high priority for the EIC: the first phase of renovation to the Center was a $44 million project, 60% of which went to local, minority contractors.

“And we’re advocating for these contractors for other construction projects. We want to go the extra mile by recruiting, training and forwarding local residents into the Center,” says Meeder, who expresses the desire for the EIC to be a community lab for residents who can look to it for career development as well.

What kind of careers? The EIC will focus on those around green buildings. As technology improves, heating, powering and ventilating buildings will become more sophisticated and efficient. These “sweet spots,” as Meeder refers to them, will require skilled operating engineers, station engineers, independent contractors and suppliers to install, monitor, maintain and update them regularly.

The success of the building and overall project will be based on how much synergy there is within and the objective is to make it part of the community, not an island in and of itself.

Rieder

Bill Recker, board chair of the Energy Innovation Center, in the building lobby of the first floor. Photo by Tracy Certo.

Alongside the classes offered by Carnegie Mellon University, Robert Morris University, Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh will be courses from companies such as Eaton and nonprofit groups such as The Penn State Center.

Students will exit the former Letche High School on the right side of the building to enter a corridor of opportunity, if you will, lined with the kind of groups and organizations they can learn from in their field.

While the EIC is not a known entity yet—most of the community leaders walking in for the start of the conference had never been there—it will be soon.