Nick Ryan sits inside the old principal’s office at Wilkinsburg’s Johnston Elementary. The PA system rests on the desk next to him, silent since the school closed in 2012.
He and a group of seven other investors have teamed up to create a hybrid space for community-facing programming, events and small businesses at 1256 Franklin Avenue called Community Forge.
“We want to turn this back into a place that’s full of energy,” he says.
Ryan, a Carnegie Mellon grad, is the CEO and co-founder of Xpogo. (If you’re not familiar with them, it’s exactly what you’re thinking: an extreme pogo-sticking company.) Formerly based in New York, he was originally looking for a headquarters for his business when he came across the property. There was just one problem: it was too big; it needed something else.
That’s when Ryan’s real estate agent introduced him to a group of six local educators and Ph.D.s working together as Pittsburgh Learning Commons, who were also looking at the space. The two parties joined forces and harmonized their vision: Community Forge will provide community-oriented programming, business and co-working space and will also serve as a community events space.
“We are excited to welcome Community Forge to Wilkinsburg, and look forward to seeing a long-time vacant building be repurposed for our community’s benefit,” said Wilkinsburg CDC president Tracey Evans.
For example, Ryan imagines a CMU tech startup that also teaches after-school STEM lessons, or a local real estate agent who offers evening classes on first-time home ownership. A large portion of the 20-plus classrooms will be offered at a discount for mission-driven small businesses looking to benefit the community.
In addition to after-school programming, Community Forge also hopes to transform the former library into a theater/arts space and fix up the playgrounds adjacent for basketball and pogoing. They plan to tailor their vision as time progresses with input from the community.
“These people are about so much more than making money,” says Ed Donovan, president of Wilkinsburg School Board. The board voted to sell the property to Community Forge LLC, for around $212,000 in June.
Donovan says that the district wanted a for-profit venture to take over the space to get the property back on the tax rolls. At the same time, they were hesitant to sell the building to other bidders who proposed businesses that did not serve the community.
Management of Community Forge will fall to a board made up of owners, Pittsburgh leaders and community members. An ombudsman figure will prepare regular reports and make sure the organization is living up to its mission.
“I don’t want to be handcuffed to grants and have our entire future based upon something we can’t fully control,” says Ryan. “That’s why we are a for-profit social enterprise.”
The purchase and first phase of renovations for the building are financed through a $500,000 loan from Bridgeway Capital. Community Forge hopes that the first remodeled classrooms will be available for rent in three to four months, with separate sections of the building opening as reconstruction continues.
“I believe we can strike that balance between having a good business and a business that does good,” says Ryan. “I get very confused when all people care about is making money.”
To learn more about the project head to Community Forge on August 26 at 1 p.m. for a free community barbecue.