As Knead was opening, a Penn State initiative was underway. A vision for an entrepreneurial coworking space through many partners including the City and Westmoreland County led to the opening of The Corner later in 2017. Penn State began to pay greater attention to 5th Ave as The Corner was posturing to open and they collaborated with The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County to launch the space with an Arts and Music Festival, bringing together the community. This built on the foundation of the Better Block Event and further developed initiatives in downtown, helping it to become a place people would want to invest in. The event included facade grants and the development of a parklet, improving the look of the street and drawing attention to the few glimmers of hope that were already there.
Development of 5th Avenue, photo by Mike Malcanas
In 2018, the regional Chamber of Commerce brought their Wine and Beer Festival to 5th Ave, bringing even more attention to the Corridor of Innovation. And more things than festivals all started happening at the same time—investors were buying buildings and fixing them up, Penn State began talking about high level training to help bridge the digital divide and prepare the workforce for the future through their Nextovation initiative, and the people involved in all the projects recognized the need to make all these things accessible to the people who live in the local community. Nextovation is a collaborative effort by Penn State New Kensington and the Richard K. Mellon Foundation to build a digital innovation lab in the heart of downtown that would serve as a training facility and 21st century manufacturing lab for local residents to utilize. This effort was seen as being catalytic for the community, but there was a perceived need to develop programming that could serve as a bridge to the lab’s opening. That’s what opened the door for Forward Cities involvement.
Phil Koch, who worked as the Executive Director of The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County explained, “There were a couple things at play—a lot of different people working in a lot of different ways with a lack of coordination and getting on the same page. There was an anticipation of significant investment [into Nextovation] and the worry it would turn into gentrification instead of a community-based process and support the folks who were already there. I had no evidence it was going to work, the principles that Forward Cities stood on were in line with my perspective into creating an equitable ecosystem in New Kensington.”
The process Forward Cities recommended was called a Readiness Assessment, which would help the engaged community stakeholders collectively discover key areas of focus and design strategies to overcome barriers to success around workforce development advancement and small business support.
Struggling communities are well acquainted with the phenomenon of well-meaning outsiders coming in and thinking they can fix the problems locals have been tackling for years. New Kensington was no exception. “It was a little rocky in the beginning, quite frankly,” said Kevin Snider, the chancellor of Penn State New Kensington. “We had already been involved in this space.”
While skepticism existed in the early stages, it was largely put to rest when Forward Cities actually got to work. Rather than follow a prescribed program model, Forward Cities invested significant time and energy consulting with the local community on its needs and desires. Perhaps the team’s biggest early success was convening an ‘Innovation Council’ consisting of a diverse array of community stakeholders, from unemployed and homeless residents to university leaders. The council used an ecosystem canvas, a facilitation tool developed by Forward Cities, paired with a compression planning process to come up with a short list of agreed-upon target outcomes and the first steps toward achieving them. “That’s how we built the trust, by coming to a consensus on what we agree on,” said Louis. “We want businesses downtown. We want empty lots used. We want the crime to go away. We want it cleaned up. We want the people who live here to be able to work here too.”
New Kensington began the process of creating the local Innovation Council in October of 2018. Initial meetings were held with Forward Cities national staff and community stakeholders to design the engagement. In November of 2018, the council broke into two sub-committees to begin working through the barriers to equitable workforce and entrepreneur participation in the community, while Forward Cities began searching for a local project manager. It was important to the council that the project manager came from the community. A job description was sent out for collecting resumes. Jerry Jefferson, local entrepreneur and community leader, recalls designing the Forward Cities engagement, “at first I thought Forward Cities were some outsiders coming into our community to fit us into their template vision. After participating in the meetings and the process, I was pleasantly surprised to see their desire to help our community discover and develop our own vision.”
Kim Louis was not at the initial design meetings. She was invited into the process separately by both Jerry Jefferson and Phil Koch, both of whom participated in the early conversations. Her community involvement as a local non-profit director helped her gain trust from community members and community leaders alike. Louis is a homeowner in downtown New Kensington and has served the community since a year before she moved there. When she heard about the opportunity, she could not help but apply because, as she recalls, "when I read the job description, I couldn't help but think it was describing me." In December of 2018, Forward Cities extended an offer to Louis to become the local Project Manager.
Efforts were made to get input from a larger cross-section of the community beyond the people who originally designed the Forward Cities engagement. In addition to representatives from Penn State New Kensington, council members were added who lived in neighborhoods that had been impacted by the community’s historical barriers: a woman rooted in the community who was homeless at the time, a local African-American barber who had done business in New Kensington for over 25 years, a single mom who was unemployed, a local African-American pastor and his wife who supported people in poverty, and entrepreneurs who couldn’t quite get their businesses off the ground. Other participants included the leaders of Knead Community Cafe (who worked in grassroots workforce development), Careerlink, The Corner, The Redevelopment Authority, Kingdom Men in Action, Wesley Family Services, The River Community Church, New Kensington and Arnold School District, Alle-Kiski Chamber of Commerce, Westmoreland County, and the New Kensington Mayor’s office.
At the beginning of 2019, the Council began working through the canvas. There were so many ideas about what the priorities should be that the Forward Cities team facilitated a compression planning process to honor them all. A voting process was used to gain consensus on what the council would prioritize in the strategic planning process. Committee and council meetings continued every few weeks between February and April of 2019. The final meeting was held on April 30, 2019, at which point the canvas process was complete.
On May 21, 2019, a local convening was attended by 43 people who affirmed the recommendations of the local council. Nine members of the Innovation Council attended the Forward Cities National Conference in Pittsburgh held from June 12-14, 2019. The Readiness Assessment engagement officially ended July 3, 2019. Follow on funding was secured to invest in a set of pilot initiatives that were launched in the summer of 2019. These pilot initiatives were evaluated throughout the implementation period and a set of recommendations to sustain the momentum and deepen impact was presented to stakeholders and funders in March 2020 for next step consideration.