North Side native director of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions

October 26, 2015 | Joyce Gannon | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Annie Donovan grew up in Brighton Heights on the North Side, the 10th of 11 children. That experience helps inform her thinking in the job she’s held for almost a year — director of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions.

“You think about how you create upward mobility in a family with 11 children and a good way to start is to own your own home,” Ms. Donovan said in a recent phone interview from her office in Washington, D.C.

“My father’s parents were both Irish immigrants who bought their house,” she said. “They gave it to my father after they died and that’s where we were all raised.”

Her arm of the Treasury Department provides loans, tax credits and bonds that community development groups leverage to attract private investors to projects that traditional banks may view as too risky. Since its creation in 1994, the fund has provided $43.5 billion in federal tax credits, $2.3 billion to designated CDFI organizations, and closed on $852 million in guaranteed bonds.

In Pittsburgh, it has helped to finance projects ranging from a neighborhood center in Millvale that will offer locally sourced food, to massive commercial developments such as Bakery Square and the new East Liberty transit center.

Ms. Donovan, 51, who became CDFI director in November, never worked in Pittsburgh after earning an economics degree from Allegheny College. She joined the Peace Corps in rural Jamaica then launched a career in community development in the nation’s capital that included a 2012-13 stint at the White House Office of Social Innovation.

But she’s familiar with projects in her hometown that have benefited from an estimated $300 million that CDFI has pumped into the region over the years.

Some were supported by CDFI’s New Markets Tax Credits initiative, including Bakery Square, a residential-office-retail complex at the site of the former Nabisco factory in East Liberty that received $13 million in tax credits.

Others include the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District, $5 million in tax credits; 201 Stanwix St., Downtown, a mixed-use building that includes apartments and City Charter High School, $32 million; and the recently opened East Liberty transit center, $5.6 million.

The city also has six certified CDFI organizations that provide loans for projects in struggling neighborhoods: Bridgeway Capital, East End Food Cooperative Federal Credit Union, Innovation Works, Renewable Manufacturing Gateway, Landmarks Community Capital Corp. and the North Side Community Development Fund.

Of the six, Downtown-based Bridgeway has received the largest amount of CDFI resources to date: $31.3 million including $15 million in a new bond fund awarded last month.

“They are a great example of a community-oriented organization trying to assemble capital to invest in development of people and neighborhoods that are underserved,” said Ms. Donovan.

“It’s a zero-subsidy program,” said Ms. Donovan. “Congress spends no money. The risk is borne by local organizations. They manage the risk and we provide relatively inexpensive capital they can’t get from any other source.”

The $15 million for Bridgeway was part of a $127 million bond split between seven CDFIs nationwide.

As a finalist for that money, Bridgeway competed in what Ms. Donovan described as a very intensive process that included Treasury Department reviews of its revenue sources, loan portfolio performance, loan loss reserves and management.

“We look at their viability short term and long term,” she said.

“The CDFI funds are not money to subsidize their operations. We don’t tell Bridgeway what projects to invest in and don’t tell them how to run their business. We just expect the money to go to communities that need it and create upward mobility for people in those communities.”

With the new funding, Bridgeway plans to continue its focus on commercial and residential projects in high-need Pittsburgh neighborhoods such as Hazelwood, Homewood and North Side, and disburse some money in the Erie and Uniontown areas where it also maintains offices, said Mark Peterson, president and chief executive.

Because Bridgeway won’t have to repay the bond for 30 years, “We can do longer-term loans and the monthly payments by the borrower will be lower,” he said. “It’s a really important step forward.”

Since its launch 25 years ago, Bridgeway has committed $118 million in financing through nearly 1,000 loans. For the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, it closed on $21.5 million in loans, up 26 percent over the prior year, he said.

“The needs of low-income communities keep growing and banks are unable to make small business loans so folks turn to us and we’re doing more community finance.”

On the North Side, for instance, Bridgeway last month provided a $700,000, two-year loan for the makeover of the historical Masonic Temple into City of Asylum, a center for writers that will include apartments, a restaurant, bookstore and event center. The total project cost is $10 million.

In Millvale, Bridgeway made two loans totaling $900,000 to the Millvale Borough Development Corp. to buy and renovate a two-story building at North and Grant avenues into a food hub that will include a market with fresh and locally-sourced foods.

Farm Truck Foods of Millvale, a mobile market, sells produce and other locally made products near the site and hopes to become a tenant when the building is ready.

That project is part of Bridgeway’s Healthy Foods Financing initiative that aims to support corner grocers, farm stands and mobile markets in order to “expand access to healthy foods in food deserts and low-income communities,” said Matt Madia, Bridgeway development director.

“Grocery and corner stores really strengthen the fabric of communities. When you don’t have them, you’re missing a real component of being a neighborhood.”

Besides the Millvale project, Bridgeway has helped to finance small food markets in Homewood, Hazelwood and the 52nd Street Market in Lawrenceville.

In another blighted neighborhood, Allentown, Bridgeway has made small-business loans and economic development grants and also offers hands-on business support such as a forum it hosted last month for real estate agents, developers and contractors to inform them of the opportunities and resources, said Dwayne Rankin, community development loan officer for Bridgeway.

“Places like Allentown can become a destination,” he said. “It just takes one anchor business to attract others. We are pretty much in every distressed community trying to make a lasting impact.”

Bridgeway will celebrate its 25th anniversary 6-8 p.m. Thursday at an event at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown. Proceeds will fund the Homewood Business Center at Bridgeway’s 7800 Susquehanna Street project. For information go to www.bridgewaycapital.org

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.