As head of the Hill District's most powerful community institution, Evan Frazier played an integral role in helping the neighborhood win a community-benefits agreement (CBA) last year. But it'll be up to a new leader to ensure that the deal comes to fruition ... and Frazier's departure comes at an especially delicate moment.
After six years as president and CEO of the Hill House Association, Frazier is leaving in January to take a job with local health insurer Highmark. Which means he'll likely be leaving unfinished two high-profile initiatives: bringing a long-sought grocery store to the Hill District, and ensuring that Hill residents benefit from the development surrounding the new Pittsburgh Penguins hockey arena.
Both those goals have proven elusive. Even as work begins on a new hotel near the arena, for example, there are concerns that the Penguins aren't living up to their promises to notify the community of job opportunities. [See "Laying a Bad Foundation," page 7].
Frazier's departure "is a great loss," says Greg Spencer, chairman of the Hill House's board of directors. "I'm anxious. We have a lot going on in the community, and I don't want there to be a misstep."
During Frazier's tenure, the Hill House -- whose 100 employees offer health, education and human-services programs for residents both inside and outside of the Hill District -- raised more than $9 million for its Generations Ahead Capital Campaign, including a $1.75 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation (the largest private grant in the organization's 45-year history). But the 39-year-old Churchill resident is perhaps best known for his role in negotiating the CBA.
The CBA is intended to ensure that Hill residents -- who were left out of previous urban-renewal efforts -- share in the benefits created by development of a new arena and a 28-acre site nearby. Frazier was a key figure in negotiations, with both residents and government officials applauding his calm, mild-mannered approach. Some say it will be sorely missed in the future.
"Evan has that soft touch," says Allegheny County Councilor Bill Robinson, who represents the Hill. "And that soft touch is not going to be available at this tough time."
"There is never a great time to make a transition," acknowledges Frazier, who will become Highmark's senior vice president of community affairs. But thanks to having a signed CBA, "all of the building blocks are in place."
Still, it will be up to his replacement -- and the Hill House management team Frazier leaves behind -- to stack those blocks correctly.
Potentially at risk is the First Source job center, which was created as part of the CBA and officially launched in August. The center is designed to provide residents with career counseling and help them find jobs created by arena-related development. But even before the dispute around the new hotel, job-center officials were accusing the Penguins' hiring process of lacking transparency, claiming team officials were failing to work with the center to track job applicants [See City Paper, "Help Wanted," Sept. 3, 2009].
Frazier says he's confident that the job center's coordinator, Ken Nesbit, can handle talks with the Penguins, unions and contractors. But Nesbit admits that losing Frazier won't be easy.
"We're going to miss Evan's ability to negotiate," he says.
Frazier's departure could also affect negotiations surrounding a neighborhood grocery store. The Hill District has been without a grocery for decades, and earlier this year, residents were assured that Kuhn's would be building a full-service store -- equipped with a pharmacy, bakery, deli and café. But as CP first reported last month, the local chain has so far not signed a lease [see "Waiting at the Checkout," Oct. 15]. The community has begun seeking other grocers.
"We can't keep waiting [for Kuhn's]," says Frazier, adding that the Hill House is currently talking with four other groceries. (He declined to name them.) "We want to get an operator to sign on the dotted line."
Even if the Hill House fails to do so by the time he leaves in January, Frazier says, "I'm not going to let anything fall." He's pledged to work closely with the Hill House to ensure a smooth transition. Besides, he adds, "The organization is in capable hands. We're structured in a way that doesn't crumble on one person."
Spencer says the Hill House board has already identified two candidates to serve as Frazier's interim replacement. He hopes to name a full-time replacement by the summer. The board recently hired executive search firm Dewey & Kaye -- the same firm that found Frazier -- to help identify local and regional job candidates. Spencer says the board is also creating a five-member search committee that will ultimately decide who takes over as the new president and CEO.
"We'll be fine," he assures. "We have our hands on the gears very well."
Although the timing of Frazier's departure isn't ideal, some say it could have been worse.
"Evan's going to leave a void," Robinson says. "But it's easier to replace Evan today than it would have been yesterday."