Walkabout: Nonprofit finds firm footing with a Grounded mission

Three Carnegie Mellon University grads started GTECH Strategies in 2007 as a pilot with a Sprout Fund grant of $20,000. They were finishing their last semester of grad school when they planted more than six acres at the old LTV Steel site in Hazelwood with hybrid poplar trees, switchgrass and sunflowers, all of which produce fuel.

They continued planting sunflowers on parcel after parcel of contaminated land. Sunflowers are among several plants that take up contaminants without becoming tainted, and their oil can be used for fuel.

By 2010, GTECH was working in more than 20 communities on 70 vacant lots to grow sunflowers, but also to create urban farms and gathering spaces.

Now 11 years old, with more than double the staff and a budget of $1.2 million, the nonprofit has changed its name to Grounded.

It was always cumbersome to explain what GTECH stood for: Growth Through Energy and Community Health. The more succinct name represents longevity and deeper roots.

“The sunflowers were great, but the better stories were that people kept coming back,” said Evaine Sing, Grounded’s executive director. “We had become part of their communities.”

The 2000s may have been Pittsburgh’s environmental coming-of-age decade. We had remediated most of our industrial brownfields, but we also recognized the lead paint and other contaminants that lurked on vacant lots between old houses. We started committing to stormwater management. It seemed every nonprofit, large and small, had a rain garden proposal.

Poor neighborhoods lobbied for green spaces, more trees. City and county governments adopted green strategies, as did many other municipalities in the region.

None of the original principals remain with Grounded.

Andrew Butcher departed last year with a move to Portland, Maine, where he works in nonprofit organizational management.

In 2012, Chris Koch transitioned to Design Center Pittsburgh, where she is the CEO.

“To have founded something that’s had that kind of longevity is humbling,” she said, noting GTECH’s role in helping communities look at vacancy and loss of properties around them and inspiring them “to think about the possibilities to restore it.”

Matthew Ciccone left GTECH in 2010 to start his own business and since has founded The Beauty Shoppe, a co-working space in East Liberty and three other cities.

“I haven’t been very involved for a while,” Mr. Ciccone said. “I consider myself more of a fan at this point. A lot of unsung people did a lot to get GTECH off the ground. But I think it’s a real testament to Andrew [Butcher] and his leadership and vision that it has survived and has a legacy of long-standing impact.”

In recent years, GTECH has activated neighborhood organizers on neighborhood-driven greening projects. Its ReFuel project —  collecting used cooking oil from residents and delivering it to a biofuel conversion company — was discontinued when the market responded and people started being paid for their used oil.

Grounded moves forward with 70 percent of its funding from foundations, but it has increased its revenue with contract work, consulting, data collection and program development, Ms. Sing said.

The organization does small-scale stormwater management, incorporating it into other projects as demonstrations to educate people in the communities.

In one project, Green Playces, Grounded has worked with youth in nine sites around the county, guiding them in design of vacant lots for creative learning and assets such as community kitchens.

“A few are one parcel, a few are quite larger,” Ms. Sing said. “They are still owned and managed by stewards, such as churches and clubs. The process is to give the ownership of the project to the youth planning it.”

A long way from sunflowers.

“The original mission was to cultivate the potential of people and place, and that mission remains,” Ms. Sing said.

Grounded also seeks to hit “the triple bottom line”: environmental needs, community needs and economic needs, she said, “somewhere between environmental advocacy and community development.”

Ms. Sing became a GTECH staffer as a result of her work as a landscape architect.

“When someone learned I was working on vacant land and helping people design their own space, they asked if I had talked to GTECH,” she said. “GTECH wanted to work for communities that wanted to take the next step” in vacant land reform.

“We’re excited about the next chapter. We’re hoping to reconnect with all the people we have worked with in the past 11 years and to grow our network.”

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.