- Modeled after Manchester Bidwell Corp. in Pittsburgh, Erie Center for Arts and Technology offers free arts education to youth, career education or adults
- After $12 million overhaul of old Wayne School, ECAT to welcome students, tenants, and help anchor East Avenue neighborhood
- Architecture designed to convey sense of opportunity and hope to students
Nine years ago, Daria Devlin tutored kindergarten students as a volunteer at the Erie School District’s Wayne School, at East Avenue and East Sixth Street.
Devlin is still connected to the classrooms at Wayne, though not as a volunteer.
She has led the effort to overhaul the building and reopen it, in the fall, as the home of the Erie Center for Arts and Technology, the new nonprofit that Devlin heads as its executive director.
Filling the classrooms at the ECAT building this fall will be adult students learning job skills, and high school and middle school students learning about the arts.
Devlin, 44, the former coordinator of grants and community relations for the Erie School District, has been overseeing the transformation of the former Wayne School since August 2019, when ECAT purchased the four-story, 80,180-square-foot building from the school district for $250,000. The district closed Wayne, which was an elementary school, in 2017 due to declining enrollment.
Starting out:Director hired for new Erie arts, career nonprofit
The $12 million renovation of the 108-year-old building started in August 2020, and is on schedule to be completed later this month. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is set for Sept. 16.
Led by Devlin, ECAT financed the overhaul with grants, bank loans, loans from other organizations, the sale of condominium space and the use of a federal tax-credit program never tried before in the Erie area.
At a time when area public and private schools are embarking on large-scale building projects, including multimillion-dollar additions to Fairview High School and the campus of Cathedral Preparatory School, ECAT has been plugging along with its project, reworking a school into what Devlin hopes will be an anchor for opportunity and development in the largely low-income East Avenue neighborhood.
“I love that this school is going to be used for something similar — education, a place where people can learn and grow,” Devlin said during a recent tour of the refurbished building.
‘Environment of exploration’
ECAT is designed to fill a need in Erie. It is a place where at-risk middle and high school students can get involved in the visual and digital arts outside of what they might experience in school, allowing the students to appreciate the arts and explore the arts as a career. And it is a place where adults can get trained in sustainable jobs, particularly in the medical fields, to get out of poverty.
“The whole idea is to get students on a ladder for a living wage without burdening them with a high student debt,” Devlin said.
The goal of the renovations, she said, was to update the Wayne building to create a unique space that would expose the middle and high school students especially to artworks and architecture that would inspire them.
Ready to grow:Erie’s former Wayne School primed for $10M makeover
ECAT is modeled after Manchester Bidwell Corp., an arts and career-training initiative founded in Pittsburgh in the late 1960s. Buildings associated with the Manchester Bidwell model typically feature sweeping entrances and other architectural highlights meant to expand the perspective of the students, many of whom come from low-income households.
The Wayne building is no different. Designed by the Avon Design Group, of Pittsburgh, with the Erie-based Spaulding Banks Project Management overseeing construction, the renovated building at 650 East Ave. features a welcoming main lobby. Visitors will immediately encounter plenty of glass and bright colors, such as orange, as well as a two-story water feature that resembles a waterfall and has pool at bottom. The designs are meant to convey possibility.
“It really is intended to create a sense of light and beauty and an environment of exploration and opportunity and hope,” Devlin said. “That is really the word — ‘hope.”
Anchor for development
ECAT will run its two programs out of the building: after-school classes for middle school and high school students in the arts, including painting, drawing and ceramics in the fall and digital arts in the spring; and certified adult-job training classes, starting with training for medical assistants. Those programs are free.
ECAT is scheduled to start the after-school programs in mid-September with about 40 students, Devlin said. She said ECAT wants to build up to about 150 students a semester. The adult education classes will start after ECAT gets final approval from the state Board of Education, most likely in mid-August, Devlin said.
Picture this:Future in focus in ECAT photo course
ECAT since 2019 has been running after-school programs at other locations and, during the pandemic, online, while the Wayne building has been renovated. ECAT’s five-member full-time staff was scheduled to move into their offices into the building on Aug. 10.
Photos:ECAT programs begin
ECAT’s tenants will expand the offerings to the neighborhood beyond education. The United Way of Erie County by Aug. 11 is scheduled to move its offices from West Sixth Street into condominium space it purchased in the ECAT building.
United Way tenant:Erie United Way to move to former Wayne School
A medical clinic will remain in the ECAT building, with patients starting to use the new space on Monday. Another addition is a walk-in pharmacy with a drive-thru.
UPMC Hamot is leasing space for its tuition-funded Jameson School of Nursing program, with a start date of Aug. 30. That program is enrolling 90 students, about double what the school anticipated, UPMC Hamot said.
UPMC Hamot is partnering with Gannon University to operate the satellite campus of the New Castle-based UPMC Jameson School of Nursing in the ECAT building. The Erie program — UPMC Jameson School of Nursing at UPMC Hamot — is designed to get students on a track to graduate as registered nurses in 16 months, officials said.
Students will get clinical instruction at UPMC Hamot, take non-nursing classes at Gannon and complete the balance of their classroom work at the ECAT building.
The program will graduate nurses more quickly than a four-year program, helping Hamot and other facilities deal with the chronic nationwide nursing shortage, officials said.
“Everything has exceeded my expectations,” said Karen Morahan, director of the UPMC Jameson School of Nursing at UPMC Hamot. “The response from the community. The response from the students. The building is gorgeous.”
Overall, as many as 200 people a day will use the ECAT building, Devlin said, bringing potential foot traffic to area of East Avenue south of East Sixth Street. ECAT joins the Barber National Institute, to the north of East Sixth Street, as an asset to the East Avenue area. And across from the ECAT building is East Middle School, whose students will be among those eligible for ECAT’s programs.
“There is a lot of opportunity for investment, with the number of people using the building, just bringing more and more people to this side of town,” Devlin said. “I think the neighborhood can benefit from that.”
Tenants and funding
As of early August, ECAT was continuing to negotiate with potential tenants, but the entire building is all but filled. The tenant list:
- First floor — ECAT
- Second floor south — United Way of Erie County, which bought the 6,056-square-foot space as a condominium for $424,000 in August 2019, and paid $623,000 for renovations.
- Second floor north — Wayne Primary Healthcare, a clinic operated by Primary Health Network. The clinic has been in the building since 2012. Leased space.
- Third floor — UPMC Jameson School of Nursing at UPMC Hamot. Leased space.
- Gymnasium — ShanPull Sports LLC, a sports program whose head is Shannon Pullium, the former basketball coach at Strong Vincent High School and Mercyhurst North East. Pullium has said he will run basketball and volleyball leagues and provide personal trainers and literacy programs out of the gym. Leased space.
- Ground floor — Darling’s Pharmacy, including a drive-thru. Leased space.
- Ground floor — Office space for the Blue Coats peacekeeping initiative, whose members help counsel Erie School District students. Leased space.
- Though a nonprofit, ECAT agreed to pay property taxes on the building as part of the purchase from the Erie School District.
- The renovation costs started at $10.3 million but expanded to $12 million with additional improvements.
ECAT is using the condominium sale and rental income to pay the debt associated with the $12 million in renovations. ECAT funded about $2.5 million of the $12 million through its participation in the federal New Markets Tax Credit program, created in 2000 to provide incentives for investment in low-income areas. The ECAT project is the first New Markets deal in Erie, according to U.S. Treasury Department records. The balance of the funding for renovations came from grants and bank loans.
‘A huge lift’
Though complicated, the funding and leasing elements ended up combining to make ECAT a viable project.
The chairman of ECAT’s 16-member board, Charles “Boo” Hagerty, said he is pleased with the building’s progress and impressed by Devlin’s ability to coordinate all the different aspects of the development. Hagerty is also president of the Hamot Health Foundation.
“This was a huge, huge lift, and everything just kept coming together,” Hagerty said. “The word is ‘collaboration.'”
Devlin is not done yet. As she prepares to welcome students into the building, she dreams of plans for what is left of the unused space in the former Wayne School. She wonders, for example, if the former boiler room, with its big windows and flood of natural light, would make a good art gallery.
Whatever happens next, Devlin, the former tutor, has taught herself a lesson in perseverance. She took an unused school and ma it something new, despite all the difficulties in achieving the transformation.
“It was the right decision,” she said of choosing Wayne School. “This is the place where we want to be.”
For more information on ECAT, go to eriecat.org.
For more information on the UPMC Jamison School of Nursing at UPMC Hamot, call 814-877-6877.