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Making a go of making change

Three years after moving to city on a whim, Gross leaves nonprofit post for a new business

Thursday, December 06, 2001

By Stephanie Franken, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Back in 1998, Deborah Gross was supposed to begin writing her dissertation in sociology -- the last step to obtaining a Ph.D. -- at Duke University, in Durham, N.C.

Deborah Gross is leaving the Pittsburgh Arts Alliance, where she is the well-known executive director, to start a business called Percolater. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

But Gross had a different idea about what would come next.


Rather than being stuck in an ivory tower, studying urban issues and analyzing what makes cities work, Gross decided that she wanted to be a part of a city in the process of change.

She didn't realize then that she would become an important part of that process.

Her doctoral work unfinished, Gross packed up and moved here three years ago without family, friends or even a job awaiting.

Only a year after she arrived, she splashed into public view, delivering a speech about Pittsburgh -- its promise and its challenges -- before an audience of roughly 2,000 at the annual meeting of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development in November 1999.

That night, Gross told the crowd that she was drawn to the city because of its affordability, its lack of pretense and its character. It had built-in, offbeat hipness that other cities had to manufacture, she said. She mentioned the Tic Toc Restaurant in Kaufmann's, Banjo Night at James Street Tavern -- "Things so quirky you can't believe it."

But she wanted more, she told the crowd that night. The city also needed to be responsive to quality-of-life issues that mattered to young professionals, such as mass transit, recreation and cultural amenities.

Two years later, Gross, 35, can claim to have helped push those issues along. She has emerged as one of Pittsburgh's most vocal boosters and advocates for change. The executive director of the Pittsburgh Arts Alliance, she has become a well-known figure in cultural and economic development circles.

"She totally gets the whole, hugely important issue of what our unique character in Pittsburgh is -- and how we need to fight for what our strengths are," said Pat Clark, a founding member of Ground Zero, an organization that includes Gross and pushes for social and cultural change.

In a city obsessed with retaining young professionals, Gross represents the kind of person the city wants to keep here. "I love the fact that, by Pittsburgh standards, I'm considered young," quipped Gross, whose father worked for Westinghouse Electric but spent most of his career outside the region.

Now Gross, who lived here briefly as a child, is taking on perhaps her biggest challenge -- the business world. With friend Gloria Forouzan, former executive director of the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project, a group for young professionals that encourages civic and political involvement, Gross is launching Percolater.

The business will seek to help community development corporations and other nonprofits strengthen their ties to the business community through special events, marketing and informal networking, Gross said. Percolater -- it's spelled with an "er" because "or" was taken, she said -- reflects Gross' mission to help new ideas percolate and make things happen by bringing people together.

However, making things happen within the business world will be a new test for Gross, who thus far has dealt with youngish, progressive Pittsburghers. Now, she'll be working to influence the established power elite -- a group that lets things percolate in its own way -- and it could be the toughest challenge yet for the young newcomer.

Colleagues say that based on what she's done thus far, she's up to the task.

She helped to get a young person, Gregg Caliguiri, appointed to the Mayor's Riverlife Task Force and spoke to the media about the woefully underused city riverfront.

She also became an active member of PUMP and met weekly with members of Ground Zero to try to get a new bus route going that would link neighborhoods such as Oakland and Shadyside with Downtown and the Strip District. That bus route, called the UltraViolet Loop, took a trial run that spanned several weekends this fall and may be revived as a permanent route, she said.

All of those activities had nothing to do with the jobs that actually have paid Gross since she arrived in Pittsburgh. First, she worked at the Community Loan Fund of Southwestern Pennsylvania Inc. There, Gross helped to conduct a capital campaign that increased the assets of the organization from $2 million to $6 million.

Last year, she was tapped to help form the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Alliance. Now that the organization is up and running, Gross said she was pleased with the progress it had made to raise public awareness about arts organizations.

Colleagues attributed much of its success to Gross herself. "Deb has a really great amount of energy. It's a positive energy, and it comes across in any conversation you have with her," said Lockwood Hoehl, managing director of Chatham Baroque, a locally based group of musicians that performs worldwide.

But she never intended to stay with the arts organization. "Urban revitalization is really my passion," she said.

With her new business, she'll have an opportunity to move closer to her heart's true desire. Percolater aims to help strengthen neighborhoods by strengthening the community development corporations that serve them.

"We know Pittsburgh, we are up to date on regional initiatives, and we have strong networks," she said.

While the city's business world represents a new frontier, Gross is confident she'll make inroads fast.

"She knew inherently how good our neighborhoods are in the city -- what makes them distinct and successful. That's a pretty good training ground to handle anything else," said Ground Zero's Clark.

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