Kim Wynnyckyj remembers when East Liberty’s business district was just beginning to come back to life. The year was 2001, and she was the manager of ELDI’s Main Street Program—a nationwide program funded through the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA) which aimed to revitalize the East End business district through façade grants and other initiatives.

“It was a lot of working one-on-one with businesses about specific issues,” Wynnyckyj remembers.I went to a lot of meetings and was a point person for the owners to talk to about their challenges.”

After working in that role for almost two years, Wynnyckyj eventually went on to serve as the marketing director for the new East Liberty Whole Foods, a landmark development for the neighborhood when it opened in 2002. There she collaborated with a wide range of local non-profits and community groups to ensure that the new store was woven into the fabric of the community. In her 12-year tenure, she helped launch a community garden for the store, worked with many local artists on murals and art projects, and helped further the company’s commitment to inclusive hiring practices.

Now, more than 20 years later, we are happy to say that Wynnyckyj is once again working to make East Liberty’s business district vibrant. ELDI has hired her as a consultant to help manage and coordinate the neighborhood’s commercial core. She will be liaising with East Liberty businesses to provide support and make sure any issues are addressed.

In our conversation below, Wynnyckyj shares her memories of East Liberty in the early 2000s, how she worked to better the community at ELDI and Whole Foods,  as well as more about what she will be focusing on in her new role.

Kim Wynnyckyj
Kim Wynnyckyj, ELDI’s new commercial core liaison

To start, can you tell us a little about yourself and where you’re from?

My name is Kim Wynnyckyj (pronounced Vin-its-ky—it’s Ukrainian). I’m originally from Pittsburgh but moved to the Washington, D.C. area in 1996 where I worked as a marketing director for a big shopping center, returning in 2001 when my daughter was one year old.  My daughter has since graduated college and now lives and works in D.C. I reside in Hazelwood with my husband.

What made you want to get into community development?

I fell into it. When my daughter turned one, I wanted to be back in Pittsburgh. I called a former colleague saying I was coming back and asked if she knew of any work. That’s when she told me about the Main Street position at ELDI. I interviewed for it, and it worked out, and then I fell in love with East Liberty.

What makes East Liberty so special to you?

It’s just so exciting because you can find every walk of life and every socioeconomic background in the neighborhood—everybody existing together in a community that they’re getting something from personally.

Can you tell me about your time working on the Main Street Program in the early 2000s in East Liberty. What did you do?

The contract was held at ELDI, so my office was there, but I worked with the businesses and Community Development Corporations in a variety of neighborhoods, including East Liberty, Garfield, Friendship, Highland Park, and Larimer. I met with them one on one and as a group; helped them obtain funds for façade grants, streetscape grants, and special events; and helped them address concerns. So, say for example, there was an art gallery in Garfield that needed to open windows that had been bricked back in the 80s, we could help them with that. I also worked with Maelene Myers [ELDI’s Executive Director] on a variety of things, including student afterschool programs. Social media wasn’t a thing back then, so one of the things we focused on was profiling the different businesses. I created media kits and a business brochure, with each panel highlighting the different neighborhoods and their history.

In her role at Whole Foods, Wynnyckyj worked with ELDI and others to launch the Enright Garden. Here she is pictured in 2009 with volunteers (from left): Tait Tomb; Kim Wynnyckyj of Whole Foods; Dan Allen; Sallyann Kluz, with beagles Pearl and Fred; Mikal Merlina; Matt Miller; and Casey Dill, of Whole Foods. | Photo: Heather Mull, Pittsburgh City Paper

In 2002, you transitioned to becoming the marketing director of the new Whole Foods on Centre Avenue. What was that experience like?

When I was offered the job, it was torturous for me to make that decision. I saw so much opportunity in the neighborhood, and I loved what was happening with the Main Street Program, but I felt that I would have more power to affect change from Whole Foods. When I started, having come from the Main Street Program, working with the community was extremely important to me. Whole Foods was now an anchor in the neighborhood, and it was critical that when we opened our doors, we were connected and integrated into the local dynamic. That’s why we were part of a community process to put three murals on the sides of the building, we participated in the Unblurred First Friday art crawl events, hosted and displayed artwork from dozens of artists and arts organizations, and had a seat at the table for many, many community meetings and projects in the neighborhood. I think that’s what made the job so magical. My store team leader came to me one day and said, “Let’s create a community garden.” So, we scouted the neighborhood for a vacant lot and made it happen. It was the first neighborhood garden in the entire region of Whole Foods. So, it was really just about connecting to the environment and becoming a part of the community. We walked the talk, and ELDI was instrumental in getting the Whole Foods project off the ground.

A mural commissioned for the Eastside Whole Foods during Wynnyckyj’s tenure.

What was the community’s reaction when Whole Foods opened?

It was mixed, which I knew it was going to be, but I think the longer that we were there—and once people realized we were invested in the community—sentiment shifted. So much of what I did there was meeting with people and making connections. Whole Foods didn’t advertise, so I didn’t place ads. It was a lot of talking to people. I was going to church basement meetings, nonprofit board meetings, etc. There was a lot of educating the community about who we were and what we did.

In that time, I guess you witnessed a lot of transformation in the neighborhood?

Huge—it was great. During the Main Street Program, when I was in the Garfield area, one side of the street was Garfield and the other was Friendship, and the dynamic and history were very different. It still is. So, we looked for ways to bridge that gap. I love that human element. My daughter is just starting her career in the nonprofit world, and one thing I’ve always said to her is that when you’re working at a nonprofit, you’ll find some of the most selfless people, because they want to be a part of affecting change in a positive way—but you can’t just bulldoze in and do that. There’s history and culture. You have to be sensitive and understand it.

It was a learning curve. I really had to listen, because I didn’t understand a lot of it, but it drove and motivated me to want to be a part of it.

Now you are returning to ELDI to manage East Liberty’s commercial core. What will you be working on in this role? 

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be doing a lot of research and talking and meeting with many folks and business owners. I’m going to be focusing on listening, so that I can identify what’s rising to the surface. Some of my goals are to work with business and property owners in the commercial core to identify and address specific issues. I will compile and produce a business directory of the East Liberty commercial core, and I’m hoping to help provide and implement a structure for community engagement. I’ll also work with ELDI staff, partnering organizations, and community leaders to help bridge gaps in understanding existing issues within the core. In addition, I hope to help develop, assist, and execute some community events and initiatives.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

One thing I do want to make sure that I’m getting across in the name of full transparency is that I’ve been gone a long time. I’ve continued to be involved with East Liberty from a pedestrian point of view—I visit, go to the restaurants, etc.—but there is so much that has changed. I’m hoping that I can introduce myself and be somebody that the businesses can trust and talk to so that I can help find some answers and solutions to their problems, with the recognition that I’m only one person and I won’t be able to fix everything. I’m really thrilled and grateful because it’s always been important to me, whether I was at ELDI or Whole Foods, to make sure whatever I do affects the community in a positive and productive way. I’m excited to get started.

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