Membership has its privileges at PNC Fairfax Connection. And it's free

Seven years ago, Fairfax resident Dionne Carmichael knew something significant was coming to the Cleveland neighborhood: “PNC asked us to tell them what we needed—and wanted—in our community.”

National City Bank had roots in Fairfax before PNC acquired it. Jim Rohr, now-retired chairman and CEO of PNC, wanted to keep that connection alive. He cared about Cleveland on another level, too—it was his hometown.

In 2011, he reached out to Paul Clark, now-retired PNC regional president, with the idea for PNC Fairfax Connection. “[He] asked him to build something that could change the nature of the relationship between a bank and its neighborhood,” says Brian Williams, executive director of PNC Fairfax Connection.

“Rohr left the door wide open for Paul Clark and his leadership team to envision something special,” says Williams. “Especially because no banking would be offered at the facility.”

The 6,400-square-foot building’s gleaming glass walls let in natural light year roundWith residents’ input, PNC built its first community resource center to support Fairfax and neighboring Cleveland communities. “PNC has a community strategy across the country, but this is the first brick-and-mortar facility committed to community work,” Williams says.

PNC Fairfax Connection is a $5 million, LEED-certified center. The 6,400-square-foot building’s gleaming glass walls let in natural light year round. An ATM is on the premises, but this is not a bank branch.

The goal of PNC Fairfax Connection is to uplift the community by helping members achieve their goals, such as starting a business, advancing at work, and going to college, Williams says.

Access for all

“You don’t have to be a resident of the Fairfax neighborhood to become a member at PNC Fairfax Connection. All are welcome,” says program facilitator Susan Blasko. Anyone 13-years-old and up can join as a member, free of charge. The membership application simply asks for one’s interests. Membership includes access to state-of-the-art technology as well as a wide variety of classes and programs, six days a week.

“We want PNC Fairfax Connection to serve as a bridge, connecting our membership with local opportunities, so that members can achieve their own goals,” says Williams.  Workshops are focused on building skills, increasing professional networks, and providing families with tools to learn and grow together.

Membership has grown to 7,500 members, with about 100 new members joining every month.

Programming for every age

During the monthly Breakfast with Brian event, Williams sits down with members over coffee and breakfast treats. Everyone shares their own ideas for programming, which are different every month. “Members get excited when they see one of their ideas take off,” says Williams.

The most popular activities are the book clubs and the speaker series. "The speaker series is really good. The poet Nikki Giovanni spoke, and she's always been on my bucket list,” says Carmichael.

Susan Blasko facilitates a Kids in the Kitchen sessionBlasko coordinates the youth and technology programming at PNC Fairfax Connection, including basic computer skills, digital music production, and a popular graphic design course. Desktop computers, laptops, and iPads are also available for individual work time.

PNC Fairfax Connection has been making a regional impact on children by supporting the professional development of local early childhood educators. Workshops and free continuing education credits are offered to teachers through Ohio’s Step Up to Quality system.

The broad assortment of class topics even includes nutrition education. “In Kids in the Kitchen, chefs teach kids how to cook, and the parents get to eat the food,”  says Carmichael.

PNC Fairfax Connection is fully funded by PNC. “But we provide this level of support because of our community and corporate partners,” says Williams. University Circle Inc., Cleveland Clinic, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are just a few.

Continuing education and outreach

“In Fairfax, we are in the heart of it all,” says Carmichael. She still makes time to visit PNC Fairfax Connection twice a week in addition to attending events around Cleveland and staying involved with her parish, St. Adalbert. “I’m 15 minutes away from Little Italy and University Circle on one side, Hough and AsiaTown on the other. But I can’t find parking at some events. So [PNC Fairfax Connection] hired a bus to take us to Wade Oval Wednesday and back.” Increasing accessibility to all things Cleveland is a top priority for Williams and his team.

“We want to connect our members to impactful programs and services that exist all around them,” says Blasko. “PNC Fairfax Connection is here for the community. We will continue to provide meaningful programming that is designed by and for our members to suit their current needs.”

PNC Fairfax Connection’s annual celebration to commemorate seven years in Fairfax is Saturday, Oct. 12, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at 8220 Carnegie Ave. The event is open to the public and features children's activities, entertainment, food, and games. Special guests include Purple Honker from "Sesame Street" as well as Eco Explorers, a mobile outreach vehicle powered by PNC, designed to bring free environmental education programs to preschool and kindergarten-age students.

This article is part of our On the Ground - Fairfax community reporting project in partnership with Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation, Cleveland Clinic, PNC Bank, Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and Cleveland Development Advisors. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Read more articles by Cindy Hill.

Cindy Hill is a freelance writer based in Shaker Heights. She enjoys telling the stories of impact makers—the organizations and businesses that keep Cleveland at the forefront of innovation. For more than 22 years, she has produced award-winning curriculum, proposals, books, and articles, driven by her insatiable curiosity to find out “what’s next.”