Growth Through Energy & Community Health (GTECH), an initiative in Pittsburgh, Pa., is in the running for a Pepsi Refresh Everything grant. GTECH just needs to breech the top 10 to receive the $50,000 grant to plant sunflowers or canola on vacant land “to cultivate the local green economy and create a model for community renewal” via the biofuels produced from the crops.

GTECH, which got its start as a graduate research project, works to build a nationwide green economy, educate communities, and promote green jobs. Vacant land revitalization is at the core of their work, and the group uses the crops to support alternative fuel and energy initiatives. They have worked with seven neighborhoods in Pittsburgh to date, reclaiming over 12 acres of land that would otherwise be used for illegal dumping or other harmful practices. GTECH helps to transition the vacant lots to community ownership, both lowering the cost of land management and increasing the value of the property at the same time as they revitalize and unite communities around the space.

One former GTECH project, a lot in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, is now a community garden managed by Soujourner MOMS House (a home for homeless, single mothers in recovery as well as their children). The kids of that community harvested canola seeds and learned to operate the press to create the neighborhood's first batches of biofuel.

Based on this success, GTECH seemed a perfect fit for the Refresh Project, which aims to award over $20 million this year as the public votes online for each month’s projects. The awards range from $5,000 to $250,000 and the top 10 projects in each category receive the green light. Each month for 10 months, the Refresh accepts up to 1,000 project ideas and the community votes for those ideas, individuals or organizations. Notable winners have included the $100,000 grant for New Orleans-based Hope Lodge (a housing provider for cancer patients and their caregivers), which Super Bowl-winning quarterback Drew Brees helped to promote.

GTECH also plants roots in New Orleans. In a relationship stemming from a previous fellowship awarded through Echoing Green, GTECH connected with Green Coast Entreprises (GCE) to establish resources and infrastructure in the post-Katrina city. GTECH cites a Brookings Institute report estimating that New Orleans is home to 65,000 blighted, vacant lots. Working with GCE, GTECH is establishing resources and infrastructure from the ground up. GTECH CEO Andrew Butcher says, “We believe in the premise that a proactive green strategy can improve the market value of a place just by means of stopping blight, but also through improving environmental characteristics.”

With two weeks to go in the voting, GTECH hopes to climb three more slots in the pool to obtain their first dedicated source of funding for general vacant land reclamations in both cities.