Main Street improvement projects popping up all over Allegheny
By Brian Bowling
Published: Wednesday, May 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Communities across the region are taking steps from planting flowers to reshaping their streets with the intent of attracting people and businesses.
The Forest Hills Community Development Corp. has been working for more than a decade to improve the borough's two-block business district along Route 30 by renovating facades, installing new lamp posts and signs, planting new trees and redoing the sidewalks.
Mike Roman said that commitment is one reason he decided to open Roman Bistro 33 on Ardmore Boulevard.
“They're really trying to rejuvenate this area, and that was really instrumental in us deciding to lease this space,” he said.
Since 2008, the state Department of Community and Economic Development has approved $4.5 million for Main Street projects, which improve business districts, and for Elm Street projects, which improve residential areas, in Allegheny County.
Forest Hills has its own arborist to advise residents on tree and shrub maintenance and is a designated a Tree City USA. Steve Morus, Forest Hills' manager, said the borough's efforts help everyone.
“I think it shows that we care — that we're interested in encouraging business,” he said. “I think it also makes it more attractive to residents.”
That comprehensive approach is an important factor in whether a streetscape or other rejuvenation project can work, said Rich Beynon, president of Beynon & Co., a commercial real estate broker based Downtown.
Communities often approach such projects piecemeal because it's hard to find money to implement a more comprehensive renovation of a business district, he said.
“It works best if there is an overall development program in place,” Beynon said. “With that said, it is important that something is done rather than nothing.”
Ray Vargo, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Small Business Development Center, said the projects are similar to an applicant “dressing for success” before a job interview.
Business owners want to locate in areas where customers feel comfortable, he said.
“They're targeting a certain customer and (asking) would that customer be willing to go to this community,” he said.
Raymond Puskar, a commissioner in Stowe, said that's the idea behind the township's revamping of Broadway Street. Phase one of the project installed new lights. As part of phase two, the township is putting out bids to redo the sidewalks and possibly add some landscaping.
“It's going to make things a little bit more visually pleasant,” he said.
The township made similar improvements in 1980 that helped boost business, and five new businesses have moved in since it put in the new lighting, he said.
Allegheny County Economic Development is working with Stowe and 10 other communities through its Main Street program to help revitalize their business district, said Bob Hurley, the agency's deputy director.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012, those 11 business districts saw a net gain of 21 businesses, bringing their total number to 914 businesses, he said.
Heidelberg Mayor Ken Lasota said the communities of Heidelberg, Carnegie and Scott hope to see similar results from the Route 50 streetscape project that started construction this year after about eight years of rounding up $2.4 million in federal money and $600,000 in local money.
Each community will use about $1 million to revamp the Route 50 corridor. Heidelberg plans to put an urban rain garden with trees and park benches on the west side of the highway between Second and Fourth streets to make the commercial area look more like a town square, Lasota said.
“It will look like we're more of an urban network rather than a four-lane highway,” he said.
Through a TreeVitalize grant from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Carnegie also planted 40 trees in the business district to both help its appearance and reduce storm runoff, said Bridget VanDorn, a member of the Carnegie Shade Tree Commission.
Beautification projects often serve more than one purpose said Eddie Figas, Millvale's community and economic development director.
With a state grant of about $703,000, the borough is planting more than 800 trees and building two swales to slow down storm water runoff into Girty's Run. Millvale flooded in 2004 and 2007, and reducing the chances of more floods helps businesses and residents, he said.
At the same time, the trees are improving the borough's appearance.
“We look at it also as a boost to our business district, but primarily we've done it for two reasons: beautifying and to relieve any way we can, flooding issues,” he said.
Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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