Western Pa. business owners finding right fit in downtown communities
When considering where to open her new business several years ago, Jenifer Amundson says there was never any question on location.
Greensburg is her hometown and where Amundson, 52, and her husband, Jon Amundson, 53, make their home.
“We were looking for a building in downtown Greensburg. We were going to purchase it as an investment,” she says.
The former teacher, however, always wanted to open her own salon. Soon after buying the building on Maple Avenue, she opened Spa 309 Salon & Boutique, offering skin treatments, massage therapy and hair and nail services.
“I absolutely love this end of town. (The building) screamed ‘charming,’ ” Amundson says.
Space behind the property allows her to offer customers free parking. She and her husband undertook extensive renovation work to transform the former dental office into a salon. She employs nine people, including Marci Yuhas, who also leases space upstairs for her Roxberry Boutique. Joe Haynackie also leases space for his business, The Executive Barber.
Amundson makes a point of patronizing other downtown businesses and supporting local charities.
Pink facials help promote the annual Westmoreland Walks to fight breast cancer. She joins other local vendors for the Westmoreland Cultural Trust’s annual runway fashion show fundraiser. Amundson encourages other downtown businesses to become similarly involved in the community and, she says, “Pay it forward.”
“It’s my hometown. I want to see it thrive,” she says.
Investing in, stabilizing downtowns
Amundson is not alone, says Chad Amond, Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO.
Her salon recently hosted a member breakfast, one way local businesses can learn about and support each other, Amond says.
“It was a packed house,” he says.
The chamber plays a role in the county’s comprehensive plan, and a core objective is repositioning downtowns, Amond says.
“We are seeing the retirement generation and the millennial generation want to live downtown and in walkable communities. That is not just in southwestern Pennsylvania, but across the country,” he says.
Amond also notes Westmoreland County is creating more affordable downtown co-working, meeting and office rental space, including New Kensington’s The Corner.
“I think downtown communities are expanding. One of the things we need to make sure of is the downtowns are on board and embracing the businesses,” he adds.
Throughout the region, entrepreneurs and businesses are finding the right location fit through renovation and preservation of existing properties.
Among recent business owners putting their faith in downtown Greensburg are James Bosco, who opened Major Stokes restaurant in a vacant, damaged building on Pittsburgh Street in November; and owners of the Sun Dawg Cafe, who plan to expand into the storefront formerly occupied by Trice Professional Optical Services.
Jerry Batis, 65, opened the Herminie Diner in a building that has housed, over the years, an automobile dealership, hardware store and feed lot.
He leases the building, but invested his own money in renovating the empty site at 103 Sewickley Ave., before opening in the fall of 2016, he says.
Batis formerly operated restaurants in McKeesport and North Huntingdon. His primary reason for opening was to help out a friend who formerly operated the Palace Lunch in Herminie, and whose customers he believed would follow her to a new place.
“I was not really interested in a huge business,” he says.
The big breakfasts, daily specials and gyros he serves offer locals a place to dine and pay dividends beyond monetary through the “friends and family” he calls his customers.
He believes the restaurant, which currently serves only breakfast and lunch, will attract a buyer’s eye when he retires.
“We’re going strong,” Batis says.
Sewickley Township Supervisor Brian Merdian calls the recent businesses blossoming in Herminie “tremendous,” from property renovation to job creation.
The township has, he says, a “pro-business, pro-growth, pro-development agenda.”
From a Main Street revitalization program with PennDOT to working with the Westmoreland County Land Bank to help eliminate “eyesores,” Merdian believes the township is “back on the map.”
“Word is getting out there, and I think that is why you see a lot of the start-up business,” he says.
Promise in formerly busy towns
Late last year, partners Dave Baustert and Meredith Baldock found a home for their Crooked Creek Distillery in a former Ford dealership with a view of the Youghiogheny River on West Newton’s South Water Street.
The Irwin couple sees promise in a community along the busy Great Allegheny Passage, and the foot and bike traffic it brings into town.
In Jeannette, Sobel’s Obscure Brewery plans to open a microbrewery in the former Gillespie Building on Clay Avenue downtown.
Mayor Curtis Antoniak greeted the news with excitement. “It is one of several developments that will continue to spark life into our community,” he said shortly after the December announcement.
Old buildings new again
Business operators in New Kensington also are finding the charm in older buildings. Often spacious, with multiple floors posing the possibility of leasing extra space, they can present a nostalgia factor downtown shoppers and residents enjoy.
Sustain-ABLE Matters (s) owner Sean Watson has a vision for the building he purchased across from The Corner, where he runs his business.
The Lower Burrell resident anticipates an overhaul that will make the building appealing for potential mixed use, with apartments on the top floor and a small business on the first.
And Autumn Walker, 36, has found a thriving home for her BoHo Bath & Bubbles by Apothecary Soap Co. in the former G.C. Murphy store in New Kensington.
She and fiance David McGuire, whose profession is electronics design, relocated from Florida, seeking space for his Large Scale Systems Museum (on Fourth Avenue) and her soap business (on Fifth Avenue).
She enjoys both foot traffic and a healthy online business, and the couple are “volleying back and forth” ideas for the Fifth Avenue building’s top floor, she says in an email.
Walker’s business has expanded to include women’s shapewear.
“I think because of the specific products that I sell, it makes it very easy (to) gain traction via word-of-mouth promoting from my customers,” she says.
Walker participates in several groups working to improve the area, and says downtown festivals and farmers markets are “all part of what has grown out of the bettering of New Kensington.”
A self-described “foodie,” she hopes some recent property purchases will find second lives as brew pubs or eateries.
Downtowns such as New Kensington, Walker says, offer “beautiful architecture” and rich history.
“New Kensington has my heart, without a doubt, but other small towns like ours are all around the Rust Belt area. There is so much potential just waiting to be tapped into, from the buildings to the people,” she says.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-836-5401, [email protected] or via Twitter .