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Beaver-based company hopes to revitalize business district

| Thursday, Dec. 20, 2007

Brick shells of former businesses sit in an unlikely place.

Sewickley has more than a half-dozen empty shops on Beaver and Broad streets, where once-busy mom-and-pop stores featured conventional items or unique products. Nearly 6 percent of the borough's 160 stores are vacant, officials say.

"There is always business transition in any town," said Mara Peluso, program development coordinator at Town Center Associates, a Beaver-based company that specializes in downtown and economic development.

Sewickley council wagered $10,000 last year that Town Center Associates could better Sewickley's economy. Town Center has helped municipalities such as Aliquippa, Ambridge and Monaca redevelop their downtown business districts.

Others, like former business owner Jovanka Koledin, think more should be done to help the merchants.

"The stores are closing one by one," said Koledin, who had an interior decorating business in Sewickley for 54 years and opened Koledin's Rejuvenation Center in 1990 before retiring earlier this year.

Her health store, which has been for rent since she retired in May, is now just one of the vacant locations on Broad Street. Koledin, 90, attributes many of the problems of Sewickley's business community to its residents.

"Local residents don't shop in Sewickley," she said. "I can count on my fingers how many Sewickley people came into my store over the years. Most of my customers were from outside the area."

Duquesne University marketing Professor Audrey Guskey said this isn't a dilemma that Sewickley is facing alone.

"I think the problem is that there is such an influx of stores across the Western Pennsylvania area that many smaller retailers can't survive," Guskey said.

She said many people prefer to shop in mall-type stores as compared to smaller stores that thrive in little towns.

"The beauty of a small, affluent town such as Sewickley is that it is able to offer upscale, trendy shops with outstanding customer service. When any store in an area such as Sewickley closes, it is bad news for the community and bad news for Western Pennsylvania," Guskey said. "It means more big-box retailers are succeeding and bumping out the little guys."

Some local merchants blame anyone they can when they aren't happy with their bottom line: The borough and the police department get flack for giving out parking tickets and not providing enough spaces; merchants are chided for not keeping their businesses open late enough; property owners are accused of charging too much in rent.

The fact is that no one is to blame, said Phil Harris, owner of The Open Mind Bookstore and president of the Sewickley Valley Chamber of Commerce.

"You can't point fingers," Harris said. "The biggest problem is that we don't have a strong economy in this region."

Sewickley developer Clifford A. Krey said for Sewickley to thrive, residents have to shop and eat here at least once a week.

Peluso said it was evident, through the hiring of Town Center Associates, that Sewickley recognizes the importance of the business district. Borough Manager Kevin Flannery and local merchants hope Town Center can help to revitalize the village.

Orr's Jewelers invested millions in its new building on Beaver Street, while some smaller businesses have upgraded and improved their shops.

Erin and Mark Madson of Upper St. Clair purchased the building on the corner of Walnut and Beaver streets a year and a half ago, and the building remains vacant.

While they've had offers from companies wanting to move into the location, it's not for rent. Their Imperial-based spa company soon will be moving into the space, Erin Madson said.

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