August 18, 2009 |

Main Street Program makes a difference in neighborhood districts

Josette Fitzgibbons, Mainstreets/Elm Street coordinator for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, braved the construction zone along East Carson Street to speak at the South Side Chamber of Commerce's summer luncheon at Excuses Bar and Grill.

Ms. Fitzgibbons came to the luncheon to explain what's happening with the Main Street Program in general and specifics related to the South Side business district.

She briefly outlined Main Street saying it is a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation incorporating a four-point approach: Organization, Design, Promotion and Economic Restructuring. The program is funded by the state and South Side has been part of the program for "25 years or so."

The program is now a five-year program with eight programs in the city, including South Side which Ms. Fitzgibbons characterized as being a "graduate program." Graduate status provides some "program support" but no longer pays the salary of Geof Comings, manager of Business Development, at the South Side Local Development Company.

"In May, the State Senate zeroed out the Main Street Program in the budget," Ms. Fitzgibbons said. "We have to lobby to get things restored one by one."

In order to make her point about the benefits of Main Street, she pointed out that for every $1 in funding, $31 in private investment has come back.

"Main Street has an impact on neighborhood business districts," she said.

"The vacancy rate on Carson Street went from more than 50 percent to 10 percent and that's because of Main Street," she continued. "This is a program that is pro neighborhood and pro business…It's a program that revitalizes neighborhood businesses and it makes sense.

Ms. Fitzgibbons said the URA is trying to figure out how to keep the program going until the funding returns. "You'll still have Geof [Comings], you'll still have programs."

One program that could be in jeopardy is street cleaning on the South Side. She explained that the URA provided "seed funding" for the program originally, but the SSLDC found other funding to keep the program operating.

Street cleaning provided the opportunity for Ms. Fitzgibbons to segue into talking about Neighborhood Improvement Districts and Business Improvement Districts or NIDs and BIDs.

"One of the options is forming a BID or NID," she told the group of business people. A BID only affects business districts, while a NID incorporates the residential community.

"It's a way to keep things like street cleaning, a way to get ambassadors," she continued. "It's a way to have folks on the streets that aren't police officers; you've all seen the ambassadors downtown with the walkie-talkies."

She urged the business people to "keep your eyes and your mind open."

"It's a way of helping your neighborhood and a way of keeping your business district healthy," she said.

Before concluding, Ms. Fitzgibbons touched on two façade programs offered in the city to help business owners.

The Mayor's Storefront Renovation Program is available to all businesses in the city and is a matching grant of up to $5,000.

The Street Face program is for larger projects, up to $30,000, where the façade is restored. She said it's a loan program at 0 percent interest.

Ms. Fitzgibbons said any business owner interested in either program can give her a call at the URA, 421-255-6686, and she will be able to connect them to the right contact for the program.

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