South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Margaret L. Smykla
Contributing Writer 

Consultants ask for input on future of South Side business


A community meeting to help develop priority actions strengthening the East Carson Street business district drew about 65 attendees to the South Side Market House on July 12.

“We’re in this journey in which you are the most valuable component right now,” city Councilman Bruce Kraus said.

Josette Fitzgibbons, neighborhood business district manager for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA), said the URA and the City of Pittsburgh, along with several South Side community groups, have been working to develop a community-driven, three- to five-year business district blueprint for strengthening East Carson Street from S. 10th Street to S. 25th Street.

Plan funding is from the URA and the city.

Ms. Fitzgibbons said what is needed is a look at the business district as a whole: what businesses are doing; which is having overflow crowds; which businesses are struggling; and more, or what she referred to as “boots on the ground.”

She said a void was created with the closing of the South Side Local Development Co. (SSLDC), which was to be the “eyes and ears” every day for East Carson Street

Ms. Fitzgibbons said a plan would not be unveiled that evening; rather, attendees’ input would be solicited into what the next steps should be.

She explained the process that evening would consist of two components: an overview, and small group discussion on these topics: vacant storefronts, reputation to improve, and business mix.

In the overview, she said it all started over a year ago talking with Mr. Kraus “on what the next step should be on East Carson Street.”

“No one has taken a good look at East Carson Street in terms of business strategy in a long time,” she said. An RFP (request for proposal) for a consultant was developed.

Following review of submissions by a proposals team, the $40,000 consultant contract was awarded to Fourth Economy, a national community and economic development consulting firm based in Pittsburgh.

In her presentation, project manager Jamie Reese, of Fourth Economy, said the evening’s community meeting was the first step in developing strategies for East Carson Street

She said Fourth Economy’s task is: community and stakeholder engagement, producing a market analysis, analyzing the nighttime economy, and undertaking a policy review.

The “positives” she and her team heard about South Side were its being eclectic, convenient, walkable, and fun. “Negatives” were reputation, parking, and litter.

When asked by Fourth Economy what they might like to see on East Carson Street, respondents suggested: specialty shops; quality restaurants; more events; pop-up shops; clean, brightly-lit; and better understanding of South Side.

In her economic overview, Ms. Reese said South Side (15203 zip code) leads job growth in the area with a 35 percent increase in jobs from 2005-2015, well above the 7 percent of Pittsburgh and 2 percent for the market area (10-minute drive time).

There was also growth in the number of residents. The South Side population increased from 8,933 in 2000 to 10,015 in 2016. At the same time, the populations of Pittsburgh and the market area declined.

The top five job sectors in the 15203 Zip Code, in order: accommodation and food services; healthcare and social assistance; professional, scientific, and technical services; retail trade; and manufacturing.

Regarding the nighttime economy, Ms. Reese said the total effect of the nighttime economic outputs, directly and indirectly, is $304.1 million. Of that, $32.5 million is paid in taxes and parking fees.

Despite the financial success, there are under-served categories: general merchandise stores, motor vehicle and parts dealers, gas stations, and furniture/home furnishings.

In conclusion, Ms. Reese said the major takeaway is that East Carson Street must define its niche compared to other nearby business districts, including those in the South Hills.

Attendees then broke into four groups, with two groups assigned to discuss business mix and each of the other two groups directed to focus on, respectively, vacant storefronts and marketing/reputation.

In one of the business mix groups, facilitator Henry Horn-Pyatt, Small Business and Redevelopment manager, Office of Mayor Peduto, asked the group what they liked best about East Carson Street. Responses included: the variety of businesses/attractions, diversity and vibrancy, restaurants, and talking to people passing by.

What they liked least about the street elicited these responses: trying to find parking, litter, negative reputation from college students, loud voices and bad language on weekends, overall uncleanliness.

A business owner, whose store windows were broken twice, cited vagrancy and crime.

“It is scary at times, and does chase away our customers,” she said of vagrants.

Another group member lamented the absence of once-flourishing women’s boutiques.

“Everything is for really young kids,” she said.

Group members were then asked for ideas on how to lure in the restaurants and specialty shops they want.

Those ideas included: lower rents, emphasizing the area’s cultural identity, developing a marketing campaign, cooperating with community groups, sharing business spaces, emphasizing growing population, more public art, clean-ups on a regular basis, targeting small boutiques, and limiting less savory shops.

In the other business mix group, to the question of what would improve South Side, group members contributed: better police enforcement of loitering, better city enforcement of codes regarding litter and ice/snow removal, cleaner streets, greenery, more lighting, dog friendly, bike lanes, early breakfast sites, increased public transportation and ride sharing, pastry shops, and more.

Under High Impact-Low Difficulty on a poster board the group listed aggressive trash removal (beyond weekly Public Works), greenery, and push importance of historic fabric.

Under High Impact-High Difficulty were listed better public transit and a parking garage.

In the vacant storefronts group, High Impact-Low Difficulty included these items: improve image of South Side; connect space to a business; engage a local realtor to represent owners; establish a database of vacant spaces; and educate retail owners on how to use social media to stay viable and not fail.

High Impact-High Difficulty suggestions included figuring out who the absentee landlords are; develop a database of absentee landlords; infrastructure (remove overhead wires; install new complete sidewalks); and cameras.

Another suggestion was to provide grants to business owners to improve their property before they become vacant or connect potential business owners with grants.

In the marketing group, it was discussed that the negative perception some people have of East Carson Street discourages visitors from coming to the neighborhood and enjoying the amenities, including businesses and cultural destinations.

South Side would benefit from effectively communicating the other available amenities to address the negative perception and attract more residents, visitors, and businesses.

One suggestion was creating a marketing/branding awareness to attract visitors. Those who should be engaged in the effort include the South Side Chamber of Commerce, South Side Community Council, residents, churches, students, real estate agents, and more.

A suggested slogan was “South Side: The World at Your Feet.”

At meeting’s end, Ms. Fitzgibbons said the next step is compilation of the information collected that evening. In the fall, the evening’s attendees will be contacted again to work on areas of interest. They may decline, of course, but the hope is that they agree to continue in the process.

“What we learned tonight is there are a lot of very complicated issues,” Ms. Reese said.

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