Alliance business support expands into Mt. Oliver
Meg O'Brien will be working in Hilltop business corridors
September 14, 2021
It's not your father's Allentown business district, anymore.
Over the past six years the Hilltop Alliance (HA) has succeeded in attracting close to 50 new businesses to the small neighborhood business corridor. Kickstarted in 2014 with the award of a Neighborhood Partnership Program, a tax credit program through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).
Now, with a vacancy rate approaching less than five percent in Allentown, Hilltop Alliance Executive Director Aaron Sukenik says the focus going forward is less about filling storefronts and more about supporting new and existing businesses.
Strategy for accomplishing the goal included fund raising for a new signage program for business with a higher dollar amount; a continued emphasis on public safety; financial support for the Allentown Community Development Corp's. (ACSC) street cleaning program; marketing, promotion and events support; and, the HA's hiring of a Director of Economic Development.
Ms. O'Brien comes to the Hilltop from Detroit where she was the Public Space Manager for the Downtown Detroit Partnership, a Business Improvement District. She relocated to Pittsburgh to be closer to family and has taken up residence in the South Side Slopes, a Hilltop Alliance neighborhood.
Mr. Sukenik explained that for about the last 18 months the Alliance and the Hilltop Economic Development Corporation, the non-profit all-volunteer development organization in the Knoxville/Mt. Oliver area and a member organization, have been having discussions about formalizing the arrangement.
Under the arrangement, the HA staff would help run and administer the HEDC's Business District Program. While the Alliance created the Allentown Business District Program from scratch over the past six or seven years, the HEDC already has a portfolio of subsidy programs for small businesses including façade, rent abatement and marketing and technical assistance grants.
As an all-volunteer organization, Mr. Sukenik said the HEDC had the programs to attract and help small businesses, but didn't have the staff capacity to recruit new businesses and actively interface with property owners to tap into those programs.
He explained the HEDC utilized a grant from Allegheny Together to formulate a business district plan for the area.
"The turnkey plan was there, but the staff support wasn't," he added. "So, we formed this partnership to pursue funding."
In addition to Ms. O'Brien, the Hilltop Alliance will have a Communications Coordinator working across both business districts.
Rick Hopkinson, an HEDC Board Member and the Mt. Oliver Borough Manager, said a Hillman Foundation grant facilitated them being able to contract with the Alliance. In the past, HEDC worked with the former Economic Development South which he described as more "project focused."
Mr. Hopkinson noted they recently received a Keystone Community grant that will help to pay for up to 10 more façade improvement grants along Brownsville Road.
"I think we can get a lot more done, quicker," he said of the staff support through the Alliance.
Some of the goals the HEDC has for the business district are to help as many businesses as possible while improving the atmosphere of the district. In attracting new businesses, they would be interested in those that are neighborhood serving but also others that aren't necessarily dependent upon foot traffic.
He said they would like to attract businesses with diversified revenue streams. He used Forma Pasta in Allentown as an example of a business that has a retail storefront, but also offers subscription-based products.
While the business district plan includes the 100-500 blocks of Brownsville Road, Mr. Hopkinson said the focus of the Hilltop Alliance's work will be in the core business district between the clock tower and Arlington Avenue.
He added Ms. O'Brien would also have a greater role in organizing the education, networking and workshop events the HEDC has been conducting.
"I think the HEDC has laid the groundwork and the partnership with Hilltop Alliance will result in visible improvements," Mr. Hopkinson said.
For her part, Ms. O'Brien is working on building relationships with the business people in both communities. She is looking forward to the opportunity to connect resources and systems to local grassroots entrepreneurs and business owners in the Hilltop.
She said the goals and outcomes for the two business districts are different.
In the Brownsville Road corridor, she will be working on attracting and retaining new businesses, facilitating commercial property renovation and on the education and networking events.
Ms. Obrien pointed out a challenge that is also an opportunity in Mt. Oliver is the available commercial space. Mr. Sukenik added that a more deliberate approach to recruiting established businesses that don't necessarily depend on walk-in traffic may be needed to avoid a high rate of failure.
A goal of Ms. O'Brien is to work with new and existing businesses along Brownsville Road to ensure when they are applying for grants, loans and assistance that they have a clear understanding of their business plan and the market they are trying to reach.
We want to make sure they are set up for success, she said.
Over in the Warrington Avenue corridor, an emphasis is being placed on helping businesses resume operations after COVID, special events and, potentially, commercial renovation. She noted although the Allentown district is almost at 100 percent occupancy, the rent abatement program is still available for those available properties.
Mr. Sukenik said they are also pursuing a Neighborhood Initiative Grant that if awarded will be used not only for the enhanced business signage programs but also gateway signage and a new business directory.
Ms. O'Brien can be reached at the Hilltop Alliance by calling 412-586-5807 ext. 1 or firstname.lastname@example.org.