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Mount Washington in Pittsburgh is nationally recognized for its steep, towering hill that crests at a vast, unobstructed view of the city’s skyline and its three rivers. Tourists list it as an essential stop on their travel itineraries, and locals cram into the overlooks to view Fourth of July fireworks.

But oftentimes, people enjoy the vista on Grandview Avenue and turn back around without venturing into the Mount Washington’s commercial thoroughfare. 

“Visitors don’t know all that we have to offer just down the street,” said Howard Todd, owner of both DiFiore’s Ice Cream Delite and Grand Brew café on Shiloh Street, adjacent to the Mount Washington overlook. “We want to somehow grab people’s attention so they come and enjoy some time here.”

Like DiFiore, other business owners, residents and community development leaders have their heads—and determination—in the same place.

They want to see their community’s business district thrive and local economy prosper, and now they have the gumption and seed money to do something about it.

CORE in Pittsburgh

Mount Washington has been chosen as one of several locations nationwide to participate in the Corridors of Retail Excellence (CORE), an initiative of the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, a venture of The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).

The crux of CORE is to breathe new life into commercial corridors that are rich with potential and kept viable by committed, hardworking business owners.

PNC Bank made a significant contribution to LISC so the program could be extended to neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, Chicago and Philadelphia in 2012 and 2013.

By implementing marketing strategies and decreasing retail vacancies, the hope in Mount Washington is to increase the visibility of Shiloh Street and attract more tourists and residents to the businesses currently situated there.

"Conveniently located and vibrant business districts are essential components of strong, resilient neighborhoods."

“We recognize that conveniently located and vibrant business districts are essential components of strong, resilient neighborhoods,” said Stephanie Cipriani, PNC market manager of Community Development Banking. “PNC supports this vision by working with community development leaders, business owners and residents to help make this happen.”

Vickie Pisowicz, owner of Grandview Bakery on Shiloh Street, opened her shop about a year ago and hopes to create an atmosphere conducive to gathering and socializing.

Decorated with bright butterflies and checkered floors, the bakery is cheery and welcoming, with ample amounts of natural light from its front wall of windows. Pisowicz said Mount Washington hasn’t had a bakery in 20 years and since filling that void, Grandview is off to a successful start.

“I think that Shiloh Street is eclectic, and the diversity of the business owners is really what makes this place special,” Pisowicz said.

“If we could just attract people down the street, we would do even better. We are only one block away from Grandview; we need to welcome them from there to here.”

Listening to those who know

LISC launched its CORE effort in Mount Washington in May of this year by having community revitalization professionals visit and assess Grandview Avenue, Shiloh Street and the businesses that dot the landscape there.

The team met with leaders from the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation (MWCDC) and Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development (PPND) and toured the neighborhood while speaking to business owners about ideas for breathing new life into the commercial strip.

Todd, who has owned DiFiore’s Ice Cream Delite for 20 years and the coffee shop for six, explained that many tourists ride the Monongahela Incline each day from Station Square in Pittsburgh to Mount Washington to enjoy the view.

The incline is the oldest continuously operating funicular railway in the United States and is utilized by many Mount Washington residents to commute to work. It’s also an immensely popular Pittsburgh tourist attraction, which transports about 1.5 people to Mount Washington each year.

But once the tourists plateau and spill out onto Grandview Avenue to enjoy the expansive skyline and snap photos, they usually return to the incline for a ride back down the hill.

Todd’s big, bright ice cream cone sign and colorful awning are designed to encourage children to pull their parents’ arms toward Shiloh Street and inside the shop 

He told the LISC consultants that signs like his on fellow business owners’ storefronts and other visual cues would call visitors to Shiloh. He also suggested a brochure at the top or bottom of the incline that lists Mount Washington’s businesses and includes a map.

“That would help this street tremendously,” Todd said.

Len Semplice, owner of both Redbeards Bar & Grill and Packs & Dogs, agreed with Todd’s assessment. He went on to say that increased lighting and repaired sidewalks would also create a more visually appealing and safer corridor for visitors. His outdoor patio, he said, has been doing well and is a hot spot for many locals, but he would very much like to see more tourists patronize both of his establishments.

“If we could add some of these things and have more business owners improve their storefronts, I think it would boost business more,” Semples said.

The business owners also communicated to the consultants that parking, litter, overflowing garbage cans and safety were issues they would like to see addressed. 

The Grandview Bakery on Shiloh Street.

Gary Yon

If you build it, they will come

Another vital aspect of revitalizing Mount Washington’s business district is attracting new business owners.

Although the street is peppered with vibrant storefronts—from the bakery, ice cream parlor and hot dog shop to a florist, restaurant and dry cleaners—some buildings are unoccupied and in need of tenants.

“It would be wonderful to have more businesses join the street,” said Pisowicz, who envisions a souvenir shop, hardware store and a variety of restaurants surrounding her bakery.

Larisa Ortiz Pu-Folkes, one of the LISC consultants focusing on Mount Washington, validated Pisowicz’s opinion, saying that attracting additional businesses to the area will increase revenue for existing business owners and entice more customers to visit.

“If we can help to increase retail and food offerings in this neighborhood then visitors will extend their stays, which will ultimately improve local revenue, increase job offerings and create a better quality of life for Mount Washington residents,” Ortiz Pu-Folkes said.

Time to make a difference

After extensive market research, interviews and collaboration, Ortiz Pu-Folkes, along with MWCDC and PPND representatives, determined a roadmap for action.

Initially, the grant money will go toward the purchase of a brochure kiosk, which will stand at the entrance of the Monongahela Incline. The permanent fixture will hold marketing and promotional materials about Mount Washington and its business district.

Consultants are also creating a neighborhood mobile app, which will encompass a business directory, points of destination, map of the city skyline, walking tours and a map of the local Emerald View Park.

"Low-cost, high-impact projects will give our business district significant improvements in visibility, both literally and promotionally."

A portion of the grant is earmarked as well for business signage, specifically protracting banners that will serve as visual prompts to those who visit the skyline.

“These low-cost, high-impact projects will give our business district significant improvements in visibility, both literally and promotionally,” said Jason Kambitsis, MWCDC director of economic development.

“We’re excited and proud to nurture the existing entrepreneurs in our neighborhood and to help them attract new visitors on top of the million that come to Mount Washington annually and create an influx of potential new merchants.”

LISC will update Mount Washington’s retail attraction packet, which helps the MWCDC pursue new businesses.

Ortiz Pu-Folkes will train community development leaders about how to best utilize the packet’s data and entice specific businesses to the area. For instance, she said, if the MWCDC would like a card and gift shop in the neighborhood, they can learn how to precisely narrow the data to business people who fit that category.

The initiatives are expected to get underway this fall and extend into 2013.

“It will be a great start,” said Todd, who takes significant pride in the Mount Washington neighborhood and his businesses. “We welcome the help and look forward to it.”

Keywords: CORE, Corridors of Retail Excellence, Mount Washington, Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development, PNC Bank, PPND

Posted in Commercial and Economic Development, Pittsburgh

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