Redevelopment speaker stresses how vacant downtown storefronts can change

Beaver County Times (PA), 2014-07-13


July 13 -- ALIQUIPPA -- Vacant storefronts can plague a community.

But it doesn't have to be that way, a county redevelopment consultant said.

That was one of the talking points discussed Friday during the latest installment of the Sip 'n Say series at The Franklin Center.

Downtowns can be revitalized and make a comeback, especially with the next generation, noted Jack Manning , a redevelopment consultant for the county and member of the economic development task force for the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce . He talked with residents about how that redevelopment can happen and explained vacancy issues.

Manning showed data on 24 empty storefronts in Aliquippa . Zero, he said, were available for lease or sale, based off signs or real estate listings.

"You can't develop something that isn't available," he said to the more than 25 people at the gathering. Among those attending were Monaca Manager Mario Leone Jr . and representatives from the offices of Sen. Tim Solobay , D-46, Canonsburg , and state Rep. Rob Matzie , D-16, Ambridge .

He also presented figures about area downtown vacancies. Aliquippa has about 60,000 square feet -- or 37 percent -- of vacant building space in the downtown business district. Ambridge has more than 100,000 square feet vacant, representing 25 percent of its total downtown corridor space, due to 50 unused units, figures showed.

Other vacancy reports and profiles are available at www.beavercountymainstreets.com .

He also pointed out how there's only one commercial grocery store and four retail stores in downtown Aliquippa . He said a wish-list should focus on those commercial areas.

Manning said officials in Ambridge , which has the largest downtown business district, though, have been focusing on its corridor. He said people may have the perception the borough is lacking in redevelopment, but business growth is happening. It's just in disconnected areas, Manning pointed out.

He also noted that there's a millennial push in which younger generations want a bigger sense of community, which can revitalize stagnant downtowns. Manning added such people would rather get paid $40,000 a year and work for a socially responsible company than have a $100,000 salary for a for-profit company only interested in its stock results.

Manning also pointed out Beaver County's diversity rates, one showing 6.4 percent of the population is black, a figure that's much lower than the state and country. He said diverse populations are key to entrepreneurship and economic development.

Streetscape projects also can help transform a deteriorating downtown.

Valerie McElvy , a program director for The Franklin Center, recalled a mural on a formerly vacant building in Bridgewater , where the 1810 Tavern is. The mural depicted a window with flowers as well as a door painted along the building, she said.

A similar idea was considered for an annual Aliquippa art festival for a run-down building across the street from the Broadcast Street Café on Franklin Street . McElvy said she might pursue the idea for this year's festival Sept. 13 .

While communities like New Brighton have transformed their downtown with streetscape projects, Manning suggested other measures can be just as important. He said attractive business signs can create bigger effects than $1 million in streetscape improvements.

The next Sip 'n Say event is at 10 a.m. Aug. 8 and will be about transportation issues, particularly for elderly residents.

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