When you think of a partnership, you might think of Simon and Garfunkel, Ben and Jerry, Abbott and Costello or Thelma and Louise. You probably wouldn’t think of shopping and dining in Mt. Lebanon.
The Mt. Lebanon Partnership wishes you would.
The Partnership is a 19-member, all-volunteer non-profit community development corporation. Its bylaws list 15 ambitious goals with the purpose of making Mt. Lebanon “The Main Street of the South Hills, a true destination where businesses and community come together.” The Partnership supports all of Mt. Lebanon’s business areas, but focuses most on Washington Road, the central business district.
You may not have heard of the group or know that it promotes economic growth by attracting and retaining vibrant businesses or that it improves the look of Uptown by providing signs and banners or that it helps to diversify the retail mix. But you probably have attended at least one of the events it presents to attract people to Mt. Lebanon: ULTRAparty, Plein Air, the Uptown Farmers Market, Winterfest, Tour de Mt. Lebanon and First Friday.
Now, with a new president, a part-time event planner, a new website and a comprehensive five-year work plan, the Partnership hopes to promote economic vitality by getting you through the doors of Mt. Lebanon’s shops, services and eateries.
It’s not a new concept. Local officials and volunteer groups have been studying how to make Washington Road a destination since the mid-1960s when Joseph Horne’s department store was on the road. In 1985, a small non-profit group called Uptown Mt. Lebanon organized to register Washington Road as an official Main Street community, a state designation that would allow businesses to apply for grants and loans. Although it was turned down for the status because it didn’t qualify then, the group pushed ahead with its work anyway, improving the streetscape and tackling other issues like parking and promoting businesses.
Without sustainable funding, Uptown Mt. Lebanon fizzled. Mt. Lebanon Municipal Manager Steve Feller repurposed the municipality’s economic development officer position to include the duties of a main street manager, and in 2005, Washington Road entered the National Main Street Program administered by the National Main Street Center of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. That elite designation was renewed this year through Keystone Communities, the state program Governor Tom Corbett’s administration created.
Although the Partnership is independent of municipal government, two Commissioners, John Bendel and Kristen Linfante, serve on the board, and the Economic Development Council has a strong presence. Also, Commercial Districts Manager Eric Milliron is the staff liaison, and is deeply involved in helping the Partnership achieve its goals. You can spot him scurrying about at every event, travel coffee mug in hand, his carabiner filled with keys, troubleshooting a broken generator or calming an upset volunteer on his cellphone.
“My greatest hope for the Partnership in the next five years is that the organization has a financial sustainability plan in place and is executing it. The biggest challenge for this group is finding the time to do the things they set out to do. This is an all-volunteer board, so the Partnership’s efforts come against work and family obligations.”
Rebecca Wanovich, one of the owners of Pierson & Scott Insurance Agency and a Partnership member since 2010, stepped into the role of president this summer. “I’ve got a learning curve ahead,” she says, noting she was involved with ULTRAparty even before she joined the board. She says increasing volunteer participation at Partnership events is crucial. “There’s a great opportunity to get involved in the community and pull these things off,” she says.
Steve Denenberg, a two-year member of the Partnership, is celebrating the 40th year of his business, Create A Frame/Handworks Gallery, 615 Washington Road, which has been in several Washington Road locations since it opened in 1975.
For him and other local entrepreneurs, the events are the biggest benefits of the Partnership’s work. “The whole purpose is to bring people up to Washington Road,” he says. Although they may not patronize the business during the event, customers can easily see the businesses on the road and return later, he says.
Businesses aren’t the only winners, Denenberg says. The Mt. Lebanon Arts Initiative, established as part of the Plein Air arts festival, awarded $3,000 in grants to local artists this year. Accessible Lebo, which receives funds from ULTRAparty, installed play equipment for those with different abilities in Martha’s Playground last year. “I think we’re doing a lot of good things for the community,” Denenberg says.
Funding the Partnership is a challenge. While it has received $5,000 annual grants from the municipality the last few years, its primary revenue sources are the same fundraisers it uses to promote the town. But the money can fluctuate wildly. Torrential downpours before ULTRAparty this year meant the event only netted $9,000, a low number compared to previous years. Although its budget has never exceeded $100,000, it gives 75 percent of proceeds to the designated beneficiaries, while keeping only 25 percent for organizational expenses and seed money to develop events and programs, Wanovich says.
The Partnership’s five-year work plan began in 2013 and includes:
PROMOTION: Plan unique events that highlight Uptown’s special place in Pittsburgh. (Plein Air, ULTRAparty, Uptown Farmers Market, Winterfest, Tour de Mt. Lebanon, First Friday). Raise awareness about Uptown through social media, partnerships with regional organizations and other Main Street Communities.
DESIGN: Make Uptown pedestrian/bike friendly. Install bike racks and corrals; develop safe cycling routes; organize a bike/pedestrian committee. Improve the appearance by reviewing and updating design guidelines and applying to receive state façade grants.
ORGANIZATION: Hired event planner Carla Clipper; develop sponsorships; attend training programs.
ECONOMIC RESTRUCTURING: Help coordinate development project near light rail transit station. Work to balance property uses on Main Street, such as giving technical assistance to prospective businesses.
Bendel says another opportunity is for the group to use its ability to buy, hold and improve property to benefit the municipality. That option isn’t being used now because the Partnership doesn’t yet have the resources. “But we may have more opportunity to do that,” he says, noting it could be “the next frontier.”
Wanovich says filling the few open spots on Washington Road is important. “I think we’re doing a really good job. Our vacancies are really low. [But] Our work isn’t done.” Helping to find a nice mix between retail, food and service is a challenge but important, she says. “It upsets me to see buildings like the Denis not moving forward, but we’ll keep working.”
One idea she embraces is the concept of a Maker Faire, an event that would draw technology and inventors together. It would be new to our area, she says, with the exception of the mini-faire held at the Children’s Museum last year.
Milliron also hopes the Partnership will be able to launch a strategic plan for Uptown. The last one, done in 1994, is the often-referred to “Strategic Plan for Uptown Washington Road.” Prepared by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based architect and urban designer Chan Kreiger, it has served as one of the highest rated and widely-used documents for Mt., Lebanon municipal decision-making for 20 years.
Wanovich, Milliron and Bendel all say the Partnership’s biggest asset is its volunteers.
“The Partnership has a lot of talented people who are very passionate about Mt. Lebanon,” Bendel says. “I think that’s what’s made it successful so far.”