Bellevue hoping for second revitalization

Bellevue is among some 10 communities competing to become the next chosen for a business district revitalization program.

Representatives of the Allegheny County economic development department, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and Town Center Associates told Bellevue officials at Tuesday's borough council meeting that they work through the Allegheny Together program to provide resources to municipalities hoping to revitalize main street business districts.

County business development department representative Jessica Mooney said that the Allegheny Together program currently is in its third year, and includes six municipalities.

Should Bellevue be accepted for the fourth year of Allegheny Together, Mooney said that a variety of experts and consultants would be brought in to develop a foundation for future development of the Lincoln Avenue business district.

The program itself is reminiscent of the revitalization project that occurred in Bellevue some 35 years ago. At that time, a separate corporation -- known as the Bellevue Community Development Corp. or BCDC -- was formed, comprised of representatives of the borough council, business district and community at large. With the guidance of a project manager employed by Allegheny County, Bellevue received funding for and completed main street improvements such as decorative lighting and crosswalks, parking lots, and construction of the patio in front of the Central Methodist Church. The program also paid for a part-time public relations person to handle promotion of the town, and business owners received special financing for facade improvements.

This time around, the focus would be more on developing an organization that would focus solely on the main street business district development, said Mooney, who stressed that Allegheny Together was not a grant program.

"Instead of providing a check, we'll provide the services," she said.

In fact, Bellevue would be required to pay $7,500 in the second year of the program, and $15,000 in the third and final year.

For that contribution, however, the borough would receive expert advice and guidance from people such as Ethan Raup of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

Raup said that his organization has been showing business owners how they can restore the unique historical characteristics of their buildings in a way that bolsters local economic development, working since the 1970s in neighborhoods such as the South Side and Manchester.

"We helped make the market...and showed people what was possible," he said.

To that end, he said, Allegheny County will provide matching funds up to $12,500 to business district property owners, and low-interest loans also would be available for revitalizing properties along the main street.

Key to the success of the effort, according to Town Center Associates executive director Mark Peluso, is a strong downtown-focused organization in which the borough government acts as the "mother duck," leading the rest of the community in revitalization.

Former council president and current joint planning commission member Rich Furis questioned the balance of power between the local government and the independent group in light of issues that have arisen with the Bellevue Initiative for Growth (BIG).

Ostensibly an advisory committee created by council president Kathy Coder, the group has drawn criticism from some officials for acting without authority, failing to advertise meetings, and failing to keep council advised of its activities.

Peluso said that the group formed through the Allegheny Together program must have a good working relationship with the borough government. Hopefully, he said, "council will give that group the space it needs to function." Furis added his own hope that the group would give council the information it needed. Peluso agreed. "This is not a secret mission," he said.

Raup said that the energy needed to be successful in Allegheny Together will be created over time, taking "baby steps" to reach the point where "private property owners are willing to take a risk" and invest in the community.

Council voted unanimously to retroactively approve the borough's application to join Allegheny Together. Coder said that she, acting independently, had actually submitted the application herself. Council members Lisa Blaney-Stewart and Linda Woshner were absent.

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