More Than Money
Issue #40

Money and Relationships

Table of Contents

“The Business of Business - Revitalizing Community Relationships. A Conversation with Mark Peluso”

Personal Stories

As told to Pamela Gerloff

One of the rewards of the work I do is being able to bring some of the best concepts I've observed over the years back to my own hometown. In Beaver, Pennsylvania, where I live, our staff set out to try a small but ultimately very satisfying experiment. Through a development we refer to as "The Market Place," we replaced a chain convenience store and gas station (which was slated to close) with a locally-owned restaurant, café, and deli, and with residential apartments over the storefronts. On the surface, it was a real estate project, but in fact it was-and I hope will continue to be-much more than that.

Beaver has a population of about 5,000, is located 20 minutes from the Pittsburgh airport, and has a major shopping mall just five minutes away. Many people are surprised to see such a substantial collection of independent stores-including a hardware store, a children's clothing store, a supermarket, a small drug store, flower shops, and a wide-array of restaurants-not only surviving, but actually thriving in this small-town setting. New businesses are going in, and there are only two vacancies in the entire downtown right now. We also have two large condominium developments going up on the edge of the business district, spurred on by the vitality of our downtown.

All of this is here because people had a lot of pride in what this community could become. This is not an affluent area, but the community decided to put significant resources into its downtown. By demonstrating a long-term commitment to revitalizing the business district, the town encouraged entrepreneurs to get on board and to take risks.

Our firm's goal with this project was to create physical spaces that would attract quality businesses and a diverse residential mix. We saw our job as creating an environment- through the right combination of architecture and size-that would be both attractive and efficient. The storefront square footages had to be scaled down to be affordable for small business owners, but kept large enough to accommodate sufficient customers to be profitable. Then it became the job of the entrepreneurs to run the new businesses in a way that would create community places that people would love to go to.

Fortunately, our experiment has worked out very well. The apartments attracted a waiting list of prospective residents. The café, restaurant, and deli owners are well-qualified and hard-working entrepreneurs, and their businesses are already thought of as community institutions. At Café Kolache, for example, as soon as you walk in the door you see that people are smiling; they're happy to be there. All of a sudden, you feel, "I'm here in a real community." [See " Café Kolache: The Small-Town Difference ," p. 17.]

Resources

National Trust Main Street Center
Combines historic preservation with economic development to restore prosperity and vitality to downtowns and neighborhood business districts nationwide. Has more than 1,200 active Main Street programs nationally.
202.588.6219
www.mainstreet.org

Project for Public Spaces
Offers research, workshops, and services for preserving, creating, and enhancing public spaces to build community.
212.620.5660
www.pps.org

Town Center Associates
A Pennsylvania-based planning and management firm that assists communities in revitalizing their downtown business districts.
724.728.9400
www.towncenter.info

This is something that suburban areas, and even a lot of other small towns, don't have: a central business district that's really the heart of the community. A lot of people don't miss it because they've never had it, but for those of us who have experienced it, it's exciting to help keep it alive. I think that these new establishments on Main Street and the new residents living above them have strengthened our town's existing businesses. I hope the success of The Market Place will encourage other downtown business owners to feel more confident investing in their own businesses and in the community itself.

Our firm provides professional support services to a lot of municipalities, and so I see many opportunities for projects similar to The Market Place. The towns we work with are of different shapes and sizes, but they all have an underlying core of people who believe strongly in their downtown community and are determined to help it survive. In a small town, there isn't much margin for error. The good news is that a competent business-person can rapidly get attention in a small community, and people will quickly and loyally patronize their business. Our town is one example of what can happen when commercial and community interests come together to create something that benefits everyone.

Mark Peluso is a commercial real estate broker in Pennsylvania. His firm, Town Center Associates ( www.towncenter.info ), assists communities in revitalizing their downtown business districts.

The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and Place
By John Abrams, foreword by William Greider
(Chelsea Green, 2005)

This fascinating book is fundamentally about relationships: relationships among employees, and between a business and its surrounding community. It chronicles the transformation of the author's sole proprietorship business on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, into an employee-owned, cooperative corporation actively engaged in making a profit and solving the problems of the island, such as suburban sprawl, environmental degradation, and lack of affordable housing. Abrams draws on his own experience and that of other small companies and cooperatives to describe the benefits to our society of optimally-sized businesses that are firmly rooted in their communities. (Reviewed by Jane Gerloff)


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