Free wireless Internet service for anyone working or hanging out along Warrington Avenue. Dog-friendly amenities like water bowls and treats for shoppers in Shadyside. A pop-up holiday artist market in an empty storefront on East Ohio Street. A crowd-funding website exclusively for small businesses Downtown.

In pocket communities around Pittsburgh, inventive projects such as these are being launched to help boost economic development in specific business districts—all with some help from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh’s Biz Buzz Small Grant program.

Biz Buzz is designed to spur neighborhood business district revitalization through short- and medium-term projects and activities, according to Josette Fitzgibbons, URA’s Neighborhood Business District Manager. “It’s about bringing newcomers into our neighborhoods and, as its name implies, creating a buzz about them, through media and word-of-mouth.”

To qualify, a Biz Buzz project must be unique and creative, and be able to be accomplished by volunteers working with businesses.

Welcome to Allentown, now at the forefront of technology with its wireless connection. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Welcome to Allentown, now at the forefront of technology with its wireless connection. Photo by Brian Cohen.

The most recent Biz Buzz project to be approved is a joint project among the Mt. Washington CDC, Allentown CDC and the Hilltop Alliance. The installation of a wireless mesh network will deliver free Internet connectivity to the business district of Allentown—spanning Warrington Avenue from Beltzhoover Avenue to Arlington Avenue. The project builds on momentum created by the development of The Hardware Store, a co-working space and tech incubator housed in a previously vacant Warrington Avenue storefront.

“These types of mesh networks are more prevalent in Europe,” explains James Eash, Director of Economic Development at Mt. Washington CDC. “This project puts Allentown on the forefront of this technology and on the map as one of the larger networks in the United States. Unencumbered access to the Internet saturating the biz district of Allentown will encourage pedestrian activity, incentivize new businesses and allows for other startups interested in open networks to explore the unique resources available on Warrington Avenue.”

Yet its value extends beyond even that, as Eash points out. “It addresses the whole concept of the digital divide—meaning, the gap in communities, especially low-income, where there’s a lack of access to Internet service. This project is an important step in helping to bridge that digital divide.”

The project must be one that can be done in 48 hours, 48 days or 48 months. That’s roughly over a weekend, a month or a year.

“I tell candidates that we don’t fund annual sidewalk sales,” Fitzgibbons comments. “We want to do something cool that’s a little different, and that highlights what’s special and unique about a district and neighborhood. The goal is to make people outside the neighborhood take notice of it.”

All business districts in the City of Pittsburgh are eligible. Applications are accepted from chambers of commerce, business associations, community organizations and community development corporations. “It’s for business districts only—the money is not given to individual businesses,” Fitzgibbons explains. “It’s given to the organization that makes the application.” The maximum grant is $7,000.

Entertainment outside Canon Coffee on Brookline Blvd.

Entertainment outside Canon Coffee on Brookline Blvd.

Biz Buzz’ inaugural project took place from August to November 2012 in Brookline when the Brookline Chamber of Commerce used a $2,700 Biz Buzz grant to create a buyer’s reward promotion called “Because You’re Mine, I Shop the Line.”

Brookline Boulevard shoppers could save their receipts and earn Boulevard Bucks good for use in any of the stores along the street. The project dovetailed nicely with the district’s “Shop the Line” project to renovate sidewalks and repair roads. “The buyer’s reward promotion really helped to keep people coming into the shops during that construction,” says Nathan Mallory of the Brookline Chamber of Commerce.

David Hance of the Highland Park CDC and their Bite of Bryant event. Photo by Brian Cohen

David Hance of the Highland Park CDC and their Bite of Bryant event. Photo by Brian Cohen

Over in Highland Park, in conjunction with the Phase I groundbreaking of their development in October 2012, the Highland Park Community Development Corporation hosted a food happy hour at participating Bryant Street restaurants called Bite of Bryant Street, along with other events that spotlighted Highland Park’s commercial district.

A $7,000 Biz Buzz grant was applied towards wayfinding banners along Bryant Street. “We were able to hire Wall to Wall Studios to design and produce the banners,” says David Hance, president of the Highland Park Community Development Corporation. “Bryant Street can be a bit hard to find. The banners brought attention to it and also took the street’s presence out to other connecting streets like Negley and Highland.”

The banners were unveiled at the Bite of Bryant Street event, which included an appearance by the Mayor for the groundbreaking for Phase II of CDC’s development: a three–story building with retail/commercial space on the ground floor and townhouse apartments above (slated for completion by December 2014). Restaurants along the street offered small bites to passersby. “We were able to generate a lot of activity and interest, and there was a nice synergy among all of these events,” Hance says. “That Biz Buzz grant allowed us to get a lot of exposure for a small amount of money, including media exposure.”

Last year, $7,000 was granted to the Brighton Heights Citizens Federation to sponsor a series of markets on California Avenue in Brighton Heights on the second Saturday of each month, June through September. At the California Markets event, more than 50 local artists and other vendors participated.

BHtsjune-8-2 copy

At the California Market in Brighton Heights.

The day’s festivities included a fashion show, parade, live music, a barbeque and a home beer brew-off. More than 1,000 people turned out to enjoy the fun. “It was so successful that we did it again in October, and we’re planning it for this summer, as well,” comments Lauren Stauffer, corresponding secretary for the Brighton Heights Citizens Federation.

They hosted another on June 28th, featuring the grand opening of “Johnny Angel Ginchy Stuff, ” a memorabilia and antiques store owned by Johnny Angel of “Halos” fame. The California Markets has already proved to be phenomenal for the community. “When we started writing the Biz Buzz grant, California Avenue was 50% vacant,” Stauffer says. “There was so much transformation from the energy of that first event that by the time it was done, we were 90% full. Today, we’re at 100% occupancy.”

Other nifty Biz Buzz projects have included Bark Shadyside in March 2013. As part of its “Think Shadyside” theme, the Shadyside Chamber of Commerce developed this project to help promote the business districts as dog-friendly.The awarded $7,000 was used to host a Pup Walk; 169 dogs and their owners participated, and $1,835 was raised for the Animal Rescue League and Shelter and Wildlife Center.

At Bark Shadyside. Photo by Jenny Karlsson.

At Bark Shadyside. Photo by Jenny Karlsson.

During the walk, dog-friendly amenities such as water bowls and fully stocked treat jars were provided to about 50 participating businesses, as well as dog waste bag dispensers and neighborhood walking maps.

In the heart of Downtown, Biz Buzz granted $7,000 to the Pittsburgh Downtown CDC in October 2013 for HATCH, a project that launched a crowd-funding website for local small businesses.

In the East Allegheny and historic Deutschtown neighborhoods, a $7,000 award to the Northside Leadership Conference in November and December 2013 resulted in the New Allegheny Market House, a holiday artist pop-up market in an empty storefront on East Ohio Street.

Also during November 2013, another $7,000 grant to the Oakland Business Improvement District–in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University and South Craig Street and Fifth/Forbes businesses–resented the “Shop Small, Shop Oakland” promotion to encourage folks to shop local on Small Business Saturday.

Money was also awarded to the South Side Chamber of Commerce this past March to set up a parking and transportation center for St. Patrick’s Day. An entire block along East Carson Street was made available for valets, a shuttle service and a cabstand. “That was a pilot project for them and it was a success, so they will probably do it again next March,” Fitzgibbons comments.

Interested in applying for a Biz Buzz grant? “Highlight what’s unique in your district,” Fitzgibbons advises. “Do something that will bring new people into your district—either new business or customers. So when people hear that something cool is happening in that district, it will prompt them to drive by it on their way home from work that evening and check it out.” And in the process create some buzz.