Ravenstahl forms group for Downtown retailers

Association, part of mayor's greater strategy to revive area, can help with networking

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When it comes to retail Downtown, Michael Tarquinio wants to feel a little less like a lone ranger.

"It seems like each retailer, no matter what business you're in, you're out there on your own," said Mr. Tarquinio, who recently opened Sal's City Deli at Liberty Avenue and Seventh Street.

Mr. Tarquinio, former manager of the Clark Building, would like to see more collaboration and cooperation among retailers Downtown, as would Tamara Barker, owner of Boutique 208 on Sixth Street.

Both may soon get their wish.

A Downtown retailers association now in the works is aimed at giving merchants a greater voice in the decision making that affects them, while at the same time serving as a vehicle to foster cooperation among them.

The creation of the association is part of a multi-faceted strategy developed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and the task force he appointed to improve the retail climate Downtown.

Yarone Zober, the mayor's chief of staff, said he sees the association helping retailers to coordinate sales, promotions or other activities, much like suburban malls and even some neighborhood commercial districts promote sidewalk sales and other initiatives to assist merchants.

"That's the same kind of energy that can be brought to Downtown. There are a number of retailers that don't feel connected with one another or the broader theme of what's going on Downtown," he said. "That can change for the better if everyone is working together."

John Valentine, executive director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Community Development Corp., is helping the city set up the association. He already has lined up nine retailers who are interested in being part of it, including Mr. Tarquinio and Ms. Barker. The first meeting is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 16.

Mr. Valentine envisions the association being particularly helpful to smaller and independent merchants, the ones he believes are crucial to the success of the Downtown retail corridor.

"It will become an advocacy group for some smaller businesses Downtown that may not have a big enough voice to get things done," he said.

Ms. Barker views the association as a way for retailers to network with one another and to join together for Downtown-wide promotions.

She cited as one example of the latter the recent initiative in which some Downtown retailers stayed open until 8 p.m. and offered discount coupons to Golden Triangle restaurants to shoppers who made purchases.

"I'd like to see more of that, where we're all working together to help each other," Ms. Barker said.

Mr. Tarquinio agreed.

"To have some unity or continuity, I think, would be very positive, not only for each individual business person but for Downtown business in general," he said. "For larger businesses, there may not be a need. But certainly the guys renting 1,200 square feet and opening a sandwich shop, a jewelry store or a pretzel place, there's at least something where we can be one."

Joining together also could give retailers more clout when pushing for change, added Charles Schaldenbrand, owner of Heinz Healey's men's store. "I think it's a good idea. I don't see any downside to it," he said.

Mr. Valentine does not believe the retailers association will duplicate the work of his Downtown community development corporation, one focused mainly on recruiting and retaining retailers.

"Part of retention is making sure businesses are happy. The advocacy will fall under that," he said.

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, which does a lot of work marketing and promoting Downtown, will be complementing the work of the association and may provide some staffing help for projects, PDP president and CEO Jeremy Waldrup said.

"The PDP currently markets Downtown establishments and will do so in conjunction with the retailers association," he wrote in an e-mail. "We will continue to be a voice for all Downtown stakeholders and look forward to working with the city and the stakeholder group in support of the retail community."

Mr. Zober said he's not sure there's a need to fund the retailers association at this point. Funding can be addressed as needs arise, he added.

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Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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