Allentown start-up businesses share space in old hardware store


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The neighborhood hardware store had its day in the 20th century, but a vacant one will give Allentown a 21st century boost when it opens later this month as The Hardware Store, a co-working incubator of start-up media production and crowd-sourcing companies.

Bud's Hardware at 744 E. Warrington Ave. had been closed for about five years when Josh Lucas went in search of a co-working space big enough for his nascent start-up, Crowdasaurus, and 30 others. Crowdasaurus helps clients find compatible host sites for fundraising.

Mr. Lucas lives in Mount Washington and decided to ask the Mount Washington Community Development Corp. for help. "I rolled in there and said, 'Give me a building and I'll start a co-working place.' "

The community group contracts with the Urban Redevelopment Authority to run Allentown's state-funded Main Street program, and in his role as the CDC's executive director, Jason Kambitsis knew the old hardware store was available.

"I knew the building in Allentown, so I called Joe Calloway," the owner, Mr. Kambitsis said. "We talked about the idea and he said, 'Sounds great, bring 'em down.' "

"There's nothing like this on this side of the city," Mr. Lucas said inside the old store, a roughly 22-by-100 square-foot building with brick walls painted white. He and several future tenants spent the past weeks making it habitable for their use. The basement is equipped with a full production suite for audio, video and pod-casting.

"I could have found a place in the East End, but there are five or six co-working spaces there. I thought this area needed and could benefit from one."

Allentown is also affordable: Mr. Kambitsis said Main Street money will cover rent of the space for a year -- $600 a month for the first floor and basement -- so the companies can cover their own costs.

"The concept to us is to create a high-tech community that transcends both neighborhoods," Mr. Kambitsis said. "Investments in one help the other."

The community group has been working to promote seamlessness between them, with greening projects, facade enhancements and security cameras. He said he hopes additional investments "could force the issue of bringing the trolley back."

A high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Lucas plans to launch Crowdasaurus in August, in the company of "freelance media producers and start-ups like us," he said. "I see mutually beneficial possibilities" in the mix.

"I think it will be great for the neighborhood to have young entrepreneurs who are renting space," said Judy Hackel, vice-president of the Allentown Community Development Corp., an all-volunteer nonprofit. "It's part of the new Pittsburgh."

Allentown, a low-income neighborhood with a few attractions and not much name recognition, sits among Mount Washington, the Southside Slopes, Beltzhooveer and Knoxville.

"The location is perfect, there's plenty of parking and property is reasonably priced, but you can't get small businesses to come into Allentown," Ms. Hackel said. "There just isn't enough business for them." She said she hopes that the Hardware Store could begin to shift the dynamic.

She noted that the people who staff 25-30 start-ups and their clients "need to eat somewhere," which could prompt new businesses to open on Warrington. "So this is a first step."

Tony Marghella, one of three partners in the animation and videography company Mayoflux, said he expects to move in on July 1, rent a desk for $150 a month and have access to the green screen and production studio downstairs. "I did work for Josh in the past and he called to see if I'd be interested," said Mr. Marghella, whose previous offices have been in cafes. "All the equipment I own is portable, and it's time consuming to move it."

He said the massing of small start-ups will give each of them access to partners for bigger jobs.

"I had never been through Allentown," he said, "but the neighbors there during the day seem to be pretty relaxed. I will have clients come in, so the trolley could be a nice asset someday."

Mr. Lucas said that after renting desks and getting the studio up and running, his "phase two" is to be good for the neighborhood, "not as a static piece of gentrification but to bring resources that will have meaning to people who live here."

neigh_city - businessnews

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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