Nearly a decade ago, Irwin officials started brainstorming about ways to bring shoppers back to Main Street, the borough's once-bustling business district.
Customers had abandoned Irwin's unique shops, cozy eateries and single-screen Lamp Theater for big-box stores, chain restaurants and multiplexes along busy Route 30.
Irwin started by partnering with Penn State University students, who came up with a "conceptual plan" for improvements to the downtown area, borough manager Mary Benko said.
But the plan was useless without money to back it up, so the borough started seeking grant money to fund an ambitious streetscape project, Ms. Benko said. After several years and a $1.9 million Streetscape grant from the state, people gasp when they see the improvements, she said.
"The goal was to draw more people off of Route 30 and guide them into the downtown," she said.
Irwin is just one example of how communities harness grant money from local, state, federal and private sources to fund projects they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford.
Taking baby steps
Two gateways -- one on Route 30 near the Dunkin' Donuts and another on Route 993 at Main Street -- inform drivers that there are more businesses in Irwin than what is along Route 30.
Main Street's sidewalks are lined with cobblestones, trees and planters. Decorative lighting was added to the war memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue, and new fencing and plants spruced up Dan Rose Park -- named for Irwin's longtime mayor -- in the 500 block of Main Street.
"It was a baby-step process," Ms. Benko said.
The next step is the landmark Lamp Theater, which closed in 2005. After the theater changed hands a few times and was damaged in a fire, a group called Relight the Lamp started working to restore the one-screen theater that has been a Main Street fixture since the 1930s.
The borough recently purchased the Lamp Theater building from the Westmoreland Cultural Trust and plans to rehabilitate it into a place for live community theater and movies, Ms. Benko said. The borough has received $500,000 in state and Westmoreland County money to fund the renovations, and the borough plans to chip in $150,000, but additional money will need to be brought in through fundraisers, Ms. Benko said. The theater -- right now "a shell with a stage," Ms. Benko said -- needs electrical and plumbing upgrades, new seats and public restrooms.
Ms. Benko said community support will be essential in bringing back the Lamp, but she's optimistic.
"We feel that's going to be an enormous boon to the redevelopment of downtown Irwin," she said.
Allegheny Together, a county program that started in 2007, helps communities revitalize their business districts through Allegheny County grants, loans and tax-abatement programs. It began with four pilot towns but has since grown to support 11 communities -- Stowe, Aspinwall, Bellevue, Bridgeville, Carnegie, Coraopolis, Dormont, Elizabeth Borough, Homestead, Tarentum and Verona.
Town Center Associates and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation act as consultants for the program. Town Center works to formulate and organize monthly meetings and communicate with towns to develop and implement plans. The history and landmarks foundation focuses more on physical improvements and brick-and-mortar restoration, according to David Farkas, the foundation's Main Street director.
The foundation helps the communities identify, develop and write grant proposals as well as come up with a strategic plan to ensure that the revitalization efforts continue for years to come, Mr. Farkas said.
In Tarentum, for example, the downtown area contained a number of "ghost signs" -- old, painted business signs that, once prominent and colorful, have become faded and worn.
"Unfortunately, time had taken its toll, and they'd become somewhat deteriorated," Mr. Farkas said.
Several of the signs were restored, including the original sign of the landmark Massart's Restaurant, thanks in part to funding from Allegheny County, Mr. Farkas said.
The restoration -- part historic preservation, part public art -- is not only a boon for business owners and residents; it draws tourists to Tarentum, he said.
Variety of projects
In Mt. Lebanon, "we do a lot of things using grant money," municipal manager Steve Feller said.
Right now, the municipality is working on major improvements to allow for better traffic flow along major thoroughfares, Mr. Feller said.
The first, a synchronization of traffic signals along Bower Hill Road, is possible because of a $500,000 grant from the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, he said.
A $1.3 million Congestion Mitigation Air Quality grant from the state is helping to reduce the amount of traffic congestion along Beverly and Cochran roads, Mr. Feller said. All traffic signals along both roads will be replaced and synchronized.
A $100,000 grant from the Allegheny County Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund will pay to upgrade traffic signals at the "complicated intersection" of Bower Hill Road, Segar Road and Greenhurst Drive, he said.
In addition to using grants to improve traffic flow, Mt. Lebanon seeks grant money to fund a variety of other upgrades, Mr. Feller said.
The Veterans Memorial, a $450,000 project, was funded in part by a $220,000 grant from Duquesne Light for the memorial's lighting.
"That project clearly wouldn't have happened without that grant," Mr. Feller said.
And a $585,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency covered more than half the cost of a new ladder truck for the municipality's fire department.
Mr. Feller said the municipality aggressively pursues grant money, and Mt. Lebanon commissioners recently awarded a $35,000 contract to Heart Resources to work with the municipality to identify "funding opportunities that are outside of the norm."
"Foundations are probably the one area that we really think we could use some other expertise to identify ... funds that might be available," he said.
Like those of many smaller communities in Allegheny County, Braddock's ordinances can be viewed only one way: on paper in the borough building.
But that's about to change. The Braddock Economic Development Corp., or BEDCO, applied for and received a grant to digitize all of the borough's ordinances.
The project is managed by Pittsburgh Cares through an AmeriCorps Vista program called HandsOn Tech, which is part of the national HandsOn Network. With Google's help, volunteers with technical expertise implement projects for nonprofits in need.
The borough's laws are now being scanned into computers by a team of volunteers, said Annie Bontempo of HandsOn Tech. After that, the PDF documents will be uploaded into a Google document that can translate the words into searchable text, she said.
After the project is completed, Ms. Bontempo said, the volunteers will ensure the BEDCO staff is capable of using and maintaining the new system.
The application had to be submitted by a nonprofit, which is why BEDCO handled the application, Braddock council President Tina Doose said. Having searchable records of borough laws will be beneficial for residents and will be a huge help for businesses considering locating in Braddock, Ms. Doose said.
By August, finding the law of the land in Braddock will be a truly "user-friendly" experience, Ms. Doose said.
"If you type in 'business taxes' or 'tree ordinances,' then it will pop up," Ms. Doose said. "It makes it searchable. That's a big deal.
"If [Braddock has] a business privilege tax or certain laws and ordinances that affect how I want to do business, or how my facade ... looks, I need to know that" as a business owner, she said.
"Do I need to sit and look through binders of information to glean that? Or can I look online?"
Without this program and the volunteers, the cash-strapped borough likely wouldn't have had the money to complete such a project.
"It's simple things like that that will help interest businesses in the community," Ms. Doose said.
Correction: an earlier version of this story misidentified one of the municipalities supported by Allegheny Together. It is Elizabeth Borough. (Published June 20, 2013)
Annie Siebert: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1613.