Courtesy of Civically Inc.

Every day, Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett finds fresh motivation for work during her commute.

“When you drive down Penn Avenue, you notice multiples of the same businesses,” says the long-time community leader. “I teeter on saying exactly what (kind) because I am the mayor, but you see the multiple cell phone places, you see the multiple nail salons, you see multiples of one thing. But where’s the variety?”

Revitalizing Wilkinsburg’s business district has been one of Garrett’s goals ever since she was a local entrepreneur and member of the borough council. In addition to her political role, Garrett is also the president and founder of Civically, a Wilkinsburg-based nonprofit focused on community development. On April 25, Civically announced they had purchased the historic Hunter Building on Penn Avenue.

The top floors of the Hunter Building will include a mix of office and community space, says Garrett, who adds that her organization is already in talks with several foundations and at least one engineering firm about renting the space, though she declined to name specifics.

The purchase was made possible by a Keystone Communities Award of $350,000 from the PA Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). Mayor Garrett estimates that the entire renovation will cost $9.8 million over the next several years.

While the building’s first floor is already home to Free Store Wilkinsburg, the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation and Norulack Screen Printing, the top two floors have been vacant for more than 25 years and require significant upgrades.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh after the announcement, Garrett explained that the slow progress in restoring the Hunter Building is emblematic of the larger challenges in developing the East End community.

“Part of the plight of Wilkinsburg is that our buildings, especially the commercial buildings, have been in disrepair for so long that the amount of work to bring it up to code, to restore it, can be daunting,” she says.

Garrett explains that her community is dealing with the same problems of shrinking economies and disinvestment that are common for smaller boroughs throughout Allegheny County.

Marita Garrett at Penn Brewery for the Coro Women In Leadership Power Panel & Happy Hour. Photo by Catlyn Brooke.

“A lot of time what we see is that communities hit bottom or they get so desperate that they need any type of development,” says Garrett. “Obviously, not all development is good development.”

Locally owned anchor institutions have been lost to “businesses that aren’t necessarily healthy and sustainable for our community.”

More than attracting any specific tenant or business, Garrett says her organization’s restoration is a chance to return ownership and agency to the people of Wilkinsburg.

“That’s what’s crucial to me: that the community drives and helps determine where the economic growth is going to be,” she says.

The consulting firm Bridging the Gap will collaborate with Civically on the construction, which Garrett says will likely begin before year’s end with an eye toward a grand opening two years from now.

She stresses that this is only the first step in what will be an open and responsive process.

“We definitely want to hear the community’s feedback. This is literally just the first step,” Garrett notes. “This project won’t be successful or sustainable without community support and buy-in.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.