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.”