The Gallery on Penn celebrates one year of opportunities for Black entrepreneurs

Penn Avenue on Friday, Nov. 8, was home to a party, a moment of recognition and a time of tribute.

The Gallery on Penn, at 5935 Penn Ave., in East Liberty, is the location of the “Catapult: Start up to Storefront” initiative and recently reached the end of its first year. During this time it has been the home of anywhere between six to 15 small businesses since it opened on Nov. 8, 2018.

More than a year ago, Tammy Thompson, executive director of Circles Greater Pittsburgh, sat down with Diamonte Z. Walker, deputy executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and discussed the concept of a program to support small business owners. That was the embryonic conversation which resulted in the Catapult/Gallery on Penn retail incubator.

“This celebration is a reflection of the perseverance and resilience of hard-working women who are dedicated to growing their businesses and their legacies,” Thompson said at the Nov. 8, 2019, event to commemorate the one-year milestone. “We are so excited and we thank everyone who came out to celebrate with us.”

Thompson gave a very special shoutout to Maelene Myers, executive director of East Liberty Development Inc., (ELDI) and her team. “They have been an amazing partner to Circles in all things we do around anti-poverty—there is nothing we could have done here without them.”

Jozette Fitzgibbons, Neighborhood Business District Manager at the URA, also a part of the initial discussions, explained a bit of the process: “The program evolved from first, the decision that a training program should be created; not just a few weeks, but something ongoing for minority, women-owned businesses, new entrepreneurs who may not know what they need to know; something that would literally be kind of a hand-holding until they could get it right—just to get them started. “We really started things on the fly with Trish and Marcos Digliodo from Paramount Co-Op, who came in as technical assistance providers.”

The program started with 15 people in 2018. Thompson pressed her partners further, indicating that the next steps were a place for folks to start selling their products. ELDI stepped up and offered an unused building on Penn Avenue at a substantial reduction in rent—“almost 90 percent reduction,” shared Fitzgibbons.

It took some elbow work from all the partners, getting the unused space cleaned out and the installation of building dividers, all to make it presentable and prepared to accommodate the new entrepreneurs.

State Rep. Ed Gainey was on hand to celebrate and shared why he believed this celebration was so important. “I believe this enhances the City of Pittsburgh, as it shows what can happen when barriers are broken down—and speaks volumes about what can happen in more neighborhoods when there continues to be investments into small businesses.”

Mayor Bill Peduto shared in the night, as well. He presented a mayoral proclamation and designated Nov. 8 as “Gallery on Penn Catapult to Start Up Day” in the City Pittsburgh. He shared words about the importance of the Gallery on Penn and why it is a launching pad for the businesses in the location to go from “start-up to storefront” within a number of years. He also said that via the URA, “grants would be provided” to help the small business owners have actual storefront locations. He was clear to affirm these would be “not loans, but grants” to help them do that. Additionally, he spoke of a replication of this model throughout the various neighborhoods within the city, “providing the critical space and watching entrepreneurs take it over.”

Walker said that upon her arrival at the URA in 2017, “my focus was on how to provide equitable access to resources spaces, tools and support for minority- and women-owned businesses. We found the greatest gaps were in access to capital and affordable space. We wanted to provide a business opportunity that not only provided technical support and business classes, but also would provide retail experience for entrepreneurs to build the skill sets necessary to maintain their own storefront, and this space came to be.”

Alexis Lenae, a custom clothing designer, spoke of her experience being part of the Gallery’s first cohort. “I have felt a whirlwind of emotions, including some sleepless nights, and some tears,” she said. “I would not change a thing. This experience has really groomed me and stretched me, and do many things for my business that I do not think would have happened had I not had this opportunity.”

PITTSBURGH MAYOR BILL PEDUTO, center, among those in attendance for The Gallery on Penn’s one-year celebration. (Feature photo)

by Renee P. Aldrich, For New Pittsburgh Courier

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