Outside the lower level of the historic Wilkinsburg Train Station, a brick courtyard bordered by plantings could soon be the site of fairs and markets for creative makers and an inviting space for entrepreneurs to convene at tables and chairs as they brainstorm about ideas for their startups.
Bridgeway Capital, a nonprofit lender, plans to open a Business Assistance Center at the recently renovated train station on Hay Street in early 2023.
The center will offer counseling, workshops and other programs for small businesses including creative ventures.
The courtyard “was a selling point” of the former station, says Adam Kenney, managing director of programs for Bridgeway, which provided a $750,000 loan to the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. for its $6.5 million restoration of the 106-year-old building.
The outdoor area provides “visibility and connection to the community,” says Katie Johnson, director of Bridgeway’s Creative Business Accelerator, which helps regional artists and makers establish and grow their companies and market their wares.
Bridgeway’s mission as a social impact investor is to help finance small businesses, nonprofits and real estate projects in underserved and minority communities like Wilkinsburg.
Last year, it deployed $19.3 million in loans and grants with 91% of loans going to projects in low- to moderate-income areas. About half of Bridgeway’s loans went to businesses owned by people of color; just under half went to women-owned ventures.
Roderick Ramsey, business assistance program manager at Bridgeway, says the space at the train station will provide resources for entrepreneurs “in an in-person setting” that many missed during the pandemic.
“It’s an opportunity to meet with like-minded individuals and it’s an exciting time to be in Wilkinsburg,” says Ramsey, who also lives in the borough.
Just a few years ago, Ramsey, who is Black, connected with Bridgeway as an entrepreneur who founded Ocular Arcade, a web design and development business.
As a participant in Bridgeway’s Origins program, which assists Black makers, Ramsey says he was engaged with other Black creatives and found “a safe space for me to develop my business and grow as a professional.”
Bridgeway awarded Ocular a $2,000 grant for research and development and referred Ramsey’s business for a $2,000 grant from the Creative Entrepreneur Accelerator Program, which is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and prioritizes grants to entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous or persons of color.
In April, Ramsey joined Bridgeway to oversee its Origins and Building Inclusive Development programs.
The train station restoration is a focal point of Wilkinsburg’s efforts to rebuild a once-thriving business district that declined after the collapse of the region’s manufacturing base. Opened in 1916 by the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Beaux-Arts structure fell into disrepair after Amtrak stopped service to the borough in 1975.
Holes in the roof, broken windows, crumbling brick and plaster, damaged marble and mosaic tiles, and graffiti throughout were among the challenges the Wilkinsburg CDC faced in revitalizing the deteriorated building which was abandoned for decades.
The restoration was jumpstarted with a $1 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Additional philanthropic organizations, several local banks and individuals, Wilkinsburg High School alumni and other sources also contributed funds.
The Wilkinsburg CDC, which held a reopening celebration in September 2021, is trying to lease the main level to a restaurant that would occupy the entire floor. The CDC is also “open to ideas such as a shared kitchen or food hall concept” for the main level, says Marlee Gallagher, the CDC’s director of economic development.
Also available is 1,860 square feet on the lower level that was formerly used as baggage storage for the train station. That space has access to a shared kitchenette with Bridgeway as well as the courtyard. It could also be utilized by the main floor tenant, says Gallagher.
Bridgeway is leasing about 2,000 square feet where it will house programs including its Creative Business Accelerator, Monmade, Origins, Building Inclusive Development and an Entrepreneurs Hub.
The space has flexible areas that can be used for conference rooms, classes and meetings and will also feature a gallery where artists and makers can display their works in rotating and permanent exhibits.
Bridgeway’s headquarters will remain based in Downtown Pittsburgh.
It also operates 7800 Susquehanna, a former Westinghouse Electric factory in Homewood that leases space to artisans, small manufacturers and a job training program.
Bridgeway received $250,000 from the Hillman Family Foundation to build out its space in the train station.
Because the project is supported by Bridgeway’s Building Inclusive Development program, 75% of the buildout budget is going to minority contractors working on the space.
Many of the furnishings will come from makers in Bridgeway’s Monmade program, which helps market items from regional artisans. When it’s completed in early 2023, Bridgeway hopes to mount a showcase that will feature products created by Monmade participants.
Nine firms are working on sustainable products — such as hardware created from melted car parts and lights constructed from olive oil bottles — to display, says Katie Schaible, director of Monmade.
“We hope it’s a beautiful industrial design show,” she says.
On Sunday, December 11, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Wilkinsburg Train Station is hosting a Wilkinsburg Made Holiday Show in partnership with Workshop PGH. The free event features local vendors and artists, food trucks, DIY activities, a wreath and tree benefit sale and more.