Roberta Weissburg has been designing, repairing, and selling leather goods in Pittsburgh for over 30 years.
According to Weissburg, the increasing presence of online and big box stores over the last few decades has made it difficult for small businesses like hers to maintain and expand their customer bases.
But City Councilman Dan Gilman thinks there is a role for local government to play in helping to sustain and grow small businesses, and on Monday he hosted a roundtable discussion with small businesses owners as well as representatives from the mayor’s office and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
“I had a nice diverse group of small business owners from restaurants to home goods to clothing to a bookstore, from neighborhoods across the city, talking about the challenges they face, and there are certainly some common threads,” Gilman said.
Some of those challenges are the ones that Weissburg is facing. Another problem, said Gilman, is the disruption in foot and car traffic caused by prolonged construction in business districts, “and then of course each neighborhood has its own challenges, depending on where they are, with keeping neighborhoods safe and clean.”
Gilman said Monday’s meeting was largely exploratory, and he did not come out of the discussion with any specific initiatives to help Pittsburgh’s small businesses thrive. However, he did say there are two ideas he wants to look at immediately.
“One, how the city can support joint marketing between neighborhoods, promoting (the idea of) shopping locally all the time, and … two, how can we better educate our public utilities and our public employees and maybe strengthen the rules about how quickly we need to do permitting and restoration in our neighborhood businesses districts.”
Weissburg said she would like to see a marketing campaign that educates the public about the importance of small businesses in sustaining local economies.
“That sort of theory of … reinventing small business or reminding people that small business is a big deal and it’s the backbone of this country,” Weissburg said.
Indeed, small businesses are responsible for a considerable portion of the nation’s economic activity. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 54 percent of all U.S. sales are attributable to small businesses, and small businesses currently provide 55 percent of all U.S. jobs. Large businesses have eliminated four million jobs since 1990, while small businesses have actually added eight million new jobs.
Gilman said there are also more qualitative benefits that small businesses bring to neighborhoods, calling business districts a “third place” between work and home.
“What makes Pittsburgh unique is that third place: your neighborhood business districts, your libraries, your parks, your community gathering points,” Gilman said. “Without that, you don’t have the unique identity of a neighborhood and you become Anywhere, U.S.A.”
Gilman said he’ll convene a follow up meeting with city officials and small business leaders in the fall.