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Lawrenceville’s big day

Vistors on Butler Street enjoy the Joy of Cookie Tour.

Dana Allwein

It was a sunny and balmy 53 degrees on the Saturday of the Joy of Cookie Tour—not typical Pittsburgh weather for the first day of December. But the spirit of the holidays was on vivid display as visitors bustled through Lawrenceville’s Butler Street.

Families, couples and groups of girlfriends—young and old—meandered in and out of shops and cafes, browsing merchandise while chatting, laughing and munching on the free cookies available at local stores. A trolley made stops at various locations, transporting people from one end of the Cookie Tour loop to another.

Dana Urista of Freeport, Pa., and her family were enjoying their first trip to the Cookie Tour. They walked through sometimes bottlenecked sidewalks as 8-year-old Angel Bellone, Urista’s granddaughter, skipped ahead to find the next tray of fresh cookies.

“It’s been good, and we are having a great time,” Urista said, as she waited for Angel to come out of Swank Hair Studio with another cookie in hand. She recommended the Cookie Mall at the Teamsters Temple as a particularly special spot for families because of the crafts, gifts, bake sale and visit by Santa Claus.

Urista didn’t purchase anything at the stores that day because her young companions hurried her along too much. But she plans to return to Lawrenceville another day to buy some items that caught her attention.

That’s the whole idea behind the Cookie Tour. Celebrating its 13th year in early December, the four-day event promotes the area by welcoming visitors into the variety of independently owned shops.

As visitors to Pittsburgh’s bustling Lawrenceville neighborhood saunter the sidewalks lined with art galleries, restaurants and quaint shops, it’s hard to imagine that this hip, buzzing business district was once a blue-collar community left dim and sordid when the steel companies closed and the economy plummeted.

But just over a decade ago Lawrenceville, one of Pittsburgh’s ethnically rich neighborhoods nestled along the Allegheny River, was transformed from an obscure part of town to a “go-to” hotspot.

The rebirth began with what locals from the Lawrenceville Corporation dubbed the “16:62 Design Zone,” an effort to transform Butler Street, Lawrenceville’s main thoroughfare, from the 16th Street Bridge to the 62nd Street Bridge.

The organizers’ vision and fortitude, combined with the interest of creative stores owners, artists and restaurateurs, has resulted in an impressive 46-block stretch of eclectic businesses. 

“Our goal is to introduce people to our business district and also welcome back patrons who have visited before,” said Mary Coleman, Cookie Tour organizer and owner of Gallery on 43rd Street.

“The Cookie Tour is Lawrenceville’s Black Friday in the sense that we want to entice people with cookies and a fun event and hope they do some shopping and return at other times of the year too.”

The window display at Jay Designs, ready for the holiday crowds.

Kristen Wilke

Another set of eyes and ears

What made this year’s Cookie Tour different than the prior twelve is that community revitalization professionals are evaluating the event in order to determine how organizers can execute it more efficiently and attain even better results. 

Lawrenceville is now part of LISC MetroEdge’s Corridors of Retail Excellence (CORE) program. LISC representatives competitively selected neighborhoods that would benefit from their technical and marketing expertise to promote economic growth along these communities’ commercial corridors. 

PNC Bank made a significant contribution to LISC so the program could be extended to Lawrenceville and other neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, Chicago and Philadelphia in 2012 and 2013.

This September, LISC team members met with the Lawrenceville Corporation to discuss approaches to increasing the Cookie Tour’s visibility, attendance and positive outcomes for business owners and the community.

Tour organizers provided benchmark protocols and data results from the 2011 event, logistics for the event’s implementation each year, and information about promotional materials and sponsorship packages.

The LISC team also obtained feedback from business owners who have previously participated in the tour to understand their goals and objectives.

Armed with this information, LISC officials designed a survey that was distributed to random attendees during this year’s Cookie Tour.

Lawrenceville United provided 10 volunteers to help LISC conduct intercept surveys during the event, and merchants also offered surveys to customers who visited their businesses.

Families out visiting in Lawrenceville.

Dana Allwein

Cookies welcome them in

During the event itself, Kathy Kienholz, an employee Borelli-Edwards Galleries on Butler Street, greeted a virtually constant stream of visitors with her contagious smile and welcoming disposition. She said the gallery had 96 visitors on Thursday, 124 on Friday, and, as of early Saturday, another 275 to start the weekend.

“It’s fabulous today,” said Kienholz. “We typically do not have this much traffic. People are usually intimidated to come into an art gallery, but with the Cookie Tour, they feel welcomed to come in. 

Gallery owner Joy Borelli-Edwards, who made nine dozen biscotti for visitors that day, echoed Kienholz’s assessment and pointed to the crumbs left on her tray. “The cookies are gone already,” she said.

“This event brings people through a doorway that they would likely never go through because they have threshold anxiety with galleries,” she said. “A cookie is a universal symbol for comfort, and we help visitors feel relaxed through cookies and conversation.”

As Darlene Farrell of Shaler left Borelli-Edwards’ gallery, she said she was making her tenth trip to the Cookie Tour.

Accompanied by three of her friends, Farrell acknowledged that she typically would not walk into an art gallery, but that the event encourages visitors to come inside and take a look around.

Down the street, Jill DeBroff, owner of the Teddy Bear Hospital of Pittsburgh, had her mother’s cookie recipe on full display in her antique and stuffed animal restoration shop known as Babies & Bears.

As she sewed a new nose onto a three-foot-tall teddy bear, “Dr. Jill” joked with customers that the animal was having “rhinoplasty surgery” at the hospital, which is situated in the rear of her shop.

A frequent flow of visitors slowly and carefully walked in a succinct circle as they picked up a cookie and toured DeBroff’s heirlooms, antique quilts and many tiny treasures.

A third-generation Lawrenceville business owner, she opened her store in 2007, following in the footsteps of her grandfather, who owned a hardware store, and her father, who had a law practice.

“This is my biggest day of the year,” DeBroff said about the Saturday of the Cookie Tour. “I might not have anyone buying today, but hopefully over the next year I will see some come back.”

Travis Milton and Andrea Burns were two of the 718 people who visited the Teddy Bear Hospital over the four days. They had decided to attend their first Cookie Tour after Burns read about it in a local publication. The couple said they dine in Lawrenceville but have yet to shop there.

“We’ve never been inside a lot of these stores, and there are so many interesting ones,” Milton said. “It’s been a good day; we really enjoyed it.”

Next stop on the Cookie Tour: #22, Divertido, an eclectic local gift shop.

Awaiting feedback to foster progress

With this year’s Cookie Tour complete, the LISC team will share its data and feedback with the organizers and the Lawrenceville Corporation in early 2013 and offer recommendations to enhance next year’s event. The consultants will also illustrate how the Cookie Tour could continue prosperously for several years down the line.

“The Cookie Tour isn’t broken, but we can certainly use ways to make it run more smoothly, particularly procuring more manpower in implementing the event,” said Coleman, who handles much of the planning and operations herself.

LISC anticipates improvements such as increased merchant participation, sponsorships and volunteerism.

The goal is increased sales during the event, customers returning to Lawrenceville, and new business owners occupying idle storefronts, said Kristen Wilke, one of LISC’s consultants.

“The organizers expressed that they are spread too thin and do not have enough funds to cover the event’s costs or hire a staff person to manage the event,” Wilke said.

“Our efforts will explore ways to address their concerns, attract sponsors and nurture this unique and thriving event’s sustainability.”

Posted in Commercial and Economic Development, Pittsburgh

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