Sam DiBattista has a cold. His voice is strained as he talks about Bellevue's business district. Every so often, his voice breaks, either from the cold or from the frustration.
"We're struggling right now. The market is different," said Mr. DiBattista, owner of Vivo restaurant, in the borough's business district. "Being a destination in a town that doesn't have anything else happening isn't working right now."
Some of his feelings are echoed by others in the borough who say not enough is being done to strengthen the community. Vacant stores dot Lincoln Avenue, Bellevue's main street, and the tired look of the business district hasn't helped to spur investment.
The business district of several blocks has a variety of storefronts, but it hasn't looked so tough since Pittsburgh's last big recession in the early 1980s.
Mayor George Doscher, a lifelong resident, remembers those times. He recognizes the current struggles in the town and is concerned with the loss of businesses.
"Those borough businesses are our lifeblood," Mr. Doscher said.
Mr. DiBattista agreed but said some of those in local government aren't doing all they can to help. Some Bellevue council members aren't interested in helping the development committee, Bellevue Initiative for Growth, which new council President Kathy Coder leads, Mr. DiBattista said.
"She's set up a situation to get hundreds of thousands of dollars for development, though council is against her," Mr. DiBattista said. "Who benefits by keeping Bellevue down? Who benefits by Bellevue having less income for local government services and the school district?"
Ms. Coder leads Bellevue Initiative for Growth, or B.I.G.. A Republican, Ms. Coder said she had a wakeup call in the primary election, where she did "terribly. It was a reality check for me." An overwhelming majority of Democrats in the borough who vote straight Democrat made her realize she had to make herself known to people. She said she also has recognized that she might not be able to retain her seat on council, to which she was appointed.
"I've come to the conclusion that you have to build towards sustainability. But there are people who are not looking toward the future," Ms. Coder said of those who don't support the development committee's initiatives.
Linda Woshner, Bellevue councilwoman, said she's not opposed to Ms. Coder's ideas for the committee, but she said many of those ideas are her own.
"Her ideas were my ideas to begin with. They are council's ideas, because B.I.G. is a council committee. Definitely, I am for revitalization, but we need to promote the community, to bring in people and bring in businesses," Ms. Woshner said.
She added that the vacant storefronts in the borough are more a sign of the times, rather than some indicator of serious trouble in a solid business district.
"There are vacant storefronts everywhere. We have a good business district, especially for these times. This is not the best of economic times," Ms. Woshner said.
One lifetime member of the community, former councilman and former Northgate school board member Rich Furis, said the development committee could be viewed as a political football, but it shouldn't be. With the group, its responsibilities and boundaries with regard to the town's government are blurred, he said.
"I've gone to a couple meetings, and my philosophy is the town needs new thinking. And a good idea is a good idea, no matter who comes up with it. … I worry about how these ideas will be focused, though," Mr. Furis said.
Mr. DiBattista led the wave of small restaurants and eateries that located in Bellevue several years ago and in subsequent years. His much-acclaimed Vivo restaurant is surviving, though he recently decided to open on Sundays to improve business. It's helped, but other factors have led Mr. DiBattista away from the bullish attitude he once had regarding the borough.
Last month, four years after he bought the closed G.C. Murphy building on Lincoln Avenue for $250,000 with the help of an investor, the building was sold at sheriff's sale. Mr. DiBattista had cultivated and rented to several small businesses in the building, and now most of them plan to move out of the building, he said. Some of the newer businesses on Lincoln Avenue were among the first to flee the borough. Regina Margherita, a pizzeria serving wood-fired oven-style pizza, relocated in 2008. Laughing Lizard, a juice bar and soup shop, closed last year. Affogato, a coffee house started by Mr. DiBattista in the wake of his success with Vivo, survives under different ownership. Still, he doesn't see more trendy business coming anytime soon.
"There's just no interest in investing in Bellevue right now," Mr. DiBattista said.
But members of the development committee and others, such as former mayor and current Bellevue council treasurer Paul Cusick, are working to promote Bellevue. Mr. Cusick, who's lived there for 39 years, recently started a news Web site, North Boroughs News. The site is linked to Bellevue's Web site, which has made Mr. Cusick the target of criticism by some residents. They say the link is essentially a borough government endorsement of his Web site. He disagrees.
" 'Enjoy Bellevue' and Northgate School District's Web sites also are linked," Mr. Cusick said. "I think some people are resistant to change."
Enjoy Bellevue is a nonprofit group.
Mr. Doscher, who is in his fourth year as mayor and in his 10th year with local government, said he was unaware that Mr. Cusick's news site was a for-profit business when he allowed the link to be put on the borough's Web site. An information technology committee has subsequently been formed by council. The committee will decide which links are placed on the borough site, the mayor said.
Mr. Cusick said he began his site because he believed the borough needed an online source of news.
Michele Smith owns QUI Interiors on Hawley Avenue and leads Enjoy Bellevue. The group's site, enjoybellevue.org, is an example of Bellevue merchants helping themselves, she said.
"It started as a group of merchants not satisfied with their representation on the old borough Web site," she said.
The year-old organization has hosted events in the borough intended to entice people to the town, including two days of free swimming at Bellevue pool last summer and a craft market on Hawley Avenue. The group recently hosted a classic car cruise on a closed stretch of Lincoln Avenue in the business district. About 200 antique cars and their owners attended, and about 1,000 visitors came.
"That Sunday, the restaurants had their best Sunday in years," Ms. Smith said.
The group's Summer Solstice Party, a three-day celebration first held last year, will be held June 18-21 with free swimming June 21 at Bellevue pool and a June 20 street dance on North Sprague Street. The events are in keeping with the focus of Enjoy Bellevue, which is meant to promote Bellevue's businesses, history and housing stock.
Ms. Smith said the borough's location is a great advantage. "We're 20 minutes from everywhere," she said.
Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer and Bellevue native. email@example.com
This story originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Photo of Sam DiBattista by Andy Starnes.