The thing I loved most about Bellevue was the affection and enthusiasm that new residents have for it. Every person that moved to Bellevue that I talked to was so happy with the proximity to Pittsburgh, the walkability of the grocery store, restaurants, bus stops, churches….Bellevue has it all (except for bars, but that’s another matter). Because of all these positive attributes, people are quite enthusiastic about the potential future of the town. Everybody wants to see it grow and improve.
The first problem is that people can’t agree on what it takes to get a town to grow and improve. The second problem is the apathy that grows once newer residents start seeing the results of said disagreement. It doesn’t help that the town gets overrun by unruly teens, grumpy senior citizens and doped up schizophrenics. Trying to attract and retain customers in such an environment is difficult at best. You try to please everyone as best you can as a business owner, but when you have people wandering the streets talking to themselves, or riding their bikes down the sidewalk and spitting next to business doorsteps, it’s not a very nice environment.
The problem of rude people doesn’t have an easy solution…but the best chance I think Bellevue has is to try to attract more food establishments and higher-end retail shops. The more people with money you can bring into the business district, the less comfortable it is for people who want to do no good. Set a hopeful standard for what you wish your customer base was and if you keep working at it, there’s a chance that you’ll see a gradual improvement in quality of your clientele. Bellevue really does have such great potential. But if the Council and property owners keep catering to the lower class, there is no chance for improvement.
I gave up on trying to do exciting new things in Affogato after a few years. I bought the shop in 2006 just before I turned 23, and I had so many great ideas. I was working with Andy Rubacky and Sam DiBattista to host events and encourage businesses that would attract new people to Bellevue. We tried a lot of different things like gourmet brunches, shared office space, BYOB events, and art shows to draw people in. And we did actually attract a lot of bright young people who were eager to help make Bellevue noticeable. But nobody stuck around after the initial excitement wore off, usually because of the odd and slightly hostile attitude of both older Bellevue residents and the Borough employees/Council members. Our ideas were always being shot down. To be honest, the only real hostility was from Connie Rankin. The Council members at that time seemed to just be unaware of us as business owners and didn’t care about what we thought the town could use.
Essentially, Bellevue as a Borough never completely hindered my efforts, but also never seemed to understand why I should have been supported and encouraged. The only specific hindrances I can think of now are the seemingly never-ending stream of reprimands about my sidewalk sign sticking out too far (it was 18” wide instead of the maximum 14” allowed), the permit fee you have to pay to have sidewalk seating (because apparently the sidewalk is Bellevue’s property except for in the winter, then it’s yours because you have to maintain a snow-free and ice-free surface for pedestrians). In the end, I didn’t want sidewalk seating anyway because the stream of characters going past made it unpleasant. Bellevue didn’t interfere with my BYOB nights, or anything else I did inside my shop. But trying to work with other business owners or do anything outside my shop was essentially impossible. I know once you start involving public spaces that things like liability and conflicting ordinances make planning events tricky. It just seemed like all we ever heard was “that won’t work”, and never “we can’t do it that way, but maybe if we did……x…..instead, it could.”
The Chamber of Commerce at this time was run by Connie and I don’t know why she didn’t like Sam or Andy or me, but she made it very clear that her vision of Bellevue was different than ours and that she’d been here longer so she was always right. Plus it cost something like $100 to join the Chamber (which is a lot of cups of coffee), and all they planned was the Sidewalk Sale! This was even before Light Up night. The notion of paying a yearly membership fee and then also paying a fee to participate in their one event was a bit galling. I know Connie doesn’t run the Chamber anymore, and she never ran Council, but there were a lot of people with her attitude—that we weren’t born and raised in Bellevue, so we couldn’t possibly know what was good for it. That was so frustrating to deal with that I just gave up and stopped trying to do new things. I just focused on doing what I could to make my business the best it could be. Instead of worrying about Bellevue and trying to help the town, I focused instead on my customers and my business.
I ended up closing Affogato because I moved out of state (due to a family emergency), but to be honest, I had been considering it anyway. Even taking out the frustration factor of dealing with the Borough, it was really hard to run that place seven days a week and have to deal with the same troublemaker citizens day in and day out. I kept doing it as long as I did because there were the other customers who made the effort to come regularly and who believed, as I did, that Bellevue could be something great.
There are days I miss it a lot. I know that I provided an excellent product and excellent service to my customers, and that pleased me enormously. But I felt like I was just wading through my days and never getting anywhere. I don’t think I’ll ever come back and open a business again in Bellevue, unless there is a vision and plan in place that makes it as easy as possible to run a successful business (other than a dollar store).