Expanding a Small Business
Alaa Aqra, proprietor of Al’s Fish and Chicken, has operated a small take-out restaurant at the corner of Penn Ave. and Coal St. in Wilkinsburg since 2010. As part of his plans to grow the business, Aqra has plans to upgrade his restaurant’s façade and he would like to provide convenient, well-lighted parking for customers. However, the two-story building is situated on busy Penn Ave. on a small corner lot that currently has insufficient space for off-street parking.
“People perceive Wilkinsburg to be an unsafe area, although that’s not really the case,” he says. “However, I don’t want my customers to feel uncomfortable when they come to pick up food at my restaurant because they can’t park safely on Penn Ave. or Coal St.” Aqra says that the potential solution is in his own backyard.
A vacant house at 912 Coal St. sits on a 30 x 60-foot lot immediately adjacent to the restaurant. Like many derelict properties, the house is filled with rodents and debris, posing hazards to the neighborhood.
Opportunity for Improvement
An immigrant from Palestine who lives with his wife and two small children in nearby Blackridge, Aqra is active in the community and attends meetings of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC). At a WCDC meeting, he learned about the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program (VPRP) and saw a cost-effective opportunity to acquire the abandoned house, demolish it, and gain ownership of a large lot that would provide space for parking.
Aqra applied to the program in May 2012. Applicants must provide a plan of action and proof that they have the financial resources to carry out the project. “I had to provide estimates from demolition companies and proof of insurance,” he says. An appraisal was conducted and a conditional title transfer is expected to take place by mid-2013. Aqra has six months after the title transfer to complete the demolition.After passing an inspection he will own the property.
Aqra, who also works as a court interpreter, runs a translation service, and is completing his M.B.A. degree at Point Park University, says that VPRP offers a great opportunity to small business owners in Wilkinsburg. “I appreciate the resources provided by the WCDC. I hope more residents and businesses take advantage of the program. Wilkinsburg is a great place to live and work and I want it to grow and improve.”