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Shapiro talks up Main Street investments, gets some shopping done in Mt. Lebanon

A man tries on a hoodie in a store.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Gov. Josh Shapiro tries on a hoodie at Commonwealth Press, while Rick Siger, who heads the state Department of Community and Economic Development, looks on.

Call it a demonstration of retail politics: Gov. Josh Shapiro visited Mt. Lebanon Wednesday, making a case for his budget plan and its proposed investment in neighborhood business districts — and he got in a little shopping on the way.

“This is the time for us to invest in Pennsylvania,” Shapiro told a group of reporters at a lunchtime press conference in the showroom of Empire Music, a guitar shop in the area that sells top-tier brands such as Taylor and Martin. “This is the time to make our main streets come alive ... and strengthen our communities.”

Shapiro’s budget proposes a $25 million "Main Street Matters" program, which would invest in main-street improvements across the state. The proposal, which more than triples current state spending on such initiatives, is part of a 10-year strategic development plan his administration rolled out early this year: According to that proposal, the idea is to invest in areas “where communities gather” and business activity can “form the economic nexus of their regions.”

Those districts play a key role in a community's well-being, agreed Eric Milliron, Mt. Lebanon's management of economic development. Often, he said, "Commercial districts lack the resources to address storefront vacancies ... and executive best practices and revitalization." Shapiro's proposal offers "hope and optimism [for] small business owners, the very folks that Gov. Shapiro is meeting," Milliron said.

However Pennsylvanians may differ in other ways, Shapiro said Wednesday, they are “very similar in defining the strength of a community. And that definition oftentimes runs through a main street just like this one here in Mt. Lebanon.”

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The visit focused on one of the smaller-ticket items in the $48 billion budget Shapiro unveiled early this month. But it signaled his willingness to push aggressively for the spending plan even before hearings in Harrisburg get underway.

Republicans have criticized the plan as overly ambitious, warning that it could spend down a cash reserve that took years to accumulate. Shapiro scoffed at that concern Wednesday, arguing Pennsylvania lagged other states when it came to investing in the university system and economic development.

Noting that judges had said the state’s process of funding education was too unequal to continue, he challenged critics: “If you’re OK with an unconstitutional education system, stand up and say that. If you’re OK with being 49th in the nation [supporting] higher ed, stand up and say that. I am not. I want to make these investments.”

The tony South Hills suburb has seen plenty of investment already: The Route 19 corridor has few vacant storefronts and has seen the addition of improvements such as a public parklet in recent years — and as an aside, Shapiro announced another $32,810 in state funding for the area Wednesday. But he said he hoped to “hold Mt. Lebanon up as an example to other communities across Pennsylvania of how to get it done.”

The commercial district also provided a backdrop for a walkthrough that was part shopping trip, part political meet-and-greet.

Accompanied by officials who included state Rep. Dan Miller and Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato, Shapiro launched his walking tour at Orbis, a local coffee shop. He eschewed fancier caffeinated drinks, asserting, “I’m like just a regular coffee guy."

In impromptu conversations with customers, he alternately apologized for “interfer[ing] with your breakfast” and let them know about his work “on a big state budget to try and get more money for main streets” as well as his support for abortion rights and women’s health generally.

He later made a stop just down the street at Commonwealth Press, the long-celebrated makers of wry Pittsburgh-themed merchandise. There Shapiro tried on, and bought, a black hoodie with an outline of the map of Pennsylvania fractured to resemble the logo of punk-rock band Black Flag.

Heavily Democratic Mt. Lebanon was friendly territory for Shapiro: During his 2022 campaign, he won the township’s precincts by margins of three- and four-to-one. And some of the people Shapiro met Wednesday seemed happy to support him in other races as well. During an unscheduled stop at an orthodontist’s office, for example, financial coordinator Lee VanSickle told him, “We all want you to run for president."

Rumors of a potential White House run in 2028 or after have been circulating long before Shapiro became governor. He deflected the suggestion with practiced ease.

“You haven’t met my wife yet,” Shapiro said. “She’ll kill you for saying that.”

But some politics was inevitable, especially a day after Democrat Jim Prokopiak won a closely-watched special election for a Bucks County state House District.

“This is arguably the … swingiest county in the state, or one of them, and this was a pretty swingy area within that,” Shapiro said when asked by a reporter about the results. “And the Democratic candidate absolutely obliterated the Republican.”

He said it was the latest in a string of wins that included his own 2022 victory and that of U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, and last year’s election of Dan McCaffery to the Supreme Court. Together, he said, the wins showed that Pennsylvanians “care about real freedom. They care about opportunity, and they’re voting for the Democrat.”

Shapiro added that the trend bodes ill for Republicans this November as well.

“When you look at the track record of how Pennsylvania voters have shown up and voted over the last number of years, they're poised to reject that kind of chaos and extremism that Donald Trump wants to bring back to this country,” he said. “And I'm gonna do everything in my political power to … defeat extremism and stand up for real freedom here in this Commonwealth.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.