Making a house a home is never easy; it’s an ongoing process. Part of the “home” feeling comes from the town or village one resides in. So how do you market a town and make it feel like home? That’s where Jennifer Markus ’89, co-founder of Explore Sewickley, steps in.
A lifer at the Academy, Jennifer matriculated at the College of Wooster to study political science. After graduation she moved back to Pittsburgh to work with her father in real estate. A year later in 1996, she decided she needed a change. A few of her friends from Sewickley and Wooster, including Amy (Adelman ’90) House, were moving to Boston, and she decided to join them. What started as a reply to a want ad in the Sunday paper turned into a 14-year stint with staffing and recruiting agency Kforce. Jennifer took a job as an administrative assistant for the company, and over the next decade she worked her way up to the director of operations for the mid-Atlantic region. She lived and worked in Boston for nine years, Tampa for five years, and Washington, D.C., for a year.
“I loved Kforce and I loved my job. I had two great bosses that mentored me and gave me opportunities to progress in my career,” she said. After over a decade of success in the company, Jennifer was laid off in 2008 and had quite a few life decisions to make. Ultimately she moved back to Sewickley, bought a house, got her real estate license, and went to work for Howard Hanna.
Growing up in the North Hills, Jennifer knew she wanted to explore other parts of the United States and the world. She had no intentions of living and working in the Pittsburgh area. Then fate sort of happened and the pieces fell into place. “I never thought I’d come back to Pittsburgh. When it came time to move back, Sewickley or Shadyside were my two options. I chose Sewickley,” Jennifer reflected. “There were already quite a few high school classmates living in the area, and then more moved back in the next couple of years. It’s amazing the number of classmates who have come back, even after marriage and having children.”
This thought, the appeal of Sewickley, stuck with Jennifer. One evening in 2010,
Jennifer joined fellow alums Kirsten Recker ’89 and Ryan Thompson ’98 to discuss the town of Sewickley, what it had to offer, and its unlimited potential for growth. What started as an idea on the back of a bar napkin grew into Village Green Partners LLC, an organization that focused on the revitalization of the business district in town. “We were inspired because there was such an opportunity with all the vacancies,” Jennifer reflected. “We are Sewickley people and we knew we could do a better job.”
Shortly after its inception, Ryan got involved in the Marcellus Shale world and left Village Green Partners. Wanting to continue to grow the newly-formed company, Kirsten and Jennifer went to the Borough of Sewickley to see if the town would hire them to work collaboratively to promote Sewickley. The Borough’s three-year contract with a previous partner was nearing its end, and they said yes to a new partnership with the two women. In 2011, Village Green Partners obtained its nonprofit status and received some funding from the Borough of Sewickley. One of their first moves was to reach out to Smith Brothers Agency, owned and operated by Academy alums Lindsey ’83 and Bronson ’88 Smith, to market the organization. Their collaboration led to a new brand: Explore Sewickley.
Explore Sewickley works to fill vacant storefronts, promote the commercial business district, and create community events. It experienced so much success in its first year that they needed to hire a full-time employee. In 2012, Alex Lancianese became the one and only employee of Explore Sewickley and works as the Main Street manager. Jennifer and Kirsten, who left the company in 2013 to pursue other ventures, volunteered their time and found ways to continue to push the evolution of Sewickley and make it thrive.
While growing the business, Jennifer also continued to expand her Sewickley Academy roots. She served on Alumni Council from November 2010 to June 2015 and partnered with former Director of Alumni Relations Greta Daniels to procure a senior for a student internship. Simran Saron ’12 and Grace Meakem ’13 both chose to complete their senior projects by volunteering their time at Explore Sewickley. “Each year, we sent the student out to meet with all the businesses in town and help us update our database,” Jennifer said of the students’ duties. “It was fun to have them in the office, they are both great kids.”
Now in its seventh year of partnership with the Borough, Explore Sewickley is looking to increase its fundraising efforts and its reach. “We know what is going on in Sewickley because we are here every day. We do it because it’s fun, and people enjoy the services we offer,” she said. “We feel like we’re making a difference.”
The Borough only provides a portion of Explore Sewickley’s funding (43% in 2016). The team decided it would be best to secure additional funds through community events and created the Soup Crawl, Sewickley Chocolate Walk, and Sewickley Oktoberfest. They also decided to diversify funding by securing sponsorships for events and selling tickets.
Jennifer’s real estate background has been instrumental in building Explore Sewickley from the ground up. The business started above Yarns Unlimited on 435 Beaver Street and then moved to a building Jennifer owned at 611 Beaver Street. Jennifer had purchased the building while she was in real estate and connected with the owners of the Slippery Mermaid (located in Florida), who were looking to open a location in town. The restaurant leased the first floor, and Explore Sewickley settled into the now Tiki Bar area for its second home. A year later, the restaurant applied for its liquor license and asked Jennifer if they could have the Explore Sewickley space to open a bar. She obliged, purchasing a vacant building on 418 Beaver Street about two years ago. The old Dollar Bank structure was gutted and renovated to house Explore Sewickley.
“Being able to make a difference in a town is a pretty big accomplishment. I’m proud of the two building renovations I’ve done in Sewickley, especially since I had no background in revitalization and marketing,” Jennifer said enthusiastically. “I’m a planner, I love to plan things. Coming up with new ideas and figuring out how to make those ideas happen is my spirit – it drives me.”
In April 2016, the nonprofit received good news– they were awarded designation as a Main Street Organization by the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development. Main Street America™ protects the historic character of cities and towns across the country and promotes shared prosperity. “Main Street America™ is a revitalization program based on historical preservation. It utilizes the Four Point Approach – economic vitality, design, promotion, and organization,” Jennifer explained. “We’re applying for national accreditation which we hope to receive within the next year.”
Jennifer has worked on a five-year plan for Explore Sewickley to continue its revitalization efforts. There are four committees dedicated to these objectives – design, economic restricting, organization, and promotions. Key points include: creating additional seating and usable spaces in public areas; creating an ongoing education program for businesses in Sewickley; creating a welcome packet to attract new businesses and residents to Sewickley; building a volunteer program; establishing more fundraising opportunities for Explore Sewickley; executing events that appeal to a broad base; and making Explore Sewickley a recognizable brand.
The town of Sewickley and Explore Sewickley have the potential for even more growth in the future. Jennifer is constantly bringing new businesses to town, the latest being Luna, a sister store to Glitter & Grit in Lawrenceville. It is her hope that the shops and restaurants in the area will contribute to the overall feel of the town, attracting previous residents to return to Sewickley and drawing new residents to the area. Jennifer pursues her passion daily, helping business owners and families alike call Sewickley home.