P’burgh returnee shares market vision

P’burgh returnee shares market vision

RustBuilt executive director Alec Rieger says there’s value in weekly community get-togethers.
RustBuilt executive director Alec Rieger says there’s value in weekly community get-togethers.

The parking lot behind the former Gullifty’s Restaurant, between Beacon and Bartlett streets in Squirrel Hill, will be put to good use this summer when it becomes the site of the community’s first farmers’ market, to be open every Sunday from June 1 to Nov. 23.

A project of RustBuilt — a not-for-profit initiative focusing on community innovation in the Rust Belt — in collaboration with Citiparks, the new farmers’ market will feature bulk and organic produce, artisanal food specialties and fresh-baked goods, according to Alec Rieger, RustBuilt’s co-founder and executive director.

But food is only a part of the purpose of the new farmers’ market, he said.

“I think there is such value to getting the community together on a regular weekly basis,” said Rieger, 42, who grew up in Mount Lebanon and recently moved back to Pittsburgh after stints in Los Angeles and New York. “That’s how innovation happens. It’s about getting people together to share ideas, to connect with each other, to connect with the community, to learn and grow while shopping.”

Rieger knows a thing or two about community building. One might say it’s in his blood. His father, Howard Rieger, served as president of the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh from 1981 to 2004 and served as the president and CEO of the United Jewish Communities from 2004 to 2009.

“My father ran the Federation for years,” said Rieger. “I grew up in the philanthropic world, where people were making a difference.”

And Rieger and his RustBuilt colleagues are set on making a difference in Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh has many strengths,” he said, “but also some glaring weaknesses.” Among those weaknesses is the lack of certain “lifestyle amenities” that are important from a communal development perspective, he said.

The new farmers’ market is being launched as one way of satisfying that need. “I saw a huge need in the community for a farmers’ market on the weekend,” Rieger said, adding that the Squirrel Hill business district is the perfect location because it has been “challenged” in growth and development.

Because of the high numbers of Jews in the neighborhood, Rieger insisted the market be held on Sundays rather than on Saturdays.

“I just wasn’t comfortable with it being on Shabbos in Squirrel Hill,” he said. “There was never another option for me. I wanted it to be inclusive, not just to the Jewish community, but to everybody.”

Because the market will be located across the street from the Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Rieger sees an opportunity for partnership and for helping the hungry. He has already met with Aryeh Sherman, president and CEO of the JF&CS. While the details of the partnership have not yet been set, Sherman said the JF&CS is definitely on board.

“There is a wonderful opportunity of exploring ways to collaborate and create awareness of hunger issues in the community through the farmers’ market, and possibly help our clients in the process,” said Sherman.

Vendors have already been lined up, Rieger said, with all spaces for stands filled. But he envisions the market as much more than a shopping destination.

“I want this to be a gathering space,” he stressed, “not just a place where you grab your broccoli and run. I want to see little kids dancing and hopefully doing some crafts. I want to create a weekly community event where we get out hundreds of people.”

His is bent on seeing it succeed and capitalizing on Pittsburgh’s intrinsic resources.

“I’m very bullish on Pittsburgh,” said Rieger. “We have the most incredible human capital, and I don’t think we’re fully leveraging it. This market is an attempt to leverage that human capital, to get people out of the niches and together.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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