-Tuesday, July 7 2015 Historic Preservation “Strawberries and Ice Cream Social” 7:00 p.m. at the Borough Building. This will kick off our first public meeting as part of the Historic Preservation Planning Process. It will be followed by a photo show and tell by attendees who are asked to bring their historic Charleroi photos.
-Wed. July 15th at Meadow Ave. Park on Fifth St. The Greater Charleroi Community Development Corp. will hold a “meet and greet” meeting to inform people of the group and its efforts. Snacks and drinks will be provided.
There is a lot going on in the once sleepy towns along the Monongahela River. Visitors and residents are discovering the myriad opportunities for outdoor recreation and heritage tourism. Boat launches and docks, biking and hiking trails are being built and historic sites restored. And Brownsville, one of those historic River Towns, is leading the pack.
Just 35 miles south of Pittsburgh, Brownsville — founded in 1814 — was once a major player in the nation’s steel industry. And much like Pittsburgh, as the steel and related industries waned, so did the town. Its population, close to 10,000 in 1940, is less than 2,500 today. As citizens moved away, many of Brownsville’s lovely buildings fell into disrepair and its historic downtown into ruin.
A number of local properties — Bowman’s Castle, Dunlap’s Creek Bridge, St. Peter’s Church and the Flatiron Building — are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Brownsville was also one of the first meeting places for the participants in the incendiary Whiskey Rebellion. But this charming hamlet isn’t content to only have a remarkable past — it has a burning desire for an equally remarkable future.
And the fuel that lit that fire came from some of this old town’s youngest citizens.
Kids These Days
In 2011, a group of six Brownsville High School students approached chemistry teacher Kelli Dellarose with concern about the low morale of their community. Dellarose helped the students form a “Students In Action” club, launching what she thought would amount to little more than a standard class civics project. Now, close to five years later, Brownsville’s “Students in Action,” a youth leadership program sponsored by the National Jefferson Awards of Public Service, is much more.
The original students and those who have since joined did so to help bring their town back from the brink. The challenge put to them — “How do you want to make yourcommunity better?” — turned the high school civics project into a community-wide, nationally recognized catalyst for the resurgence of Brownsville.
Andrew French, head of the Redevelopment Authority of Fayette County, worked with the students as a fiscal agent and attended many planning sessions as they formulated their ideas.
“The downtown area of Brownsville has been blighted for decades, essentially for these students’ whole lives,” explains French. “Yet they still felt real pride in their community and did not want to see their downtown remain a desolate place.”
The students settled on an ambitious project: build a downtown park with benches, walking trails and a stage for outdoor performances. The planned location is directly across from a 24-unit housing development with first floor retail to be constructed by TREK Development Group. Named for their school mascot, the students called their effort “Operation Falcon Revitalization” and crafted a mission statement — “Revitalize Brownsville by increasing morale and tourism, and by bridging the generation gap of our once flourishing community.”
“Money is usually attracted, not pursued.” – Jim Rohn
For their plan to come to fruition, they needed money, and these students did more than just sell hoagies and hold bake sales. They partnered with local and county government; worked with McMillen Engineering and LaQuatra Bonci Associates, a landscape architectural firm from Pittsburgh, on the design of the stage; and created relationships with major philanthropic agents.
Brownsville Mayor Lester Ward credits the enthusiasm of the students for “putting Brownsville back on the map.”
And they weren’t the only ones working towards that goal.
“The student project coincided with the Redevelopment Authority’s acquisition of more than 20 downtown buildings through eminent domain,” explains French.
The park project fit with the plan to demolish some of those buildings to open up the town center and unveil Dunlap’s Creek Bridge, the first all cast iron bridge in the United States. The desire to revitalize Brownsville’s historic downtown got the attention of large funders in Pittsburgh — most notably The Heinz Endowments and UPMC Health Plan. Both contributed generously to the initial planning stages for TREK’s downtown housing project and the student park project.
The Redevelopment Authority of Fayette County received a $175,000 state grant for the students’ project. According to French, Brownsville Borough contributed $3,000; $20,000 came from the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau‘s Fayette County Tourism Grant. By approaching local businesses and holding fundraisers, the students raised an additional $23,000.
It all comes together at “The Neck”
Henry Ford said, “Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.”
In Brownsville, they’re definitely pulling for success.
A Brownsville resident herself, Muriel Nuttall, executive director of the Fayette Chamber of Commerce and vice-chair of Brownsville’s Planning Commission, has a real stake in the success of the current projects. She is most excited about how the student work dovetails with other projects in development.
Major funders from outside Brownsville saw the combination of housing, retail and outdoor space as exactly what the town needed to sustain itself with new tax revenue. Nuttall agrees.
“Additionally, the involvement of the students helps bolster the needed community support, which is very much in favor of the current projects,” adds Nuttall. “The community is very excited.”
Redevelopment does not come without tough choices. There was debate around preserving historic but dilapidated buildings or demolishing them and starting from scratch. For the area where the National Road passes through town as Market Street — known as “The Neck” — the Planning Commission worked with outside consultants to reach a hybrid decision: save what could be restored and remove less architecturally viable buildings.
Though TREK will construct one structure to fill the space on Market Street formerly occupied by a long shuttered G.C. Murphy, the façade will appear as three tall, narrow buildings, mirroring the look of its historical neighbors. Across the street will be the students’ park, providing a gathering place for the new residents, shoppers and visitors.
“Seeing how committed the students are, how they have kept at it, demonstrates to us, as a private investor in the community, that, if the students care that much, there is a future here,” says Trey Barbour, senior project manager at TREK Development Group. “The students are inspiring; they make us want to be better, to do better, to be more motivated ourselves. They have motivated the whole town.”
Joe Hackett, principal of LaQuatra Bonci, agrees. The landscape architectural firm was brought in by the Heinz Endowment to work with the students on the design of the park stage. The new design incorporates salvaged trusses from a nearby train station slated for demolition.
“The design is now more iconic,” enthuses Hackett. “Part of Brownsville’s past is being repurposed for Brownsville’s future. The students had the dream. We just helped them dream bigger.”
In the summer of 2013, Hackett was there when the students presented their vision to a group of philanthropic foundations, including Heinz.
“It’s hard to get one foundation in a room, let alone five or six,” he says. “These kids raised the excitement level. Everyone wanted to contribute. It was really incredible.”
And that has been noticed way beyond the town’s borders. This year, the Brownsville Students in Action team earned the Jefferson Awards Foundation ranking as the top ambassador team in the nation out of 325 schools in contention. Their Jefferson Award video shows why these incredible students were so successful.
More to Come
Other revitalization and preservation projects in Brownsville are in the planning stages or already approved for funding and implementation. PennDOT has committed to the renovation of Dunlap’s Creek Bridge. A capital campaign is underway to renovate and expand Brownsville’s library, and resources are being sought to restore Central Park and to design a walking trail bordering Dunlap Creek. Outside consultants and agencies — The River Town Program and The National Road Heritage Corridor (NRHC) — are also working within the community to continue the progress.
“We are pleased to have played a role in bringing TREK to town,” enthuses Donna Holdorff of the NRHC; the organization has been engaged in Brownsville since its formation in 1994. “The students’ vision, along with other investments being made here, truly are bringing Brownsville into a new era. Hopefully, this is only the beginning of great things to come!”
As in Pittsburgh, there is talk of a renaissance afoot. Residents, including its youngest, believe in their community, take pride in their town, and want to make sure there is a reason to stay there.
“These kids truly are Students in Action,” says French, “They rolled up their sleeves and made something happen.”
WENDY DUCHENE is an attorney with offices in Allegheny and Somerset Counties. She is also an avid user of the many hiking and biking trails in western PA, where she can often be found on her recumbent bike or walking her dog Sander.
This story was created in partnership with the Keystone Edge.
A total of 17 events and openings took place May 30-31 in the Mon River Towns, including:
- W.A. Young & Sons Machine Shop and Foundry – open both days for tours
- Friendship Hill National Historic Site – open both days, per usual
- Mon River Spring Paddle from Rices Landing to Fredericktown
- Greensboro Farmers’ Market
- Greensboro Historical Log Cabin open for tours
- The Captain’s Watch Inn Open House
- Meet the Mon Mermaid and children’s book reading in Brownsville
- Flatiron Building Heritage Museum and Visitor Center open for tours
- Broad Ave. shops in North Belle Vernon open with specials and refreshments
- Children’s craft classes at Knick Knacks & Paddy Wacks in Monongahela
- Greene Cove Yacht Club parking lot party
- Leaning House Fine Cigars summer kickoff
- Greene River Trail Fun Walk & Ride
- Mad Men Summer BBQ at the Good ‘Ol Days House
- Party on the Patio at the Riviera
In all, seven communities were represented. Most of the events were planned and hosted by local communities and small businesses, with some idea generation and limited support offered by the River Town Program. The Mon River Spring Paddle and Greene River Trail Fun Walk & Ride in particular were hosted by the River Town Program.
Willingness to assume risk, with the possibility of reaping rewards, might be one definition of entrepreneurship.
Many people who report to supervisors might hope to one day launch a business of their own.
Few have the opportunity to land a $10,000 award to bring their idea to fruition.
In an effort to attract small businesses to its communities, the Monongahela River Valley Coalition has announced a new business plan contest.
The Sustainable Marketplace for Arts, Artisans, Recreation and Trending (SMAART) initiative will award three winning entrants $10,000 each in cash and services to launch a business idea in new or existing locations.
Donna Holdorf is executive director of the National Road Heritage Corridor, a coalition partner and its fiscal agent.
“The goal is to develop the spirit of entrepreneurship in the Mon Valley, which has seen its share of downturn. Part of the (coalition’s) effort is focused on revitalizing those areas. … How do we connect the communities to the river? How do we reinvigorate these beautiful downtown areas?” Holdorf said.
The coalition acknowledged the Oil Region Alliance’s “Get On The Trail” entrepreneurial contest for guidance and direction, and credited Donn Henderson, Charleroi Borough manager, for launching the local SMAART pilot program.
“I think the fact that we’re kind of working together with a bunch of communities is unique. The hope is to get the interest,” Henderson said.
“We realize we are not going to attract 10 new shoe stores in Charleroi again. Those days are gone. … We are not gearing toward traditional retail,” he said.
The coalition is hopeful that as it works toward river cleanup and access improvements, businesses will be encouraged to locate in the communities, Henderson said.
The project is being funded in part through the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development.
Holdorf said the potential for business pitches is “pretty wide.”
“They need to fit into one of those (SMAART) niches, but it’s pretty broad,” she said.
A graphic design business, for instance, could fall under the category of “arts,” she said.
“Recreation” could include a plan to open a paddle boat or canoe and kayak start-up.
Existing businesses looking to expand or improve their business may qualify, Holdorf said, as long as the plan goes beyond adding square footage.
“Our focus is more on strong business plans that can really contribute to the community,” she said.
Holdorf noted that niche businesses have sprung up in communities like Connellsville and Rockwood in Somerset County, in response to increased use of the Great Allegheny Passage.
“The whole idea is to create visitor destinations along the Monongahela River. That helps enhance the economy of those communities,” she said.
Two proposals located in Charleroi and one proposal from one of the other eligible river town communities — Monongahela, Fredericktown/Marianna, Brownsville, West Brownsville, California/Coal Center, Rices Landing, Greensboro and Point Marion — will be selected.
SMAART is sponsoring a series of workshops, held in the Charleroi Borough Building, to educate interested parties on the basics of starting a small business.
Holdorf said that while only three awards will be given, SMAART has several partners who may be able to offer guidance and technical support to other candidate.
It’s possible some of the applicants may end up finding partners, Holdorf said.
Potential applicants are required to attend at least two workshops, and can earn three points in the judging criteria for each one attended.
Henderson said anyone interested in starting a business, with or without a business plan in hand, can attend.
They are: “The First Step: The Mechanics of Starting a Small Business,” June 9; and “The Second Step: Creating a Business Plan,” June 23, both presented by the Small Business Development Center; UpTo Main Street Marketing Resource Center, open July 20-31; “Show Me the Money,” July 14, by Washington County Council on Economic Development; “Financing Your Business 1,” Aug. 11; “Financing Your Business 2,” Aug. 18, Washington County Council on Economic Development and Community Bank; “Why Branding Matters,” Sept. 17, UpTo Main Street; amd “Know Your Customer,” River Town Program and the National Road Heritage Corridor, Oct. 6.
Applicants must submit a draft business concept. Semi-finalists must produce and present a final business plan before the SMAART Business Advisory Council during the selection process.
Entries will be accepted through Sept. 30. Five copies are required and can be hand-delivered or mailed to Henderson at 138 Fallowfield Avenue, Charleroi, PA 15022.
Contest dates and deadlines can be found on the MRVC website.
Winners will be announced in November.
In 2010, the Power of 32 held 156 community conversations in 32 counties to create a shared vision for the region’s future. The outcome was a Regional Agenda, published late in 2011, outlining 15 initiatives. One of the key initiatives was to create better sites for business growth in the region. The goal was to launch a fund to assist development of high-quality sites, emphasizing redevelopment of brownfields, to support business relocations and expansions to the 32-county region.
Today, that fund is a reality.
On May 28, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which led the effort to create the fund, announced the Power of 32 Site Development Fund LP, a new, nearly $49 million fund that will help close critical infrastructure financing gaps and move prepared sites to market more quickly.
The fund, established with the investment of 14 private sector investors and foundations, is built on the belief that successful business investment depends on all the strengths of the 32-county region regardless of geographic boundaries, and that an investment in real estate at any one location benefits the region as a whole.
Brownsville has its first bed and breakfast, compliments of two entrepreneurs Jef Wilhelm and Bob Kovach. Check out their website, www.wilkovbedandbreakfast.com, for details about the new lodging business at 514 Market St. The stately 18-room home, built in the 1800s, is located within walking distance of historic Church Street, Historic Church of St. Peter, Nemacolin Castle, the Flatiron Building and Frank L. Melega Art Museum. Each night’s stay includes a complimentary home-style breakfast.