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Students pitch future development ideas to Latrobe, Derry

On a National Honor Society trip to Chicago last week, Greater Latrobe High School senior Ryan Dudik learned of the Windy City's revered, century-old development plan.

"That really closed the deal on what I want to do," said Dudik, 18, who will study architecture this fall at Virginia Tech. "I fell in love with the ways of all the big cities I've been to, and right now I'm trying to use them to help make Latrobe better overall."

Dudik did so Wednesday with 54 other students from Greater Latrobe and Derry Area high schools at "Economic Exchange Day," an annual event organized by the Latrobe Area Chamber of Commerce.

Participants at the Greater Latrobe Center for Student Creativity spent the day figuring out ways to breathe life back into Latrobe and Derry before several elected and administrative leaders from the city, the borough and nearby New Alexandria.

"Though you belong to two separate school districts, you have to remember it's all one community in many ways," said Randy Strayer, a chamber education committee member who coordinated the event with fellow committee member Jody Adams.

Students began with a presentation on Latrobe's history, complete with photographs Dudik took of various downtown buildings in need of renovation. A similar production on Derry — shown by Ashley Harshell, Justin Beck and Elisabeth Henry, all 18, and Nate Laroue, 17 — featured music that reflected the borough's high points and harder times.

"Maybe some of you are aspiring community planners, architects, even political leaders ... this event gives you the chance to tell us where you want your communities to go in the future," Alex Graziani, executive director of Smart Growth Partnership of Westmoreland County, told the students.

Students broke into several small groups to develop vision statements for both areas. Results were often mixed.

Some suggested the 19-acre site of the old Westinghouse plant in Derry be transformed into a recreation center; others suggested Latrobe work to bring chain restaurants and clothing stores to make the city a more attractive destination.

All featured ways to preserve positive aspects of each community's past while making them more vibrant for residents and visitors.

"We're looking to improve overall commerce in the downtown areas to provide for expansion later on," Laroue said.

Posters surrounded students displaying graphics, statistics and aerial overviews of the two areas to help inspire dialogue regarding their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

They also drew suggestions on finely detailed maps of both areas provided by Randy Strong, director of tax mapping at the county department of planning and development.

"You get so much more creativity out of kids because they know no bounds," Strong said.

Derry Mayor Susan Bortz encouraged the students to attend the monthly Derry Area Revitalization Corp. meetings to further discuss their ideas.

Latrobe Revitalization Committee Chair Ron Weimer said about half of the ideas students suggested are being pursued.

"What you've done today is gratifying, and I know it will be taken into consideration by the leaders of Latrobe and Derry," said Executive Director Andy Stofan of the Latrobe chamber.

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