New Trafford manager helped to improve Uniontown
Uniontown Mayor Ed Fike said he felt sick to his stomach when he learned Jeff McLaughlin was leaving city government to become the new Trafford borough manager.
In five years with Uniontown's redevelopment authority, McLaughlin worked on projects to tear down about 50 dilapidated homes, facilitate of a $7-million complex with 36 apartments for seniors, support the private development of single-family homes in run-down neighborhoods and foster more community involvement in areas that had seen better days.
Fike, a businessman who became mayor in 2008, said he's not sure how Uniontown will replace McLaughlin, whom he described as hard-working, devoted and conscientious.
“I told him to his face, ‘If I could give you a bad recommendation, I'd give it because I wouldn't want to lose you,'” Fike said. “I just think he's an All-American good guy, and he's positive and out to help in any way he can. It's hard to lose a good guy like that.”
Uniontown's loss is Trafford's gain as the North Braddock resident steps in as the borough's first manager since the mid-1990s.
Though his first day in Trafford was on March 22, McLaughlin initially is splitting time between the two municipalities as he wraps up his work on some programs in the government seat of Fayette County.
Despite his excitement for the Trafford position, McLaughlin called the move “gut-wrenching” because he feels Uniontown has had some successes during his tenure.
He started off as the manager of a state grant-funded Elm Street program that centers on neighborhood development near downtown commercial districts. For the past year, his duties also included heading the Main Street program that targets downtown reinvestment.
He also coordinated a Weed and Seed program that included community-policing and neighborhood-restoration initiatives.
Before Uniontown, he worked for 14 years on the housing-development team for the Mon Valley Initiative, a Homestead-based nonprofit group that collaborates with 10 community development corporations in Allegheny, Westmoreland and Washington counties.
McLaughlin's said the opportunity in Trafford intrigued him because of the care council members showed for the borough during his job interview.
He said he's interested in improving the quality of life for Trafford residents. One possible focus might be the development of the Westmoreland Heritage Trail, which could eventually link Saltsburg to Trafford along a bike path near an old rail line, McLaughlin said.
“It seems like they have a lot of interest from the community to make some improvements there,” he said.
Renee Cappetta, president of the Trafford Economic and Community Development Corp., said she's optimistic that McLaughlin's experience will aid Trafford's implementation of a revitalization plan that council approved in 2010.
Cappetta, the owner of two businesses in town, said Trafford needs to fill more storefronts, repair sidewalks and plant some greenery to make downtown look more attractive. Another long-term goal is to bury the utility wires in the business district, but she concedes that's a big expense.
“I'm excited to meet him and have someone concentrate on our borough,” she said. “That's long overdue.”
Uniontown's Elm Street and Main Street projects have been buoyed by funding from the state Department of Community and Economic Development. Officials and residents in the Uniontown area say the city has benefitted from grants to improve blighted, crime-ridden areas by removing blight, boosting police patrols and promoting beautification.
In his original position as the Elm Street manager, McLaughlin supported citizens groups in their goal of having safer neighborhoods. Jim Stark, the chief executive officer of Fayette County Community Action, said McLaughlin was a great partner to his nonprofit agency as they worked with developers of the apartment complex and new homes.
“He had a talent of coordinating and listening to the residents and sharing that with public officials and agencies like ours, and because of that, the projects were improved, Stark said.
The state-funded Weed and Seed program paid for a full-time police officer's salary and covered the cost of a new sport-utility vehicle for the police department before the city ended it after a year-and-a-half because the money ran out.
Under the city's program, the county district attorney, a district judge and local and state police appeared at community meetings to answer questions from residents.
“That way, people are able to sit around the table with law enforcement and build that trust,” McLaughlin said.
Elizabeth “Sis” Coffman, the secretary of another neighborhood group, the Gallatin Avenue Concerned Citizens Association, said she thinks the redevelopment authority's efforts “slowly and steadily” are improving the neighborhood where she has lived for 55 years. She described McLaughlin as “very capable,” and said he always had new ideas to discuss at the group's meetings.
This spring, Uniontown will dedicate a new park near Coffman's home, in a spot where four dilapidated homes and a run-down apartment building once stood.
“I think that our area has really come around, and things are really good on our street,” Coffman said.
Three community gardens also have sprouted in the city in the last few years. One was shepherded by a volunteer, Rebecca Hilton, who became McLaughlin's assistant with the city.
Besides being a place where community members may take produce on an honor system, the Lincoln Street garden has been a popular draw for activities, including an Easter egg hunt last weekend, Hilton said. A neighborhood teen tends to the garden.
“It's kind of like a ribbon or a star for the neighborhood that's just a bright spot for the town,” Hilton said.
Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or firstname.lastname@example.org.