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Sweetwater art classes expanding into Beaver County

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

If all goes as scheduled, Sweetwater Center for the Arts could expand into Beaver County by the end of the year.

The arts center, located in the old Sewickley post office at the corner of Broad and Bank streets — in a building shared by the Sewickley Valley Historical Society — was given an opportunity to offer classes inside Beaver Station, a multiuse cultural and event center currently undergoing a multimillion-dollar construction project.

“It's really a great opportunity for Sweetwater because there's only so much we can do in (the Sewickley) building, Sweetwater Executive Director Michelle Peters said.

“It's a great opportunity to expand our program.”

Sweetwater is one of three tenants slated for Beaver Station.

Built in 1897, the building first operated as a Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad passenger station until the early 1980s, when it was sold to Beaver County and converted into the Beaver County 911 Emergency Services Center. When the 911 center moved to Ambridge about four years ago, the property was sold to the borough, which then approached members of the Beaver Area Heritage Foundation to see if they would like to purchase it and transform it into a meeting and events center geared toward community use.

“We're a historic organization, so we're in the business of restoring. How could we say, ‘No'?” Beaver Station Steering Committee Chairman David O'Leary said.

But if they were going to take on the project, they decided the campus would have to be financially self-sustaining, he said. So they looked for compatible tenants who would share the cost of keeping the building up and running.

“We approached Sweetwater, and they jumped on board because they are running out of space (at their current location),” O'Leary said.

Sweetwater will occupy two classrooms in the building's lower level. When class is not in session, the space will be available for others to rent, O'Leary said.

Peters said the plan is to start off small at the branch campus by offering a limited number of classes focused primarily on the visual arts.

In addition to Sweetwater, the building's lower floor will house the Beaver Area Heritage Museum Collection and Research Center, which currently is located in the cramped basement of the nearby Beaver Area Heritage Museum.

The Beaver County Genealogy and History Center already has moved into its space on the lower level.

“It's perfect for us here,” President Alice Kern said about the large room lined with bookshelves and boxes of archives.

Beaver Station's upper level — the 1897 event room — will be rented out for lectures, meetings and wedding receptions to help offset building costs. The old flooring will be restored, a stage will be added, and two restrooms accessible to people with disabilities will be installed, O'Leary said. An old baggage room will be converted into a catering kitchen.

Peters said in the future, Sweetwater might use the 1897 event room and catering kitchen for classes as well.

To add some local history and beauty of the area into Beaver Station, O'Leary said, pieces of a historic home that was torn down will be used in its design. An archway from the home will be mounted above the 1897 event room's stage area, and the roof of the home's turret will be used as the top of a gazebo on the event lawn.

O'Leary said the goal for the project is $2.3 million. The steering committee has raised $900,000 through private funding and received a $700,000 state grant for the project. They were awarded a $25,000 grant through the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, or PHMC, for help in restoring the building's slate roof and plan to apply for another PHMC grant to help pay for some additional exterior work.

“We're well on our way. We're pretty pleased (with the fundraising efforts),” O'Leary said.

Peters said she's excited about expanding into Beaver County and hopes its residents are just as excited to have Sweetwater's art classes offered in the area.

“We are partnering with an organization that's top notch,” she said of Beaver Area Heritage Foundation.

Beaver Station's lower level is expected to be completed later this year or in early 2015. Construction for the upper event area is scheduled to wrap up in late 2015.

Kristina Serafini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1405 or kserafini@tribweb.com.

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