Long-awaited Blairsville Riverfront Trail is officially opened
The Blairsville Riverfront Trail officially opened to the public on Oct. 26 as local, county and state officials joined residents for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the trail's western end, at Water and Brown streets.
But eager hikers and bikers already had been trying out the 1.7-mile tar-and-chip trail for weeks earlier, even as work crews were putting final touches in place.
Among those early trail users was Blairsville resident and Indiana County Commissioner Patricia Evanko, who told those gathered for last week's ceremony that the completed trail should be a source of pride for the community. “I have walked it,” she said, encouraging others to do the same. “It's beautiful.”
The 10-foot-wide trail follows the arc of the Conemaugh River along Blairsville's southern edge and has its eastern terminus in WyoTech Park, at the end of Wilkinson Avenue. It is located on property Blairsville Borough leases from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and will be maintained by Indiana County Parks and Trails with help from local volunteers.
Trail amenities include comfort shelters and parking areas. Signage is planned to direct trail users to other attractions in town and to interpret the history of the Army Corps land. Once home to a residential neighborhood, known as Tin Town, and the Columbia Plate Glass plant, the area was cleared in the 1940s to create a flood impoundment area for the Conemaugh Dam about seven miles downstream.
The Riverfront Trail already has fulfilled part of its potential, providing recreation and exercise for area residents in a wooded area that offers shade as well as scenic glimpses of the Conemaugh.
Rod Ruddock, chairman of the county commissioners, called the Riverfront Trail's setting “probably the most picturesque in Indiana County.”
But planners also are hoping the trail will benefit the local economy by attracting visitors who enjoy walking or pedaling in the outdoors and who may patronize businesses in Blairsville.
Other projects that are under way in the borough include renovation of the bandstand at Market and Liberty streets and proposed construction of a Riverfront Village housing area along West Market Street on properties owned by the borough-created Blairsville Community Development Authority.
In addition, a new sign recently was erected to direct eastbound travelers along Route 22 to explore amenities in downtown Blairsville, where new streetscaping is now in place along most of Market Street. The sign replaced a previous version that had deteriorated with age, and additional promotional and informative signs are planned at other key locations in town.
BCDA board member Linda Gwinn, who has championed the Blairsville trail project since the initial planning stages about a decade ago, pointed out it is “the newest link in the Trans-Allegheny Trails, a network of 11 trails that cover more than 100 miles from Altoona to Apollo.”
Gwinn credited a long list or individuals and organizations that provided guidance, funding or other help over the years in advancing the Riverfront Trail to completion — including representatives of the Army Corps, the National Park Service and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy, the Allegheny Ridge Corporation, borough and county officials and fellow local trail advocate Laurie Lafontaine.
Gwinn also praised the ongoing work of the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy's Stream Team program to help improve conditions along the Conemaugh, adding to the appeal for trail users who want to explore recreational possibilities on the river.
“Eight different species of fish have been caught already down here,” Gwinn reported.
Funding for the trail project has included $281,000 from the DCNR, $150,000 from the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) and $10,000 each from the Friends of Blairsville Parks and Recreation Foundation and the Arnold Palmer Foundation, with additional costs covered by local in-kind services.
“One of the cool things about this trail is a lot of the grant money that came in, we kept it in the area,” said Blairsville Borough Manager Tim Evans.
The general contractor for the trail construction was the Blairsville-based 12th Regional Equipment Company, which agreed to perform the job at a cost not to exceed $436,690. The 12th REC's Gary Stuchal “did a tremendous job, stretching the dollars that we had and the in-kind work to get this done,” Evans said.
Gregory Construction also was involved in the project, as was Garvin Engineering, which provided design and project management services. The Blairsville Borough crew helped install fencing and barriers near the trailheads.
According to Evans, Blairsville's Local Kencove has donated several hundred feet of additional fencing to be installed along the trail.
Other project resources were obtained from such local companies as Hitchman Supply, Wilbert Vault, Bergman's Hardware and Derry Construction.
While local proponents celebrated the long-awaited completion of the Riverfront Trail, their work is far from over.
It's been noted that Blairsville could serve as a hub in a regional trail system if it can be connected with dedicated links to Indiana County's Hoodlebug Trail to the northeast and to the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy's West Penn Trail to the west.
One idea that has gained support locally is the erection of a pedestrian bridge that would allow trail users to cross safely above Route 22 between the Resort Plaza and the Corporate Campus industrial park east of Blairsville.
Currently, those on bicycle must share the road with motorized vehicles to travel between the trails.
The Blairsville trail also is positioned along the Main Line Greenway, a proposed trail system that would link communities along the old Pennsylvania Main Line Canal.
There is a trade-off for the Riverfront Trail's scenic location. The proximity of the Conemaugh River and the presence of the dam downstream mean the trail will be subject to periodic flooding during periods of high water, as occurred with the steady rain this week associated with Hurricane Sandy. To assist with repair of any sections of trail that might be washed out after such events, the BCDA is accepting donations for a trail maintenance fund and is encouraging volunteers to sign up for other tasks involved in keeping the trail in shape.
More information is available by calling the BCDA at 724-459-8588 or by visiting www.blairsville-pa.net.
“I've never been involved in a trail project where a community has been so excited about a trail,” said Ed Patterson, director of Indiana County Parks and Trails. “I'm sure that people will support it.”
“It adds about six percent to our total trail maintenance,” he said, noting mowing chores also will be involved. Patterson's department also maintains the Hoodlebug and Ghost Town trails.
The Riverfront Trail normally is open from dawn to dusk for walking, running and bicycling. Since the surrounding Army Corps property is open for hunting, users are advised to wear safety orange when on the trail during hunting seasons.
Pets are permitted on the trail, but they must be leashed, and owners must clean up after them.
Evans and Gwinn noted the state Game Commission and Blairsville police will both be involved in keeping tabs on activities along the trail.
The Blairsville Military Service Group began the ceremony with a presentation of the colors.
Following the ceremony, officials and community members were invited to an open house about a block away, at the new BCDA office at 130 W. Market St., Blairsville.
The authority expects to realize cost savings by moving its headquarters from a rented Market Street storefront to the current location, which the BCDA owns. The building formerly housed a common community area and laundry room for residents of the surrounding Conemaugh Terrace apartments, which have been replaced with new housing and razed to make way for the planned Riverfront Village.
According to BCDA Executive Director Leann Chaney, most meetings of the BCDA board and its volunteer committees can be accommodated in the compact building, but gatherings that are expected to draw a large attendance may have to be moved to another borough-owned site.
Chaney said efforts were made to hold down expenses in renovating the new BCDA office space. She noted a local business, Blairsville Floor Covering, installed some new carpeting at cost.
As for the Riverfront Village project, Chaney reported that $220,000 of allotted state funds were spent to demolish the Conemaugh Terrace and other nearby buildings, mostly on the former Vale Tech automotive school campus. That will leave about $500,000 to invest in infrastructure improvements to help pave the way for construction of new homes by the BCDA's development partner, Fourth River Development of Pittsburgh.
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or firstname.lastname@example.org.