Better mix of stores among citizens' desires noted in Blairsville visioning forum
Today's Blairsville citizens picture a future for their community that includes the right mix of stores to meet all basic needs and a safe environment that will be appealing for visitors and residents, employers and employees alike.
Those were among the most frequently mentioned qualities that Blairsville ideally should have, according to about 17 citizens who participated in a community visioning meeting sponsored last Thursday by the Blairsville Community Development Authority.
Ten other people attended a similar session held earlier last week. BCDA officials sought input for creating an updated community vision statement to help guide local development decisions and help shape the town's future.
The authority, created by borough council, has been charged with overseeing various development efforts in Blairsville. Those include a state Elm Street program that has helped to fund improvements in targeted residential areas and proposed development of market-rate housing in an area along West Market Street where a number of vacant buildings were razed in recent months.
BCDA Executive Director Leann Chaney hoped to attract a total of 70 members of the public to the pair of visioning meetings held at the Blairsville Community Center, but she indicated reaching between 30 percent and 50 percent of that goal still represented a healthy response by townspeople.
Other ideas that rated high among participants at last Thursday's session: attracting more residents to Blairsville's downtown business district; increasing the town's tax base through redevelopment efforts; providing public education that will prepare citizens for 21st century jobs; and ending Blairsville's lack of a downtown grocery store.
But Chaney said the BCDA is hoping to get still more public input. She's encouraging citizens to complete a community visioning exercise form similar to that used at last week's meetings.
The form provides room to write 10 responses to the following statement: “When Blairsville has succeeded in developing a great community, this is what our community will look like. It will....” Those completing the form are then asked to indicate the five responses they consider most important.
The form can be accessed online at the BCDA website (www.blairsville-pa.net). Copies also will be available at the Blairsville Borough office and at the BCDA's new office at 130 W. Market St. — at the former Conemaugh Terrace housing complex.
By completing the form and returning it to the BCDA office by Dec. 15, citizens can “express what they would like our community to look like in the future,” Chaney said. “I'd like to start the new year off with a new vision statement.”
Citing the American Planning Association, Chaney explained the visioning process is meant to “bring people together to develop a shared image of what they want their community to become. Once a community has envisioned where it wants to go, they can begin to consciously work toward that goal.”
Since there were few young people in attendance at last week's sessions, Chaney added that she plans to conduct an additional community visioning exercise with local youth.
The two public sessions were guided at no cost to the authority or borough by Whit Watts, a professor in Indiana University of Pennsylvania's geography and regional planning department. He was assisted by students enrolled in his civic engagement course. Chaney indicated the BCDA also will work with the IUP department to establish a new mission statement for the authority.
At the beginning of last Thursday's session, participants were asked to list what the consider strengths and opportunities in the Blairsville community.
Assets that were cited included: recreational opportunities on the Conemaugh River that curves along the town's southern edge and the new hiking and biking trail that follows it; the Blairsville Public Library; community volunteers; and access to major highways including routes 22, 119 and 217.
The town's many churches and the historic character of its older buildings were among strengths listed at the previous visioning session.
“Where do you see (Blairsville's) potential for future development?” Chaney asked those in attendance last Thursday.
Several people mentioned opportunities that await for those who undertake to fulfill needs in the community.
Blairsville resident Josie Ross suggested there is a need for improved local transit service.
“How about an opportunity for local investors?” said Linda Gwinn, a BCDA board member and a longtime trail advocate who was one of the key supporters of the new riverfront trail. She pointed out there could be room in the town for a bike rental shop to serve trail users and for a shop to sell bait for those fishing along the river.
Resident Roger Moskel commented: “Remember when you did all your Christmas shopping and didn't have to leave town? Not anymore.”
Given the recent interest in tapping gas from the area's deep Marcellus shale formation, Moskel suggested Blairsville could be a prime location where companies that are involved in that industry could base their local operations.
Josh Krug of Indiana County's office of planning and development noted that office is taking part in a countywide effort to attract Marcellus shale-related businesses.
Ross suggested community organizers might ask companies in that industry to make donations to help fund revival of Blairsville's defunct Diamond Days summer festival. Burnout by past organizers, dwindling funds and recent construction projects that interrupted downtown traffic patterns have all been cited as factors contributing to the festival's demise.
“It just kind of fell by the wayside,” Chaney said of the festival, noting, “When the economy turned, a lot of the big givers stopped giving.”
The BCDA's housing project notwithstanding, resident Tom Lawton observed that other opportunities for Blairsville Borough to grow its tax base are limited. “We're pretty well landlocked within our boundary,” he said. “Our tax base really can't be broadened.”
Lawton suggested that Blairsville officials should investigate a possible consolidation with neighboring Burrell Township.
That subject has been broached several times over the past few decades, but nothing came of the various discussions.
Not far to the north, a formal study is under way to gauge the feasibility of a jointure between Homer City Borough and its neighbor, Center Township.
During the latter part of the visioning meeting, Watts led participants through a brainstorming process known as nominal group technique.
Audience members, divided into three groups, filled out the community visioning exercise form and then used index cards, wall charts and a numbered rating system to identify the qualities they considered most important for Blairsville's future development.
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or firstname.lastname@example.org.