Ambridge residents committed to rising from rubble
The bulldozers are back in Ambridge this summer, clearing debris from a pair of fires last month that gutted three buildings in the shrinking borough's business district.
The destruction of a recently reopened restaurant, a soon-to-open bridal boutique and a single-occupant apartment extended a string of troubling events in the community.
The only code enforcement officer quit in May, the borough manager resigned in June, and the oldest retailer on Merchant Street closed this year, adding another vacancy to a main drag plagued by empty and junk-filled storefronts.
Yet amid the charred rubble and tumultuous turnover, a growing coalition of business owners, residents and planning experts is trying to breathe new life into the Beaver County community and its once-bustling downtown.
Several small shops are opening this summer and fall, a 31-unit hotel is breaking ground in October, and efforts are in the works to increase foot traffic, including a thriving farmers market, a “Walkabout Thursdays” campaign and a downtown committee focused on cleaning up blight and drawing new business.
“We have faith in Ambridge,” said Martin Costanza, who has vowed to rebuild Rook's Cantina 505, the former Rook's East Side Saloon owned by Pirates pitcher Jim Rooker that Costanza reopened two months before a fire took it down on July 2. “It's not going to happen overnight, but I have high expectations.”
‘An invisible community'
Ambridge is much like small municipalities across Pennsylvania and the nation approaching a crossroads: Identify and implement changes to thrive in the modern economy or risk falling further into decline and blight.
“Ambridge has become an invisible community,” said Felicia Mycyk, who eight months ago co-founded Ambridge Connection, a website that promotes the area and its businesses. “We're not the worst off, but we're definitely not the best, and if we don't do something, we're going to fall off the map.”
Ambridge topped 20,000 residents during its heyday in the 1930s, but its population has dwindled to less than 7,000. The river community along Route 65, about 16 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, is still struggling to rebound from the rise of suburban shopping centers in the 1960s and '70s and the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s.
“There's a lethargy among many of the people,” said Barbara Costa, a downtown committee member and community liaison at the Trinity School for Ministry, an Anglican seminary adjacent to an old brownfield. “They still yearn for the old days, and the old days aren't going to come back.”
Throughout the United States, small downtowns are making comebacks, including in pockets of Pennsylvania — Greensburg in Westmoreland County, Lititz in Lancaster County and Tamaqua in Schuylkill County are among them. But most of the 2,563 municipalities in the commonwealth lag behind the nation, according to Bill Fontana, executive director of the Pennsylvania Downtown Center, which assists communities statewide in revitalization efforts. That's particularly true in this region, where steel industry leaders wielded enormous power and influence and resisted the need for cooperation among local governments.
“If we had a problem, we called up a mill foreman, and he took care of it,” said Fontana, who worked in Homestead while the steel mills were booming. “So we never really learned in southwestern Pennsylvania how to build the partnerships that are necessary to survive today.”
Not an easy road
Several obstacles threaten to thwart progress in Ambridge. The borough has the highest property taxes in Beaver County, a school district with dismal rankings and its share of absentee landlords using highly visible storefronts for storage.
“Whether anybody likes it or not, your downtown is a visual representation of your community,” said Jack Manning of Town Center Associates, which works with 22 communities between Beaver and Allegheny counties.
Ambridge has the largest downtown corridor in Beaver County and much of Western Pennsylvania, Manning said. With 191 units, it's three times as big as downtowns in Beaver, Monaca, Midland, New Brighton and Rochester. Yet more than a quarter of Ambridge's downtown is vacant, and only 14 of 49 vacant properties are listed for sale.
Whitney Brady, who stepped down as Ambridge's borough manager in mid-June, said Ambridge needs stronger leadership and a “more progressive mindset” when it comes to long-term planning.
One of her top priorities had been updating zoning laws, which she said have not undergone a major overhaul in about three decades.
Council President Mike Mikulich disagreed, saying that during his 23 years on council, the borough updated its zoning ordinances regularly and decreased blight gradually by using facade improvement grants.
Both Manning and Fontana support “right-sizing,” or using zoning and incentives to concentrate revitalization efforts on a few key blocks, such as from Eighth to 11th streets on Ambridge's main drag.
Mikulich said he's open to suggestions, but he has doubts about that approach. He said he does not want to “chase a business out of town” for being interested in a property outside a certain area.
Fontana said Ambridge leaders should develop a specific vision for the community, incorporating assets that give it an edge: its affordable housing and retail space, the Harmony Society's historic settlement at Old Economy Village, and its close proximity to major thoroughfares and Pittsburgh.
“We have to take a more comprehensive approach and understand how we exist within this regional economy,” Fontana said. “The areas that don't are going to be left behind.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.