Rails and trails prove essential to Connellsville's future

| Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, 7:09 p.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today the Daily Courier continues “The Way We Were,” followed by “Where We're Headed,” a series of articles tracing Connellsville's past through the eyes of residents who lived it. From the 1930s through the New Millennium, “The Way We Were” will give a human perspective of Connellsville's boomtown years as well as its hard times and will end with a flourish, focusing on good news — we hope — for the future of our town in particular and Southwestern Pennsylvania in general. The series will run through December.

Those who doubt that Connellsville is moving toward better times need only look at the tidy new railroad station along Water Street.

The brick building was constructed with $1.25 million in federal stimulus cash obtained by Amtrak, whose Capitol Limited passenger train stops daily en route to Chicago to the west and Washington to the east. The station was dedicated in 2011.

“Connellsville's improvements were on the radar, so the (train station) project was funded,” said Michael Edwards, who heads two agencies that are working to revitalize the city: the Fayette County Cultural Trust and the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority.

With support from City Council, the Cultural Trust and the Redevelopment Authority have played a vital role in recent projects, including the Connellsville Canteen Café/ICV Model Train Museum, which will open soon, and construction of a $5.4 million, three-story Cobblestone Hotel, which will soon break ground. The 56-room hotel will be built near Yough River Park on a lot that once housed Connellsville Bottling Co., according to officials.

‘Right place, right time'

Yough River Trail, which is a section of the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage, follows the Youghiogheny River through Connellsville. The Cobblestone Hotel will be a stone's throw from the trail, so Connellsville is at the right place at the right time, Edwards noted.

City officials hope the hotel will attract family visitors, business travelers and trail users.

“It will create local jobs and help the city's tax base,” Edwards said. “We hope it will foster new businesses such as restaurants and shops that will keep visitors here awhile.”

Those who prefer bed-and-breakfast accommodations to regular hotels will also find Connellsville welcoming. Now there are two — Connellsville B&B and Greenwood House B&B, both in the West Side. Two more are in the making: the Fox House, near the former YMCA on South Side, and the former South Side Hospital, across from Wesley United Methodist Church on South Pittsburgh Street.

Trail-user friendly

In recent years, Connellsville has strived to become trail-user friendly. Signs clearly mark the trail's route through Yough River Park and along Third Street so bikers can safely enter the section of trail that runs from Connellsville to Ohiopyle State Park. A refurbished red B&O train caboose, at the trail head behind Martin's supermarket, offers tourism brochures to trail users. Maps, trail markers, restrooms and water fountains line the path.

Local officials had input during the $14 million state project that renovated Memorial Bridge along Route 119 a couple of years ago.

“Through Connellsville's efforts, 6-foot-wide sidewalks were installed on both sides of the bridge, making it safe for bicycles,” Edwards explained.

The GAP opened with fanfare in Pittsburgh in June, and trail use has steadily grown, he added. Those interested in a long bicycle trek can enter the trail at various points — such as McKeesport, West Newton or Layton, to name a few — and travel without disruption to Cumberland, Md. From there, they can continue southward 185 miles to Washington.

Along the 335 miles of trail, there are sites to see — and that's where Connellsville's renovation comes in. As each blighted structure is eliminated, the city's outward appearance improves and space is freed for future development, Edwards noted.

Other abandoned buildings are being renovated, such as the Aaron's building on North Pittsburgh Street, thanks to local entrepreneur Terry “Tuffy” Shallenberger.

‘Roll On, Roll Off' coming

In 2014, Amtrak will offer a service called “Roll On, Roll Off” to enhance trail use, according to Edwards. A special baggage car will be offered to passengers on the Capitol Limited.

“Riders will be able to roll their bicycles on, hook up and at their destinations, hook off and start biking,” he said. “We hope people from D.C. will come here, stay over and hit the trail.”

The program had a trial run in the summer that was very successful, he said.

While most recreational bicyclists travel only short distances, the trail's beauty is encouraging some to lengthen their ride.

“We want Connellsville to be a destination, a place that people know and like. We are working toward having things to keep them in our town,” Edwards said.

Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.

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