Cultural Trust, Redevelopment Authority work toward city's rebirth
By Laura Szepesi
Published: Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, 12:01 a.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 throughout December.
Fayette County Cultural Trust and Connellsville Redevelopment Authority handle many “nuts and bolts” projects to beautify Connellsville and lure new business. The same projects improve the quality of life for local residents.
Michael Edwards and Daniel Cocks founded the cultural trust in 2006. In 2008, longtime redevelopment director Ralph Wombacker retired — and Edwards thought it made sense to partner the two agencies. He applied for Wombacker's position and was named the redevelopment authority's new director.
During the interim — until Edwards was officially on board — administrative assistant Paula Grubach (who worked with Wombacker for 20 years) handily kept the authority running smoothly. “She's very knowledgeable,” Edwards said. “She made the transition so much easier for me.”
As one of the state's 27 entitlement communities, Connellsville receives an annual Community Development Block Grant. Currently, it averages around $300,000. The public has input as to how the cash is spent, and city council approval is required for all projects.
CDBG: Long track record
Many projects totaling many millions of dollars were completed during Wombacker's 30-year career. He was hired in 1978, when federal and state money was plentiful.
Connellsville Senior Center was built; many sidewalks and storm sewers were constructed; houses were refurbished. New parks (such as North End/Woodruff Community Park and Yough River Park) were created; others, such as East Park and Mountz Creek Baseball field, were renovated. Carnegie Free Library, Connellsville Community Center and other local groups received assistance with things such as new windows and heating. The city's volunteer fire department, New Haven Hose Co., has purchased much of its equipment with the help of CDBG money.
Edwards picked up where Wombacker left off, and has continued to wear the president's hat for Fayette County Cultural Trust as well. In other words, he's really busy — especially since things have picked up in Connellsville. $1.5 million in CDBG projects alone have been completed since Edwards came to the redevelopment authority in 2008 — plus many other programs through other funding sources.
Always seeking cash
Because state and federal grants have shrunk in recent years, Edwards and Grubach keep busy looking for alternative cash. There are conservation and natural resources grants out there — and they're on it like white on rice.
A private foundation funded a recent overhaul of Yough River Park, which is located along Yough River Trail, a section of the Great Allegheny Passage that is now open between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Maryland. New restrooms were constructed, playground equipment installed, pavilions updated and a plaza built.
Another recent project was refurbishment of East Park's “lookout castle,” a monument constructed in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. It was disassembled stone-by-stone, cleaned and patiently restored to its original design. East Park has seen increased use since its facelift; Edwards praised the efforts of the city recreation board, which brought back Thursday Night Movies there during the summer. “It's good to see so many young people getting involved in their town,” he noted.
The current round of CDBG money has been allocated for basketball / tennis court renovations at East Park, sidewalks on South Pittsburgh Street and Gibson Avenue, heating repairs at Carnegie Free Library, cash towards New Haven Hose's new truck, and funding for demolition of blighted buildings.
$3 million coming?
Edwards' latest cultural trust endeavor will hopefully bring $3 million to Connellsville over the next six years. Always seeking new funding, this year he learned about a program to be funded by the Allegheny Conference — a consortium of 300 members who wanted to reach out and help struggling communities to prosper.
Twenty communities applied for the program, but only five were selected — and Connellsville is one of them. The others are Wilkinsburg, McKeesport, Washington and Community South (a group of small villages/boroughs).
The cultural trust received a $25,000 grant to hire a consultant (Civic Square of Pittsburgh), to provide technical assistance in preparing Connellsville's six-year plan. Application for $500,000 per year (for six years) will be submitted in spring 2014 to Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.
“The program is designed to help low and moderate-income communities. Connellsville qualifies,” Edwards explained. The redevelopment authority will work hand-in-hand with the cultural trust to implement the six-year project.
Cash will be awarded for energy assistance (such as furnace repairs and new windows) for families who qualify; also, houses will be remodeled so that senior citizens can stay in their own homes.
Edwards said it is hoped there will be enough money to finally hire a small cultural trust staff, which will work to increase the trust's scope of activities and to see to it that the trust's Connellsville Canteen Café and ICV Model Railroad Museum is properly managed.
“Of course, there will be other projects, such as playground upkeep and code enforcement,” said Edwards. “We are hoping this program is a big positive step forward for Connellsville's rebirth.”
Monday: Rails and trails provingessential to city's future.
Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.
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