Connellsville entrusting Fayette Trust to foster revitalization

| Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, 6:09 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 throughout December.

Rome wasn't built in a day, as the old saying goes.

It's the same with revitalization of cities.

A good example is Pittsburgh's evolution from depressed, smoky steel town to sparkling sports town with a booming economy.

The 'Burgh's metamorphosis took nearly three decades, but most Pittsburghers would agree the transformation was well worth the wait.

Connellsville is amid its own rebirth, thanks to the efforts of the Fayette County Cultural Trust, Connellsville Redevelopment Authority, city officials and a slew of volunteers with one unified goal: a thriving hometown.

FCCT dates to ‘06

The cultural trust was founded in 2006 by Michael Edwards and Daniel Cocks of Washington, D.C., as a 501(c )(3) nonprofit agency. They were drawn to Connellsville by the Newmyer House on South Pittsburgh Street.

The 1893 home had served as a bed-and-breakfast during the 1990s, operated by then-owner Sylvia Midcap.

“We like Victorian homes and furniture,” explained Edwards. Cocks spotted the Newmyer House while surfing the internet. Edwards and Cocks visited Connellsville in 2001 and were amazed by the magnificent residence – and Southwestern Pennsylvania in general. So, they pulled up stakes and moved to town, operating the Newmyer House as a bed-and-breakfast for five years before immersing themselves in city affairs.

Fayette County Cultural Trust was founded for a simple reason. “We wanted to help the city,” said Cocks. “We saw so much potential here but little progress was being made. The crime rate was increasing. People were moving away. There were many blighted structures. We wanted to help Connellsville.”

Savvy in the world of grant writing and foundation research, Edwards obtained an Appalachian Regional Commission grant in 2006, the trust's first grant. With that, along with cash from their own pockets, Edwards and Cocks obtained and installed 11 signs: a two-mile walk through town, “telling the story of Connellsville,” said Edwards. Additional signs have been added in the seven years since.

Just what is FCCT?

Many Connellsville residents are confused about the trust because it includes several different arms and works in cooperation with Connellsville Redevelopment Authority. Edwards is president of the trust and executive director of the redevelopment authority, which adds to the general confusion. Among the trust's initiatives are Downtown Connellsville, ArtWorks Connellsville and Connellsville Crossroads.

Downtown Connellsville was founded in 2008. When the regulations on the state's Main Street Program were changed, a steering committee began a grassroots campaign which netted pledges from 80 businesses, organizations, churches and individuals, totaling $120,000 over a four-year period. The local donations helped the cultural trust to leverage additional grant money through PNC Bank and Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

In 2014, Downtown Connellsville enters its fifth year. Those who donated to the four-year program recently received a report listing the accomplishments of Downtown Connellsville between 2010 through 2013. Edwards said it is hoped that a second round of pledges will be made for 2014 through 2017, to keep the revitalization ball rolling along.

What's Downtown Connellsville?

Edwards listed some of what has been done with help of Downtown Connellsville: 20 new businesses have opened, benches and planters installed downtown, crosswalks constructed on Crawford Avenue and Pittsburgh Street, awnings and new signs put up, business seminars and mixers held, an annual Mum Festival each September, a Farmer's Market on summer Saturdays and “It's a Connellsville Christmas” activities each December.

“These Downtown Connellsville projects would not be possible without the cooperation and participation of volunteers,” stressed Edwards.

Downtown Connellsville partners with many local groups to get the biggest bang for the buck. Among those are Connellsville Garden Club, Friends of Carnegie Free Library, Connellsville Area Historical Society, the Lions and Rotary Clubs, Fay-Penn Economic Council's “Buy Local” group, New Haven Hose Co., and others. “We couldn't do it without such generous input,” Edwards emphasized.

ArtWorks Connellsville, which celebrates its third anniversary this month, is Cocks' brainchild. Located on Crawford Avenue downtown, across from Lions Square parklet (where a concert series is held each summer), ArtWorks is a gallery and learning center that offers for sale the art, books and crafts of 80 artists and authors from Southwestern Pennsylvania.

What does Artworks do?

Cocks serves as ArtWorks director, quietly, humbly — as a volunteer. The store features a little bit of everything “artsy” and only a small portion of what's sold goes back to ArtWorks to pay the bills. “A lot of the money goes back to artists,” said Cocks, noting that business trade has grown by word of mouth in the three years the gallery/learning center has been open. “We want to promote the arts and help to support local entrepreneurs.”

ArtWorks also hosts classes in such things as mosaics, stained glass, painting, soap making and sewing, as well as a summer art camp for children that grows in popularity each year, Cocks said.

The gallery/learning center is next door to the new Connellsville Canteen — a model railroad display museum and café. Residents had a sneak peek of the new building during this year's “It's a Connellsville Christmas” celebration. Local businessman Terry “Tuffy” Shallenberger's construction crews are heavily involved, as Shallenberger donated the model railroad display and construction of the building. The 25-foot by 50-foot display was the life's work of Normalville hobbyist Harry W. Clark. When Clark passed away several years ago, Shallenberger purchased the model trains, which will be in operation early next year.

As cultural trust members, Edwards and Cocks are heavily involved with the Connellsville Canteen. The building is modeled after the old B&O Railroad station on Water Street, which was torn down in the early 1980s. The café honors the Connellsville Canteen, a volunteer group of women w ho fed more than half a million soldiers and sailors near the B&O station during World War II.

Connellsville Crossroads

Connellsville Crossroads magazine is another of the cultural trust's “arms.” The full-color quarterly magazine highlights the area's history while emphasizing the latest positive happenings in and around Connellsville. Often, local residents — including those who have moved away — are profiled.

Writers submit articles on a volunteer basis. Among them are Connellsville Area Historical Society President Karen Hechler and Ceane O'Hanlon-Lincoln, who has published several books under the name of “Fayette County Chronicles.” The magazine can be purchased at ArtWorks or mailed. “We have about 200 mail subscribers so far,” Edwards said.

Eventually, the cultural trust hopes to hire a small staff to build the trust's capacity and expand its programs. But, as in Pittsburgh's revitalization, one must crawl before one can walk and — finally — run, Edwards pointed out.

It helps that the groups working in tandem with the trust cooperate so well, he added. “The key is: We don't compete with each other. We help each other out.”

Saturday: Cultural Trust, Redevelopment Authority work in tandem toward city's rebirth.

Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.

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