Former Connellsville redevelopment chief: City poised for brighter future
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.
Ralph Wombacker wanted to be a park manager when he grew up.
Instead, he helped build and improve parks — among many other projects — during his 30 years with Connellsville Redevelopment Authority.
Wombacker was 29 in 1978 when he was hired by then-Mayor James K. Wagner and a steering committee. Now 65, the Bullskin Township resident reflects back on the three decades he served as the redevelopment authority's executive director – and his hope for the future.
Wombacker, an Air Force veteran, lived in several Western Pennsylvania towns while growing up. However, he's stayed put and put down deep roots since he moved to Connellsville from Meadville, where he had worked briefly as city planner.
After earning a bachelor's degree at Penn State University — where he met his wife, Barb — the Wombackers moved to Oregon, where he completed a master's degree in park and environmental planning with a minor in urban planning.
“It was so beautiful in Oregon, but no parks — state or federal — were hiring because of the recession. Plus, it was so far from our families. We decided to move home to Pennsylvania,” he said.
Long, unbroken service
While in Meadville, Wombacker heard from a friend that Connellsville needed a director for its first-ever redevelopment authority. He came to town and stayed, overseeing the city's federally funded, state-managed Community Development Block Grant program and many other projects. After Wombacker retired in 2008, Michael Edwards was hired as his successor.
Edwards' transition was assisted by longtime administrative assistant Paula Grubach, who learned a lot about grant writing and administering at Wombacker's elbow. “Paula does a great job; she's very knowledgeable,” Wombacker said.
Wombacker said he is amazed by how well the current redevelopment authority does, as grant money is nowhere near as generous as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. The state CDBG wallet was fat in those decades, and Connellsville got a fair chunk of change to build sidewalks and storm sewers, public buildings and — yes, local parks.
“It was a three-year grant cycle. You submitted a three-year plan and the Department of Community Affairs made certain that the plan met specific guidelines or the grant wasn't approved,” Wombacker said. Connellsville's grant plans went to Harrisburg with all the “i's dotted and t's crossed” — and the money rolled in.
Began in North End
The first three-year cycle saw construction of North End (now John Woodruff) Community Park, ball field and tennis courts at Mountz Creek Park, storm drains and housing rehabilitation at North Manor housing project — to the tune of $1.3 million.
The second three years were even busier, as Connellsville received $750,000 per year — a total of more than $2 million — for projects. “The redevelopment authority only got $300,000 this past year. Back in the early 1980s, redevelopment money was far more available,” said Wombacker. “We got $750,000 three years in a row and that was 30 years ago.
“Think how the prices have gone up; I don't know how Michael (Edwards) accomplishes so many projects but he does. He finds other grants through foundations and manages to get things done. I've got to give him credit.”
With the city's $2.1 million, there was ample funding for a senior center building, which was dedicated in 1984. “We did many sidewalk projects, including along Crawford Avenue and Pittsburgh Street. Tons of money went to the community center – a new furnace, new windows, a new ceiling and improvements to the auditorium (which has been restored under Edwards' guidance as the Edwin S. Porter Theater).”
Storm sewer projects, while not easily visible, have helped keep rainwater out of the city's sewage system, Wombacker pointed out.
In the 1980s, the state opened the CDBG program to public input, so annual meetings gave residents a voice in how the grant money should be spent. Along came many more sidewalk and infrastructure projects – and construction of Yough River Park and ample parking for it.
“Yough Park had already been graded and had picnic tables by the mid-1980s, thanks to volunteer effort from Dave Tremba (who served on city council in the 1980s),” Wombacker said. He remembered how Tremba, around 1982, asked the Lions Club to pay for fuel to run a bulldozer to clear the overgrown riverbank.
Yough Park revamped
Yough Park's fresh appearance today is due to grant money funded through the redevelopment authority, under Edwards' guidance. East Park has had many improvements, during the tenures of both executive directors.
“(The late) Bill Hughes (who served on city council) was a great help, too, in finding grants – hundreds of thousands of dollars – for East Park projects,” said Wombacker. “It was amazing how he could find money for the city.”
The longtime city official believes that Connellsville has turned the corner toward better times. He was very vocal in his support of the Yough River Trail Council, which is chaired by volunteer director Ted Kovall. The YRTC maintains more than 20 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage, which runs through the park on its way to Pittsburgh to the north and Cumberland, MD, to the south.
“That group does unbelievable things,” said Wombacker, who is a member of YRTC as well as the Lions Club. “They've purchased so much equipment — it's so expensive — and see to it that the grass is mowed and that there's enough trail base (a finely crushed gravel) so that bikers have a smooth ride.”
Like himself, Kovall knows the ins and outs of finding funding. “Working with Ted is amazing.” Wombacker also praised YRTC volunteer Gary Wandel for constructing – and paying for — two wooden shelters along the trail near Martin's supermarket. Campers sleep there free. “There's a sign-in sheet. You wouldn't believe how many people from out of town – and out of state – have stayed there.”
Speaking of the trail, the redevelopment authority oversaw sections of it while it was under construction in the 1990s. Small sections of trail in the city were built with CDBG cash while federal cash — obtained by then-U.S. Rep. John Murtha through the America's Industrial Heritage Program — as well as state funding helped to build it from West Penn Power near St. Rita's Church south to Bruner Run, near Ohiopyle State Park.
Promote the trail
It is essential for Connellsville to do all that it can to promote the trail, according to Wombacker. “Trail construction is going on everywhere these days. Right now, bicyclists can travel from Pittsburgh all the way to Washington, DC, thanks to the Great Allegheny Passage, which opened officially this past summer.”
There is talk of extending the Sheepskin Trail in Dunbar to Point Marion; also, developers of the Coal and Coke Recreation Trail between Mt. Pleasant and Scottdale plan to extend it to Yough Park in Connellsville. There's the Five Star Trail between Greensburg, Youngwood and Armbrust and the Indian Creek Valley Trail in Donegal, Springfield and Saltlick townships. The list grows longer each year, Wombacker pointed out.
“Connellsville could become a major hub for trail-users as popularity of the Great Allegheny Passage grows. We're off to a good start; I really think things are changing for the better. We've got to be patient and keep going; these things take time,” he concluded.
Thursday: City's business incubator hatched many commercial opportunities.
Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.