Former Connellsville mayor muses about city's past, future

| Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, 3:12 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.

James K. Wagner couldn't have picked a worse time to run for mayor of Connellsville in November 1977.

The city was reeling from a police scandal that in 1976 had resulted in several policemen — and several civilians — being jailed for burglary and robbery.

Wagner, then in his 30s and working for Brooks Funeral Home, felt up to the challenge after having served four years on city council.

“It (the scandal) was a big surprise and a terrible blow to the city,” said Wagner, who is now 70 years old. “I felt that I could do something positive to improve the police department's reputation.”

His goal: ‘To improve'

During his city council years, Connellsville's old city hall — dating from the 1800s — was torn down and a new one constructed. Wagner's restructuring of the city police department was similar, as positive won out over negative. “We needed to improve and I wanted to be part of that,” he said.

Thirty-some years later, he's satisfied that his tenure made a difference.

“It's good to know that we hired quality people,” said Wagner. Among those named to the revamped police force included one who went on to become a college professor, one who worked for the state department, one is a state police trooper and three — Barry Noel, James Capitos and Steve Cooper — served as the city's chief of police.

“We did what we set out to do: re-establish trust in the police department,” Wagner pointed out. “We did a good job by picking good men.”

The late 1970s and early 1980s were flush years for federal and state redevelopment money as well, and Wagner chose to take the bull by the horns, wanting to shake loose as much cash as possible for Connellsville. In the 1970s, Fayette County Redevelopment Authority oversaw redevelopment projects under the direction of Wayland Smith, who is now deceased.

Forming the authority

“The state had mandated that third-class cities (such as Connellsville) could authorize their own redevelopment authorities if their demographics met the guidelines,” Wagner explained.

Knowing that Smith's redevelopment agency was overtaxed seeing to many projects countywide, Connellsville City Council decided to form its own redevelopment authority.

“The Community Development Block Grant program was in its infancy back then,” Wagner recalled. “Dick Widmer (of Widmer Engineering) submitted a pre-application for Connellsville's first CDBG grant. When it was approved, we had to hire a redevelopment authority executive director.”

Enter Ralph Wombacker, who was selected among a field of applicants in September 1978. During the next 30 years, Wombacker — who retired in 2008 — oversaw many millions of dollars' worth of infrastructure improvements in Connellsville.

“Ralph did an excellent job with grant applications and administering the projects the grants funded,” Wagner said. “We also were blessed with an excellent board of directors, who served diligently for many years, merely for the good of Connellsville, not politics.” The authority's early years were seen to by volunteers such as Arthur McGann, George Honisek, Bob Irwin, Fred Miller and Sue Reisner, among others.

Wagner also stressed that the redevelopment authority — still in its infancy when he left office in 1981 — became firmly established under Ron Haggerty, who served as Connellsville's mayor after Wagner. “Ron stepped in and kept the ball rolling. He was very supportive of the authority's projects, which is most important.”

Downtown authority, too

A Downtown Business District Authority was initiated during Wagner's tenure as mayor (1978-1981). “At that time, there was money available for downtown renovations. We were able to fund a feasibility study and do a façade (storefront) renovation project. We had big ideas but, unfortunately, funding for such projects dried up before we could accomplish what we set out to do,” Wagner said.

One thing that the downtown authority accomplished with the help of its manager, Alan Pacek, and John Collins, then-president of the Chessie System (CSX), can now be seen at the bike trail entrance behind Martin's supermarket on the West Side: the red caboose that now serves as a visitors' center.

The Great Allegheny Passage trail runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, where it ties into the C & O Canal Towpath trail that goes all the way to Washington, DC. Connellsville is lucky that the prestigious trail passes through town, Wagner stressed. “It's a real plus for the city. We need to capitalize on it.”

Although it's been more than 30 years since Wagner served as Connellsville's mayor, he's kept busy behind the scenes, especially with Connellsville Lions Club. The organization raises funds for civic projects such as Lions Square parklet on West Crawford Avenue, where Sunday concerts are held in the summertime.

Good times ahead?

The former mayor said that he is encouraged by the positive things that have happened in Connellsville in recent years. He praised the efforts of today's Connellsville Redevelopment Authority, which recently inked a contract for construction of a three-story hotel on First Street near Yough River Park.

“I think it will go well here. Connellsville has needed a hotel for many years. When people come to visit, they stay outside of town, unless they book rooms at one of the city's bed-and-breakfasts,” Wagner said. “It's nice that people will now have a choice.”

The ongoing renovation of the Aaron's building on North Pittsburgh Street — shuttered for more than 30 years — is another positive that will aid the city's redevelopment, Wagner added. “I'd also like to see something done with Sidewinder's Bar (formerly Revetta's) on Water Street. It's so close to the Amtrak station and is the first thing that greets passengers.”

New ideas essential

Wagner said he's also encouraged by the involvement of young people with the recreation commission and in city government. “I'm 70 years old now. I had my chance. Keeping the youth involved, that's the key to success in the future,” said the former mayor, who retired in 2005 as business manager off the State Correctional Institution in Somerset, a post he held for 20 years. He and wife, Judy, have lived on the South Side of Connellsville for many years, where they raised their son, who presented them with a grandson.

As the New Year approaches, Wagner looks forward to what inroads the city council will make for Connellsville's future. Greg Lincoln defeated Mayor Charles Matthews in the May primary and will be sworn to office in January, along with new Councilman Aaron Zolbrod and returning Councilman Tom Karpiak. Rounding out the 2014 city council are current Councilmen Brad Geyer and Greg Ritch. Councilwoman Marilyn Weaver chose to not seek re-election.

Asked what advice he has for city council in 2014 and beyond, Wagner paused and thought for a moment. “I think they should work closely with the redevelopment authority and the city's other boards and agencies. I feel that authorities should be autonomous. There are good people in place. Trust them and let them do their jobs,” he concluded.

Wednesday: Former redevelopment chief: city poised for brighter future.

Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.

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