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Downtown Connellsville: Working toward the rebirth of a city

| Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, 10:58 a.m.
Lori C. Padilla | for the Daily Courier
Fayette County Cultural Trust President Michael Edwards shows off the latest in a series of public art projects throughout Connellsville — a mural created by Sheree Cockrell to highlight some of the city's assets.

In 2008, Connellsville officials started to work on a multi-municipal plan that included South Connellsville and Connellsville Township.

The first meeting with consultants was held at the Porter Theater (which had not yet been refurbished).

The team from Mullin and Lonergan led those in attendance in an exercise that identified “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.”

Based on the discussion and elements identified that night, it was thought that a Main Street Program would be the best way to approach revitalization of the community.

A steering committee of nine members was formed, and planning meetings were held to set a vision and a mission for the program. Additional public meetings were held.

“At that time, the nonprofit Connellsville Cultural Trust had already been formed and was still very young, just two years in existence, and was working with the redevelopment authority,” said Michael Edwards, president of what is now the Fayette County Cultural Trust. “Ralph Wombacker and Paula Grubach had the experience and ability to take care of the funding if it came through, so that is where that partnership started,”

Pennsylvania offered assistance on how the Main Street Program worked. At that time, the state required $125,000 to be raised locally and it would then put in $250,000 for what was a five-year program. The cultural trust started fundraising. It embarked on a letter-writing campaign to businesses, churches, social groups and individuals asking for pledges over a four-year period.

“We received 90 back, totaling $135,000, and so we went ahead and submitted all the paperwork to the state,” Edwards said.

Then local officials learned that the Main Street Program had changed. The state was looking for organizations to have sustainable funding to pay a manager — that kind of money had not been raised.

Letters again were sent out asking whether donors would still be willing to support a grassroots program. Of the original 90 pledge patrons, 85 said yes, they would support a program that became Downtown Connellsville, now under the umbrella of the Fayette County Cultural Trust.

That was at the end of 2009. In the first quarter of 2010, the pledge money began to come in, allowing Downtown Connellsville to build capacity.

Included in the necessary Downtown Connellsville designated area were Crawford Avenue from Ninth Street all the way up to Prospect Street, Pittsburgh Street from Baldwin Avenue at the south to North Alley to the north, Third Street where the Great Allegheny Passage comes through Connellsville. Recently added were First and Second streets, including the proposed site of a hotel.

Edwards said those who donated through the pledge program have seen the results of their confidence in the many programs developed by Downtown Connellsville over the four years, 2010-2013.

Installation of light pole baskets were one of the earliest initiatives of Downtown Connellsville's beautification efforts. They were purchased through a grant from Community Foundation of Fayette County. The earliest strategy was to make improvements at a low cost that would have an immediate impact, all the while planning to help the community get back on its feet.

Part of the planning of the steering committee was to designate the area that would be a part of the program based on the state's earlier recommendations that suggested a concentrated area where there could be a bigger impact and grow from there.

“The concentrated area that we mapped out has grown, with 20 new businesses, a new building and others being restored,” Edwards said. “Some people took advantage of the sign and facade program. We started holding semi-annual mixers to let people know what is going on, and we have been able to partner with Seton Hill for business classes and that will continue going forward. They will be bringing teams of support individuals to offer advice to businesses who want it.”

Two classes on business plan writing and a social media class were offered, along with Quick Books for help in accounting and how to get a loan. The fall mixer was a Meet The Lenders format, with 14 banks and other lending institutions in attendance for those who were starting a business or thinking about starting a business. Representatives of the Small Business Administration offered advice.

Two festivals have been created by Downtown Connellsville. The Mum Festival is held in the fall, and It's A Connellsville Christmas is held in early December. It has grown into a citywide event with participation from businesses and nonprofits over a three-day weekend. Both are in their fourth year and will continue to be annual events.

Yough Country Symposium and the Golden Reunion are held over the Memorial Day Weekend.

“With the success of the Garden Club's Geranium Festival, we saw an opportunity to have people come and stay in the community for the weekend by planning events that would bookend the Saturday event,” Edwards said.

The Yough Country Symposium is a conference held on Friday featuring guest speakers on various topics. The Golden Reunion is held on Sunday afternoon and offers graduates of local high schools (Connellsville, Immaculate Conception and Dunbar) who graduated 50 years ago or more to come together for a picnic-style luncheon in East Park.

“We found that it was harder for some of the classes to do all of the planning involved, so we offered this as an alternative,” Edwards said.

Upon the completion of a streetscape project on North Pittsburgh Street by the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority, Downtown Connellsville looked for grant money that would allow benches and trash receptacles to be put along Crawford Avenue so there was a cohesive look.

Grant money has been crucial to the process of improving Connellsville, Edwards said. PNC was an early funder of projects as well as the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau Hotel Grant Program.

ArtWorks Connellsville Gallery and Learning Center was born three years ago because the Fayette County Cultural Trust saw the need for a gallery that would help regional artists. It serves as an incubator for artists. It started with 40 artists. Now, there are 85. Author book signings, children's programs and other events are held there.

In September 2012, the Fayette County Cultural Trust was approached by a local businessman who wanted to donate a model railroad display that had been at Nemacolin Woodlands. An agreement was reached that obligated the trust to a $200,000 mortgage, and Tuffy Shallenberger is paying costs that exceeded that amount toward construction of what will be the Connellsville Canteen.

“We saw this as another chance to share the history of the community in a new light. The volunteer efforts by the community during the 1940s were very admirable, and the tie-in with the Harry Clark model train display was a perfect fit,” Edwards said. Additional funds are being sought to finish a commercial kitchen to bring the project to completion.

In the spring of 2009, Connellsville Crossroads magazine was published by the Fayette County Cultural Trust to showcase the achievements of not only Downtown Connellsville but the many positive happenings in and around the city as well as the historic people, places and events that are the heart of Connellsville.

The magazine continues to be published quarterly, with subscribers from all over the United States. It is published with money awarded by the Fayette County Hotel Grant through the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

Farmers markets are set up in downtown during summer months. A coupon page is given out offering discounts at various shops and eateries so that those shopping at the markets will visit local merchants.

Knowing that partnerships are an important component to success, Downtown Connellsville committees frequently work with other local groups including the Connellsville Garden Club, Carnegie Free Library and FRIENDS of Carnegie Free Library, Yough River Trail Council, Connellsville Area Community Ministries and the Connellsville Historical Society.

Art On The Yough is a premier event that is held in conjunction with Braddock's Crossing each summer.

Downtown Connellsville is a supporter of Lions Summer Concert Series and the annual Mozart Music Club Thanksgiving Festival of Choirs.

Downtown Connellsville is always looking to form partnerships that will enhance its work in the community, Edwards said.

Where are we going?

Currently the Fayette County Cultural Trust is applying to the Department of Community and Economic Development for a Neighborhood Partnership Program. Ultimately the goal is to raise $500,000 a year for the next six years. A six-year plan had to be submitted. Part of that funding would go to hire a downtown manager and if that happens, implementation money would be sought.

“Good things continue. Somerset Trust Co. has shown its faith in Connellsville and saved another historic building by its commitment to Downtown Connellsville. We know that they like working with historic structures and they make sure everything is done the way it needs to be to retain the nature and character of the building,” Edwards said.

“I believe that as we have been making small strides that made the city look like somewhere investors want to be, those bigger pieces are now starting to come together.”

Letters have been sent out asking for pledges to continue the Downtown Connellsville program.

“Again, the community has shown its faith in the ongoing progress of Downtown Connellsville, sending back their donations that will allow the program to go on for four more years,” Edwards said.

The goal is to raise $120,000; that way, the organization will be working with about $30,000 a year, Edwards said.

Downtown Connellsville is an all-volunteer group. Steering committee members are Edwards, Gerald Browell, Laurie Hensel, Lucy King, Bryan Kisiel, the Rev. Bob Lubic, Dave Marchewka, Leo Rudnik and Pat Stefano.

“I believe the Fayette County Cultural Trust in general, and specifically the Downtown Connellsville organization, which is a part of the trust, has been one of the local leaders in creating a more positive image of Connellsville,” said Browell, the economic restructuring subcommittee co-chairman. “The list of specific accomplishments by Downtown Connellsville alone during the last four years is impressive. But more importantly a spirit of cooperation and mutual support has developed among various service and nonprofit organizations, businesses, and local government.

“Downtown Connellsville has played a role in many local initiatives in several different ways. Sometimes the group has been the lead organization (It's A Connellsville Christmas). Sometimes the group has been a facilitator (Saturday morning farmers markets). Sometimes the group has played an advisory/support role (business training and start-ups). And sometimes the group has been a cheerleader/helper for the efforts of others (business mixers, newsletters, marketing brochures). I sense a spirit of renewal in Connellsville that bodes well for the future, and Downtown Connellsville intends to be a part of that effort.”

Nancy Henry is a contributing writer.

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