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Connellsville community center enjoying rebirth

| Saturday, April 19, 2014, 5:00 p.m.
The new owners of the One Shot Wrestling Club in the Connellsville Community Center discuss last-minute remodeling with Connellsville Councilman Greg Ritch. From left are Ryan Martin, Ritch, Shawn Ruggieri and Alonzo Vielma.

Going from almost zero to near full capacity in only one year, the Greater Connellville Area Community Center's once-busy hallways are beginning to fill up once more as shops, studios and stores are now opening on a regular basis in the three-story structure.

“We couldn't be more pleased with the way that things are going here at the community center,” Connellsville councilman Greg Ritch said of the building.

Ritch, who is the director of public buildings for the city, has taken a keen interest in the center that is now becoming a busy hub of activity in the town.

“This place is a gem, and people are now finally starting to realize that,” Ritch said.

The building was erected in 1916 as the Connellsville High School and remained as a learning institution until 1970, when its doors were closed in favor of more modern facilities.

Remaining empty for one year, a group of citizens took an interest in the building. In 1971 its doors were reopened as the Connellsville Community Center, which is now owned by the city but operated as a nonprofit facility.

“We have an extremely small budget here,” Ritch said of the building that employees only two staff members, with the remaining work and maintenance performed by volunteers.

Ritch said that building is now maintaining itself with rentals fees and costs, and new businesses are coming in on a regular basis.

“We are at about 80 percent capacity,” Ritch said, adding that one appeal to new renters in the building is that they are given the ability to remodel or update their own units any way that they like. “They are able to take ownership of their own businesses here. They are allowed to be a part of it.”

The building now houses a large gymnasium that is used on a regular basis and is available for rental.

Numerous studios are located in the building that include an art studio that offers classes, a recording studio, theater workshops, a dance studio, a nail salon and a block party recreation center for children.

The center is also the home of the Hobo Model railroad train group, a large daycare facility, a food bank, a church, a counseling center and a thrift store whose profits go back into the building.

“They have done an amazing job here,” Ritch said of the thrift shop that is located on the main floor of the building and manned by volunteers. “Everything here is donated and then sold, with all of the profits going straight back into the community center,” he said. “They really did an impressive job here over the last year.”

The center has also been the recipient of a few grants. It has had work performed by the students at the Connellsville Area Career and Technical Center at little cost while supplying hands-on work for the students, and has also received support and backing from several businesses and groups in the city.

“People have been really good to us,” community center director Lori Kosisko said. “This has all been coming along nicely.”

The center also houses the Edwin Porter Theater that is used on a monthly basis and a large swimming pool that is closed, a situation that Ritch hopes can one day be rectified.

One of the newest businesses to make its home at the center is the One Shot Wrestling Club, which will serve as an instructional facility for young wrestlers from the area.

“We looked in other areas like Uniontown and Belle Vernon, but we really wanted to stay in the city,” business co-owner Alonzo Vielma said. “We wanted to stay as local as we could.”

The business owners moved into the center and now occupy four different rooms that they use for everything from storage to wrestling areas.

“We did the work ourselves,” co-owner Shawn Ruggieri said. “I think that it all came out pretty good and this can now serve as a good way to teach kids and maybe draw more kids off the streets.”

The center is also the site of many special events, flea markets, seasonal programs and shows and community spirit.

“Our vision here is to open the doors to whomever has an idea to help advance the community center,” Ritch said. “We have arts and crafty people who have come here with some great ideas, and we have also provided some opportunities for our youth. The businesses here actually help each other as they draw more interest and as the interest grows, their businesses grow. I'm really pleased the way that this has been working for everyone in the community.”

Marilyn Forbes is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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