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Avonmore community is seeing a business rebound

| Monday, May 7, 2012, 9:06 p.m.
Valley News Dispatch
A production team films 'B roll' scenes along Indiana Avenue in Avonmore on May 7, 2012, for the movie, 'Promised Land.'
Valley News Dispatch
Carpenters convert a bulding along Indiana Avenue in Avonmore into a motel set for the movie, 'Promised Land' on, May 7, 2012. Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch

The borough's long-suffering business district appears to be enjoying a sudden dramatic rebirth, particularly on Indiana Avenue.

But this rebirth is doomed to vanish as quickly as it appeared — specifically, when the cast and crew of "Promised Land," a feature film starring Matt Damon, leave town.

Yet that doesn't seem to faze residents who are excited and happy their relatively remote community is one of the film's locations.

"It's pretty fun," said Deborah Redmond, 47, a resident who appears as an extra in one scene, filmed at the ballfield on Saturday. "I think it's the greatest thing to happen to our little town."

"It's like this is ours — it belongs to us," said Beth Lauda, 40, Redmond's sister and fellow Valley News Dispatch carrier.

The day the film finishes shooting here does not mean that all signs of it will vanish.

Storefronts along Indiana Avenue that have been vacant for a number of years now appear to house a bakery, a hardware store and a barbershop.

A VFW post has cropped up in a vacant building at Indiana and Fifth Street.

Back at the other end of the block, carpenters are busy working on a motel that is now part of the neighborhood at Indiana and Fourth Street.

Avonmore property owners whose buildings are being used in filming can choose to keep the changes that the Focus Features crew makes.

At least two probably will do that.

Some Vandergrift property owners kept the changes made to their holdings when "I Am Number Four" was filmed in the region in the spring and summer of 2010.

"When you see what they are doing to mine, it's a big change," said Don Morgan, 80, who owns and lives in the building being converted into a motel. "They're making a motel lobby in there."

The white brick building was the location of a market that Morgan's father started in 1941 and that Morgan operated from 1970 to 1994. He leased the store to another businessman who operated it for about 12 years. Morgan still lives on the second floor.

From a side door, Morgan showed how the carpenters were busy transforming the front part of the vacant market into the motel lobby. The tile floor was being replaced with wooden subflooring that ultimately will be carpeted.

A check-in counter and what appears to be a large, built-in planter already have been built.

Outside, a sign proclaims the place to be the Miller Falls Motel.

Morgan indicated that he is leaning toward keeping the changes made thus far, particularly new shrubbery planted around the "motel's" parking lot.

Regarding the interior changes, Morgan said, "Why would I want them to tear it all out? Maybe I can turn it into a coffee shop and sell doughnuts and coffee."

The motel's "rooms" actually are a block away and one street over -- at Guy's Tavern on Westmoreland Avenue. The building is owned by Guy and Ann Sturiale, who live across the street.

"That's the exterior of the motel," Ann Sturiale said, referring to Morgan's building, "and I'm the interior."

"I do have hotel rooms upstairs, and they painted, wallpapered and carpeted ... the two rooms they are going to use."

She said the film company also moved in new furnishings for the rooms, but Sturiale said she won't have the option to keep them.

"I think if it isn't nailed down or glued down, I think they're taking it," she said.

However, she likes the changes they've made to the rooms and said she would be keeping them.

Don Morgan and his son, Russell, who is visiting from his home in Texas, raved about how friendly the people running the production have been. The Sturiales felt the same way.

"I've met the director, Gus Van Sant," Ann Sturiale said. "He was very down-to-earth. He's very personable, I thought."

She said she has not yet met Damon or the movie's female lead, Frances McDormand.

Morgan, however, said he did meet Damon as he watched Monday morning's shoot outside his building.

"Matt Damon walked by and he stopped, turned around and shook my hand and said 'Hi,'" Morgan said and decided to have some fun with it.

"I went over to a group of women standing there and said, 'I'll never wash that hand again.' They asked why and I said, 'that hand just shook Matt Damon's hand' and they got all giddy," he said, laughing.

About "Promised Land"

"Promised Land," the movie being shot in Avonmore and other Alle-Kiski Valley locations, is a joint project of Focus Features and Participant Media.

It's a drama from an original screenplay written by John Krasinski of the TV series "The Office" and Matt Damon, both of whom star in the film.

Krasinski has family ties to the Valley, as his grandparents, the late Leo and Regina Krasinski, were residents of Natrona Heights, Harrison, and other relatives still live here.

The story is about Damon's character, Steve Butler, a corporate natural gas salesman who arrives in a rural town with his partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand). The two believe local citizens likely will accept their company's offer to purchase drilling rights to their properties since the town has been hit hard by the economic decline of recent years.

Their seemingly easy task runs into an obstacle: opposition from a respected school teacher (Hal Holbrook) with support from a grass-roots campaign led by Krasinski's character. It leads to Butler questioning the choices he's made and experiencing some life-changing events.

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