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Nonprofit recounts Westmoreland efforts, honors 25 'champions'

| Thursday, July 14, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Brian F. Henry | For The Tribune-Review
From left, Former Pennsylvania State Senator and Smart Growth Partnership President Allen Kukovich looks on as fellow founding member, Michael Walsh, addresses a room full of supporters during the organization's annual awards dinner at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg campus on Thursday, July 14, 2016.

Connecting people with their neighbors, communities and nearby towns will be the way to manage and encourage “smart growth” in the future, leaders said Thursday during a 15th anniversary celebration of the Smart Growth Partnership of Westmoreland County.

“I see the connectivity that affects our lives,” Smart Growth board President Allen Kukovich told more than 85 government, business, education and community leaders gathered at the University of Pittsburgh Greensburg Campus.

The nonprofit honored 25 “Champions of Smart Growth” for their work in bettering communities through a variety of projects and initiatives.

“We're using connectivity as a new theme,” said John Turack, executive director and community development assistant for Smart Growth Partnership.

Millennials — those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s — are bringing new demands for what they want in communities and want to connect to cities and rely on public transportation, said Mike Walsh, a founding member and deputy secretary for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“The rules have changed so much in the last 15 years. Are we building things we would be happy about in 15 to 20 years?” Walsh said.

While honoring those who had the vision to create Smart Growth 15 years ago and recounting its contributions in communities throughout the county, Kukovich said he is excited about the next 15 years. Smart Growth, which has been working on projects in Latrobe, Murrysville, Derry area and New Kensington, is considering seeking a federal grant to create jobs in farming and food processing in areas hurt by the downturn in the coal industry, said Kukovich, a former state senator.

One of the challenges will be how to attract financial support from foundations, Kukovich said.

When Smart Growth — a program of Penn State Extension — was founded by community and business leaders concerned about poorly planned community growth and decline of cities and towns, Kukovich said it was more focused on providing technical assistance on how to manage growth.

Now, the organization is more involved in planning growth and has benefited from partnerships with Penn State-New Kensington Campus, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Pitt at Greensburg, Kukovich said.

The concept of “smart growth” was not as well known in Western Pennsylvania when it was founded, said Alex Graziani, the organization's first executive director in 2002 and current Penn Township manager.

“It was not a new concept (nationally), but it was pretty much new for Western Pennsylvania,” Graziani said prior to the program. “It was great to be part of something at the beginning and then see it embraced regionally.”

But now, “smart growth” has been adopted by communities as they seek to create bike lanes on streets and recreational trails to improve the quality of life, Graziani said.

“Now, it's pretty much in the DNA of towns” such as Latrobe, Greensburg and Murrysville, he said.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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