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Historic district seen as boon for West Newton

| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Part of West Newton's downtown business district could be recognized as a historic district, a designation that state and local officials say might help the community attract businesses and development, rather than restrict it.

“There is no downside to this for West Newton. This is an opportunity for downtown (West Newton) to make a strong connection to the (Yough River) trail ... to make downtown an experience,” Bill Callahan, Western Pennsylvania community preservation coordinator for the state Bureau of Historic Preservation, told borough council on Monday.

The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission last month determined that West Newton is eligible to apply to have a section of its business district on the National Register of Historic Places, Callahan said. The commission made its determination based on a historic survey that The Progress Fund, a Greensburg-based financing agency, conducted two years ago, Callahan told council.

The proposed historic district on the east side of the Youghiogheny River covers 46 properties, said Will Prince, manager of The Progress Fund's Trail Town Program. The area deemed to be historic is bounded by the West Newton Bridge and continues along East Main Street to Third Street. It covers parts of Second Street, the former Baltimore & Ohio train station and North Water Street to the former U.S. Radiator Co. building.

“I'm all for it. I just want to do it the right way,” council President George Molovich said.

A historic district designation for West Newton “becomes a powerful promotion and marketing tool for a town like this,” Callahan said.

The borough is situated along the Great Allegheny Passage, the recreational trail that connects Pittsburgh with Cumberland, Md.

“It will bring in people who want to live in a historic town and push out some of the problems,” said Aaron Nelson, president of Downtown West Newton Inc., a community improvement organization.

Molovich said he was concerned that a historic district designation would restrict property owners.

“There's no restrictions on the properties that are in the historic district,” Callahan said. Property owners in the historic district can expand, renovate or demolish their properties, Callahan said.

Local ordinances can place zoning restrictions on historically designated properties, but the ordinances can provide “investment protection,” Callahan said.

The Trail Town Programs or another entity could apply for a historic district designation, Callahan said. Typically a consultant is hired to complete the complex application. The state provides matching grants from $5,000 to $25,000 to hire a consultant, he said.

Molovich said he wasn't certain the borough could afford the money needed to match the state grant for hiring a consultant.

Callahan and Keith Heinrich, a state historic preservation specialist, plan to walk through the proposed historic district on Oct. 22 to study it.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 orjnapsha@tribweb.com.

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