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New Kensington downtown revitalization brainstormed

| Friday, April 10, 2015, 1:11 a.m.

Could a craft brewery or art gallery be in New Kensington's future?

What about bicycle lanes? A series of small coffee and tea shops with Wi-Fi?

Those were just a few of the ideas bandied about Thursday night at the Better Block planning session at Westmoreland County Community College's New Kensington branch.

More than 40 people from the area gathered to discuss initiatives to revitalize New Kensington's downtown area in an event hosted by the regional planning group WEDIG, the Smart Growth partnership and the Greater Allegheny-Kiski Valley Board of Realtors.

The event was one leading up to Better Block Day on May 2 in New Kensington. Activities will take place on the blocks between Ninth and 10th streets and Fourth and Fifth avenues.

“What we're missing is a clear vision,” said Ellyse Williams of Arnold. “Lawrenceville brought in a lot of arts groups. The vision of what we want to be known for is a huge passion of mine.”

Narrating a PowerPoint series was Team Better Block co-founder Andrew Howard of Dallas. Howard shared his experiences in revitalizing certain sections of Dallas and taking his message to such diverse cities as Akron, Ohio, and St. Joseph, Mo.

Howard stressed that while applying for grants is important, sometimes people just have to start activities themselves.

He outlined what was done in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, known as the “bad side” of town for a number of years.

“We had sidewalk sales and cafes, which were really a violation of Dallas ordinances,” Howard said. “Those ordinances were probably from the ‘60s and very outdated.

“But sometimes it takes not talking and going out and doing. Sometimes, you've got to bend the rules a little.”

Howard said there are now more than 100 bike lanes in Dallas.

“We saw some vacant property and started a dog park,” Howard said. “If you just get something started, people will come.”

New Kensington Mayor Tom Guzzo recounted success stories like retail development along the Tarentum Bridge Road corridor and Parnassus, but would like to see the downtown area grow from what's there.

“We've got the community college, the Career Training Academy, the library, the YMCA,” Guzzo said. “My main goal is sustainability.”

While some panned any idea of revitalizing downtown New Kensington, those who spoke Thursday night claimed the same thing was once said about the Lawrenceville, East Liberty and Bloomfield sections of Pittsburgh, along with Millvale.

“New Ken has a lot of character,” said IUP student Dan Welsh, who's helping organize the Better Block event. “I think you guys have a cool town.”

Next on the agenda is Friday morning's walk through the downtown area, again hosted by Howard.

A luncheon will be held at Hill Crest Country Club in Lower Burrell where Howard will be the keynote speaker.

George Guido is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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