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Urban Land institute recognizes West Newton's transformation

Joe Napsha
| Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015, 4:09 p.m.
Will Prince, coordinator of the Trail Town Program, stands for a portrait in front of 125 Jefferson Court in West Newton on Oct. 19, 2015. The Progress Fund purchased the property and it is undergoing extensive renovations. The Progress Fund, the community development financing group in Greensburg, got an award in Pittsburgh from the Urban Land Institute for its investment/transformation of West Newton. The Progress Fund has invested in two restaurants, a bed and breakfast and two annexes, plus it is renovating a trailside boarding house for short-term stays for trail riders.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Will Prince, coordinator of the Trail Town Program, stands for a portrait in front of 125 Jefferson Court in West Newton on Oct. 19, 2015. The Progress Fund purchased the property and it is undergoing extensive renovations. The Progress Fund, the community development financing group in Greensburg, got an award in Pittsburgh from the Urban Land Institute for its investment/transformation of West Newton. The Progress Fund has invested in two restaurants, a bed and breakfast and two annexes, plus it is renovating a trailside boarding house for short-term stays for trail riders.

West Newton's revitalization as a town with businesses attuned to serving the thousands of tourists and visitors using the recreational trail along the Youghiogheny River has caught the attention of a Pittsburgh organization that focuses on responsible use of land and creating and sustaining thriving communities.

The Progress Fund, a Greensburg-based community development financial institution, was recognized by the Urban Land Institute's Pittsburgh District Council last week for its efforts to revitalize the borough through investments of about $3 million into the borough through property acquisitions and loans to businesses such as restaurants and lodging to enhance amenities along the Great Allegheny Passage.

“There's a trail and there are buildings. We're intent on making it someplace that is memorable and special. We've tried to make it more interesting. The trail is the activity,” said David Kahley, president and chief executive of The Progress Fund.

Within the past decade, The Progress Fund's investments in the borough have included The Trailside Cafe, Fox's Pizza Den, Bright Morning Bed & Breakfast and two annexes, the Youghiogheny Canoe Outfitters and Simeral Square. In 2012, The Progress Fund used part of a $1 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to buy the vacant Riverside Lounge at the east end of the West Newton Bridge and renovated it so that it now houses a new Subway restaurant. In February, the organization purchased a century-old Victorian house next to the Bright Morning B&B on Jefferson Court and is in the process of converting it into a guest house.

By sheer luck of geography and location between two major Great Allegheny Passage destinations – Pittsburgh and Ohiopyle – West Newton is in a great location for trail visitors. It is 34 miles from Pittsburgh and 43 miles from Ohiopyle. The town also has benefitted from the riders traveling the 335 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., on the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal Trail that runs into the nation's capital.

“The trail is the connection to the region and other towns. It (West Newton) is a place you want to come back to,” said Will Prince, coordinator for The Progress Fund's Trail Town Program, which works in 12 trail towns in the region.

As a result of The Progress Fund's success in West Newton, the organization was given the jury award at the Urban Land Institute's third annual Placemaking Awards Excellence for “Small Town Transformation: The West Newton Trailhead.” The jury award was given as a special recognition for the “standout nature of the project among all nominations which impressed the Jury beyond existing award categories.”

The Progress Fund competed against 21 projects from across the Pittsburgh region.

“They were great projects across the Pittsburgh area. The competition was stiff,” Kahley said.

While The Progress Fund's work in West Newton was not selected for four other awards – a “visual place,” a “community place,” a healthy place” and “a catalytic place” that generates improvement and progress to economic development – it kept touching all of the awards in some one way or the other, said Charles “Chic” Noll, an Urban Land Institute member and one of 10 jurors that selected the award winner. So, the jury decided to create the jury award.

“It transformed the town and made it more livable. A piece of what they are doing touched all of the (award) categories,” said Noll, a business development director for Desmone Architects of Lawrenceville.

The investments The Progress Fund has made in West Newton transformed the town from a good place to park and use the trail to a place where people want to stay.

“That's a perfect example of what the Urban Land Institute wants to do. We can tell others to use those guys (Progress Fund) as a model for what you can do,” to revitalize the community, Noll said.

To Aaron Nelson, president of Downtown West Newton Inc., the recognition from professionals involved in land use and real estate development in the public and private sectors in the Pittsburgh region can only benefit West Newton.

With so much activity on the west side of the town, which lies along the trail and the Youghiogheny River, Nelson said the organization is hoping to entice trail users to cross the West Newton Bridge and patronize businesses in the downtown area. The new Subway restaurant and the development of Simeral Square, a riverfront park that replaced an abandoned gas station, are joined by other amenities that could serve the needs of trail users and tourists.

“What we're trying to do is to develop the community into a tourist destination,” said Nelson, whose organization seeks to improve the town's economy and enhance its assets.

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

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