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City councilman looking for answers

| Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006

A small contingent of Fayette County community leaders will participate today in a live production of WQED's OnQ Magazine show, which is featuring a cover story titled "Thriving Neighborhoods."

It's the third in a five-part series the Emmy Award-winning news program is producing under the banner, "Our Region's Next Renaissance." The show airs live from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. and is formatted as a town hall meeting.

"This is a program in which we present an issue that is community oriented," said David Solomon, an OnQ supervising producer. "We try to invite people who are from various communities, various walks of life or various organizations to raise important issues.

"This week's show is not necessarily about neighborhoods that are thriving, but we are interested to look at why some do and some don't."

Among the local community leaders who have reserved seats in the audience is city Councilman Terry Bodes, who was recently appointed as Connellsville's director of accounts and finances.

Bodes said he will be there to represent the city, as well as seek guidance from the experts scheduled to appear on the panel.

"I think my focus will be on, for us anyway, on housing," Bodes said, "how we can get people from the Pittsburgh area to come to our city to restore our grand Victorian homes. I guess, if I have an opportunity to speak, I'll ask how they advise us as a city to get people to come to our town."

The panel for this evening's broadcast includes Dorothy Lengyel, of the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development, the Rev. Samuel Ware, of the Building United of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and Laura Zinski, of the Mon Valley Initiative.

Housing is a key issue for Connellsville officials. Only about 50 percent of the homes in Connellsville are labeled as owner-occupied, according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers.

"We have so many (rental) homes, and that's really a problem," Bodes said. "Landlords don't want to take care of their properties."

Bodes was invited to attend the OnQ program through former Brownsville Mayor Norma Ryan, who was part of a recent OnQ special report about the deterioration of the once booming Mon Valley hub.

"I know that Connellsville is struggling just like Brownsville and Uniontown to thrive these days," Ryan said, "and we all need to stick together. Any exposure we get in the Pittsburgh area will be great.

"We have a lot of efforts being made in a lot of the small communities to have a rebirth. It's not just Pittsburgh, it's all of Southwestern Pennsylvania."

The special report about Brownsville, titled "One Year in Brownsville," will air at 8:30 p.m. today, directly after the town hall discussion. The program premiered Monday.

Even before the Brownsville special, OnQ producers were not strangers to Fayette County. A program that first aired in February 2005 titled "Back to Prosperity: A Tale of Two Cities," profiled the decline of Brownsville and the rejuvenation of Uniontown.

The report earned an Emmy nomination for the show.

"When we did the Brownsville story last year, we knew they faced great challenges," Solomon said. "Uniontown, however, was a great success story. We wanted to compare and contrast the two.

"That part of the 'Back to Prosperity' series was well received. We feel our coverage done in Fayette County has been good. We are able to do things local stations can't. They don't have time to give these stories the attention they deserve."

The show's current ongoing project, "Our Region's Next Renaissance," has been airing since November, when the series premiere, "Viable Economies," debuted. In December, OnQ aired "Children, Youth and Families."

Today's production will be followed by "Civic Engagement" in February and "Creative Communities" in March, which will wrap the series.

"We want leaders to know there is help out there," Solomon said, "and nonprofits are leading the way to bring help to these communities. If they don't know the help is out there, they won't know how to ask for it."

Local residents also get a chance to ask questions of the panels, or to offer insight, during the programs.

"During each of these segments we also will take viewer phone calls," Solomon said. "If they have any thoughts on what they are hearing or seeing, they can offer their two cents or pose a question."

In addition to helping Connellsville get information about revitalization opportunities, Mayor Judy Reed is hoping Bodes' participation will draw attention to the city.

"He will be there representing Connellsville," she said. "While he's there to get ideas about what can be done to help the city, I hope this experience will bring attention to our beautiful area."

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