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Community Development Corporation breathes new life into old PPG site

| Monday, May 6, 2002

FORD CITY - Somewhere among the ruins of the once largest glassmaking plant in the world lies heritage - and potential.

To the small town where it is located, it has become a passion to redevelop the former PPG factory buildings.

It is the place where generations of its descendants worked, lived near, grew neighborhoods, raised families and built their lives. For Ford City,, that means the past and the future are together under the same roof.

In buildings where rust and rubble now collect, where wind and rain pouring through broken windows and open roof offer the only sound, town residents believe they still see and hear the men and machines turning raw materials into finished glass. They imagine the drawing, annealing, cutting, grinding and polishing that went on inside the walls of their factory.

To them no other factory is quite like a glass factory. They want it back.

Glass isn't coming back to Ford City, but an industrial heritage museum being built on the PPG site guarantees it won't be forgotten there. So too, the construction of a business incubator and flexible manufacturing space offers a link to new industries.

"This development is finally coming," said Mayor Jeff Pyle. "It's no longer planning, it's reality."

Pyle acknowledges that many of the older folks in the town who worked for PPG are still around and will be reminiscing about things such as how at one time every skyscraper up and down the east coast had a piece of Ford City.

The site will be developed in steps and completed by late 2003, said Kim Petrie, executive director of the Greater Ford City Community Development Corp., the group entrusted to carry out the economic plans of its local government.

"It will be exciting when we finally bring the vision everyone had to fruition," said Petrie. "The project holds so much potential.

"I can't wait to walk in for first time."

The museum will be at one end of the renovated Shop 2 building. The business incubator and business flex space will be at the other end.

The flex space offers potential entrepreneurs a low lease fee of $3-4 a square foot and provides administrative staff in the hopes of moving the business to future lots in an adjacent industrial park setting.

"Multiply, one becomes two becomes four," said Pyle of the incubator. "Kick a business out to build on land on the other side.

"That's a great thing."

In the museum tourists can glimpse not only the history of plate glassmaking but other industries associated with the region such as coal, steel, aluminum and rails.

They will see artifacts in and around the museum such as a shearer, old hand tools and a steel furnace that's being brought in and reassembled.

There will be interactive things. Visitors can view an educational short film by pressing a button.

Interviews are to be conducted with old employees explaining their jobs and how machines were used in the plant as background for the museum's materials.

Pyle would like to see an integral cultural aspect showing Ford City's diverse ethnicity. As many as 35 ethnic groups are on record as coming to Ford City from Ellis Island, he said.

Much of the original look of the building throughout will be kept including some of the wood block flooring, large pieces of old machinery, cranes along the wall, sets of tracks and steel beams.

"The engineers say everything is structurally sound and just needs a cleanup," said Petrie. "It's wonderful that we're keeping all the structural steel and all the brick and not losing that look."

"There's a lot of foundational stuff to work with," said Pyle. "These buildings were fortresses."

Another building on the site is the former Pattern Shop where builders will be creating a cafe and conference center combination.

The vision there is for umbrella tables and chairs on a deck outside and other tables inside. Between the buildings is an open common space. The original brick walls, wood beams, large round glass windows and exposed rafters are being integrated with a new floor and roof.

"The bricks and steel were left so as not to take away the architectural heritage," said Petrie.

Currently a 30,000 square foot foundry building in the back of the Shop 2 and pattern buildings, complete with a glass side facing the river, is being renovated. The sites first tenant, OEM Shades will soon occupy the building.

In addition, Petrie is anxious to tie a Mainstreet Program for developing the business district's street, Ford Street, into the development plans of the PPG site.

"It's imperative to bringing in new companies," said Petrie. "It will be bringing it back to its historical look, redoing the facades, vintage lamp posts, sidewalks, brick streets, underground utilities and having things uniform."

Petrie thinks she knows what those visiting here will say about the PPG site and downtown area of Ford City.

"That they're back to the old glass town," she said.

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