Blairsville celebrates end of Diamond Square intersection project
Officials gathered on Blairsville's West Market Street Friday evening to celebrate the completion of the Diamond Square intersection project at Liberty Street and advancements toward developing a river trail and riverfront village.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony in the southern Indiana County town marked completion of a $2.5 million streetscaping project that has dressed up Blairsville's downtown district with new brick sidewalks and pedestrian street lamps on Market Street. As part of the project, the Diamond Square gained patterned pavement to match the appearance of the brick walks, and it was expanded to allow traffic to flow in a complete circle around the landmark bandstand at the center of the intersection. Previously, motorists were prevented from making left turns.
The improvements were achieved with a grant the borough obtained through the federally funded Pennsylvania Community Transportation Initiative. It supplemented earlier state funding of nearly $1 million that paid for an initial phase of streetscaping along a two-block section of Market.
Linda Gwinn, a board member of the borough-created Blairsville Community Development Authority, credited the 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, an agency that advocates for improvements in existing communities, with helping to develop the PCTI program and bringing the funding opportunity to the attention of Blairsville officials.
Grant Ervin of Pittsburgh, representing 10,000 Friends, said the aim of PCTI is to "use transportation resources to help with community investments."
He said the highly competitive grant program attracted more than 400 applications during its initial round, including Blairsville's streetscaping effort.
"Were proud to be a partner with Blairsville in developing this," Ervin said, indicating Blairsville's successful project could serve as a example for other potential applicants.
Gwinn noted the Market Street improvements are part of an effort to attract visitors, new residents and small businesses to Blairsville by presenting it as a "walkable community" that is friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists while offering kayaking on the Conemaugh River at the southern and western edges of the town.
"People want to locate where that type of recreation is available," she said. "This amenity is priceless. We have it, and we're going to capitalize on it."
Yesterday's event also included a symbolic groundbreaking for the Blairsville River Trail, a circular hiking and biking route that will connect the downtown district to the river.
The two-mile trail has been in development for nearly a decade, beginning with a master site plan for property near the river that the borough leases from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The borough has obtained approval of the trail layout from the Army Corps and plans to construct it with the help of a $281,465 grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
A locally based federal unit, the 12th Congressional District Regional Equipment Center has been tapped to complete the construction. Indiana County Parks and Trails has agreed to maintain the new trail.
Blairsville Borough Manager Tim Evans said construction of the trail is planned as soon as conditions permit. Sections of the trail route have been temporarily inundated by water from the river.
Gwinn, a longtime trail advocate, said local officials hope eventually to link Blairsville's trail loop to two neighboring regional rails-to-trails routes -- the Hoodlebug Trail, which also is managed by Indiana County Parks and Trails, to the north and east, and the West Penn Trail, which leads west to Saltsburg and is operated by the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy.
Indiana County, in cooperation with Blairsville, has applied for a $2.2 million federal transportation grant to erect a bike and pedestrian bridge over Route 22 east of Blairsville as part of a proposed route that would connect the new Blairsville trail to the current end of the Hoodlebug Trail near the Blairsville public school campus.
Also yesterday, state Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, announced approval of a $1 million grant to help clear the way for the Blairsville Community Development Authority's proposed Blairsville Riverfront Village. The funding would help with demolition of vacant buildings the authority owns at the west end of Market Street in order to revitalize the area with "market rate" housing or a mixed-use plan that also may include retail space.
According to a proposal for the project, the BCDA suggests up to 64 housing units could be developed along West Market and on adjacent parcels. The plan calls for a mix of single-family homes, duplexes and condominiums.
BCDA owns eight buildings in the targeted area, most of them part of the former Vale Tech automotive school.
Gwinn said an agreement with a prospective developer of the properties is under review -- as is an engineering consultant's proposal, which projects developing about 10 housing units per year.
Gwinn said Blairsville's converging beautification, recreation and redevelopment efforts are the result of "years and years of planning and thoughtful decisions by the borough leaders that came before, as well as guidance from agencies and a heap of support from people who have believed in Blairsville's potential."
Evans calculated that Blairsville has benefited from about $20 million in improvement projects in recent years, also including state facade improvement grants for downtown merchants, an expansion of the community's sewage treatment plant and updating sanitary sewer lines to eliminate infiltration by storm water.
During those projects, large sections of downtown Blairsville were under construction, disrupting traffic patterns and parking amenities over the past two years.
Evans praised citizens for their "understanding as we go through the changes here in town."
"It's truly amazing," Evans said of the infrastructure improvements. "It all adds up. It's been an incredible run, and we still have a little way to go."