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Seton Hill, Greensburg officials seek input on project

Joe Napsha
| Thursday, May 10, 2012, 6:22 p.m.

Terrie Barrill, owner of DV8 Espresso Bar and Gallery on Pennsylvania Avenue in Greensburg, is looking forward to the possible influx of people that Seton Hill University's proposed arts center will bring into the downtown cultural district.

"I think it can only help all of downtown Greensburg, especially bringing the students downtown," said Barrill, who is vice president of the new Greensburg Business Association Inc.

Seton Hill University President JoAnne Boyle and Greensburg Mayor Karl E. Eisaman will explain the proposed $11.3 million University Center for the Arts project during a breakfast briefing for city merchants at 8 a.m. Tuesday at the newly renovated Stark Building on West Otterman Street.

"We want to hear from the merchants what their concerns are. None of this is set in stone," Boyle said, adding that the officials would like to incorporate the merchants' ideas and concerns into the planning for the project.

Seton Hill has announced plans to construct a 50,000-square-foot building that will stretch from the train station at Ehalt Street and cover the one-block length of Harrison Avenue to West Otterman Street. The university wants to move its music and theater programs to a facility featuring a 28,800-square-foot theater arts building with a 250-to-300-seat flexible theater. This would be linked to a 21,500-square-foot music building with a 600-seat music hall.

The infusion of 300 to 400 people using the center will generate activity that is "good for businesses, good for restaurants, good for pizza shops and good for the newsstands," Boyle said.

"It is the best use for now and the future vitality of the city. It could not be a better match than having these educational programs that relate to the culture the city is trying to promote in that area," she added.

Eisaman noted that Greensburg can become "the downtown for the surrounding communities" without downtown business districts.

Boyle expects plans for the project can be completed and receive government approval by the end of the year. The center can host cultural events in the spring or fall of 2006, depending upon how the weather affects construction, Boyle said.

Gov. Ed Rendell helped to make the project a reality last month by awarding the university a $5 million grant from the state's Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, which funds efforts to rejuvenate downtown areas. The governor's office said the money will not be released until actual bills are submitted for expenses related to the project. The recipient can "draw down" on the $5 million until that money is spent, the spokesman said.

Seton Hill is raising money and will have sufficient funds for the project, Boyle said. The university will make an estimated $6.5 million investment in the project, she said.

While other projects have languished for years without state funding, Boyle believes that one key to getting the grant was the partnership Seton Hill formed with the Westmoreland Trust, which has renovated the Palace Theatre and the train station. That partnership also includes the City of Greensburg and the Greensburg Salem School District.

"We can't stress enough the power of the partnership. It's just an incredible engine," Boyle said.

Seton Hill is selecting an architect to follow the design prepared by Urban Design Associates. While initial discussions focused on using the city's parking lot at the corner of Ehalt Street and Harrison Avenue, Boyle said they asked UDA for a design "as if there were no barriers to acquiring the property" on the west side of Harrison Avenue, from the train station to West Otterman Street.

To take control of the western side of the block along Harrison Avenue, the Westmoreland Trust acquired an option to purchase an L-shaped building that fronts Harrison Avenue and houses the workers' compensation office at 115 W. Otterman St., said Michael Langer, executive director of the trust.

Negotiations continue on the purchase of the property, which carries an asking price of $435,000, Langer said.

The other remaining property on that side of Harrison Avenue is a building that houses a pizza shop and beauty salon. Seton Hill wants to purchase that property, Langer said.

The proposed project will take the entire 105-space city parking lot, which will force Seton Hill and the city to find additional parking space. The arts center would need about 130 spaces, Boyle said.

In what might aid the proposed development, the city in November razed a deteriorating, 98-year-old former livery stable building at the corner of North Pennsylvania Avenue and Tunnel Street. The city took control of that property.

The site could be converted into a double-deck parking lot that would serve those using the Westmoreland County Courthouse, downtown businesses, Seton Hill's project and the Stark Building, Eisaman said. Another option would be placing a deck on the parking lot adjacent to the train station, a project that would be done in conjunction with the Westmoreland Trust, Eisaman said.

Seton Hill is planning a second phase of its downtown project, which would involve opening incubators for start-up businesses supervised by the university's National Education Center for Women in Business. The university wants to renovate an existing building to serve as an inn for students studying hospitality and tourism, and find downtown housing for students studying music and theater, Boyle said.

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