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Jeannette Initiative enlists students to poll how city is viewed

| Wednesday, May 2, 2012, 6:08 p.m.

A public poll that will help define the perceptions of Jeannette will be conducted early next year.

High school students will conduct the poll, the second element of an effort by the Jeannette Initiative to grasp the nature of the city. It will be funded, in part, by the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, through a $1,500 matching grant.

The first element was a survey and production of a book on public services, housing and business availability and public and business life in the city.

"We didn't want to go off of perceptions anymore," Initiative President Carlotta Paige said. "How can we sit down and talk about revitalizing the community when you don't know anything about it•

"So we really thought that it was important to get some baseline data and that's what we did with (the book)."

The Jeannette Initiative was formed in 1995 to "spearhead a collaborative effort designed to revitalize the city of Jeannette, both economically and socially."

That is no small task, its board members agree.

Lee Matchett, an accountant in the city and treasurer of the Initiative, said perception is one aspect of the community that needs to change.

"There's a lot of perceptions about Jeannette, very few of them are good," Matchett said. "So one of our most recent projects was to kind of delve into that. Let's find out what the reality of it is and the upshot is that there's some really interesting (perceptions)."

That book includes a comparison of Jeannette with neighboring communities.

Matchett said the study revealed that the crime rate in the city is lower than that of neighbor cities.

"We compared Jeannette with Greensburg, Latrobe and Irwin and in spite of what people may read in the papers, the crime rate in Jeannette was actually the third lowest of those cities," he said. "There's a whole lot of information there. This is a report of what really is here rather than just hearsay. Everybody thinks they know what's happening, but in reality nobody knows what's happening."

The board members said the book and upcoming poll will provide resources for new programs in the city.

"We don't see ourselves as the ones that are going to be going out and implementing or developing the programs, but rather providing resources," Matchett said.

Paige said the Initiative hopes to increase the interaction it has with other city organizations in the coming months. She said the Initiative has largely become known as a resource for grant funds -- it received a $50,000 endowment in 1999 -- but that grant money is limited, and there are other tasks the Initiative wants to take on that don't involve distributing cash.

"There's a lot of different things that need to be done in the city. One of the things is that you have to look at ways in which we can help the people that live here," she said. "We've got a large low-income population and according to the data, many of them pay beyond what they should for housing.

"We also know socially that we have a large number of grandmothers that are taking care of their children's children. Data shows that they do that for as long a period as five years or more.

"Well, that tells you something: We've got some basic problems."

Like many other communities in Western Pennsylvania that were built on an industrial base, Jeannette once was a bustling community.

Kenneth Gehr, who moved to Jeannette and started a business after growing up in Salem, said the city must find a new identity. Gehr, who retired from real estate appraisal and investment, said he stayed in the city because it was a welcoming place.

Today, he said, it was known in many cases for its restaurants.

"People don't know the town; they think it's an industrial town like Monessen or McKeesport," he said. "I was in the real estate business. When my people would call and I would try to direct them to my office, which is on Harrison Avenue, they would say, 'Well, I know where The Nest is. Where are you from the Nest?'"

Building on that good will is key, Paige said.

"Sometimes I don't think that people understand that Jeannette isn't just Clay Avenue," she said. "When you ride around Jeannette, there are beautiful homes here, absolutely beautiful. Well-maintained. And people don't know that.

"They could buy a home in Jeannette that is as good as any home in the county: beautiful. The taxes aren't terribly high; but they don't understand that."

The Initiative office on Clay Avenue is above the National City Bank building.

Efforts from city groups including the community development office and downtown business associations over the years have not prevented the loss of businesses. Paige said she believes the core elements -- infrastructure and a desire to grow -- are present in the city.

"There's no reason why this street should not be lined with a lot of small businesses," she said. "There should be more lawyers, there should be more businesses. Most of the industry around Jeannette is the service industry and that could change. I think that needs to change, because this would be a great town."

Matchett said by compiling information on the city and combining that with the perceptions of people in the region, the Initiative will make available some of the tools needed to turn the city in the right direction.

"There are a lot of groups of people in Jeannette that are trying to help the city," he said. "Hopefully, by providing this information we can get everybody, if not on the same boat, at least pulling the oars in the same direction."

Paige, who will organize the public poll, said it will include having the students talk with residents in the city and in outlying areas. The poll also will be available on the Internet.

"I think the town has a lot of potential," she said. "We just have to work together. People have to be educated. People have to be patient."

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