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Survey of buildings, businesses to help promote Westmoreland communities

| Saturday, April 28, 2012, 1:44 a.m.

Standing at the corner of Depot and Jefferson streets in downtown Latrobe, Kristie Bruner, 20, looked up at a tall brick building with the dates "1873" and "1907" carved into stone near the top.

"One, two, three, four stories," she counted.

"Five," said Tyler Onusko, 21, noticing the attic space, with its decorative round windows.

Bruner jotted the number down on a chart and Gretchen Sandzimier, 23, took a picture. The team moved around the corner to document the next building.

The young people, summer employees of the Westmoreland County Redevelopment Authority's Downtown Inventory Project, were surveying Latrobe's central business district, recording each building's address, condition, occupancy and size. The data and photos, along with tax assessment information and ownership records, will be assembled on a Web site later this summer by the county's Geographic Information Systems Department.

The project, said April Kopas, executive director of the authority, was funded by federal stimulus money and co-sponsored by the Westmoreland-Fayette Workforce Investment Board and the Private Industry Council.

As they surveyed Latrobe last week, the project's six workers, all between the ages of 18 and 24, had compiled similar inventories for Greensburg, Irwin, Jeannette, Latrobe and Vandergrift, along with the combined district of Mt. Pleasant, Scottdale and the historic village of West Overton. This week, the team will be in Lower Burrell.

"The communities want to use it to promote their downtown," Kopas said, explaining that the information would be available to visitors as well as potential investors and people looking to start businesses.

In an era when more and more shopping takes place at big box stores on heavily trafficked corridors such as Route 30, downtown business districts are often ignored, a fact the project's organizers hope to change.

Sandzimier, a Mt. Pleasant native and a recent graduate of California University of Pennsylvania, said that even though she grew up in the area, she had never been to many of the county's downtowns.

"A lot of these towns, I didn't know they had a downtown business district," she confessed. "I think this program's really going to help."

Onusko, the team's supervisor and a Connellsville native, said that among the perks of the job were the eateries they had discovered.

"We came into a lot of towns not knowing about the restaurants," he said.

He singled out Jeannette's Italian cuisine for special praise.

"Jeannette's food was amazing," he said, "and you didn't pay outrageous amounts. That was my first time in Jeannette, and I'd go back in a heartbeat."

"It was good hometown cooking," agreed Bruner, who grew up in Mt. Pleasant and studies nursing at York College of Pennsylvania.

Onusko, a tourism planning major at California University of Pennsylvania, said he was receiving college credit for his work, and he hoped to be able to continue until September. While the redevelopment authority had originally planned to survey only eight communities during the months of June and July, more local leaders were asking for their towns to be added.

"Once they found out, we had a lot of people calling and asking if we could do more," said Onusko.

"Everyone's really interested and wants their downtowns to succeed," said Bruner. "I'm really glad I got chosen for this job. Going to all these downtowns, they're really unique."

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