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Allegheny Passage towns look to tap trail potential

Mary Pickels
| Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Voicing ideas small and large — from organizing window-washing brigades for downtown buildings to educating potential developers about historic tax credits — area residents and business owners last night discussed preserving and marketing the six trail towns along the Great Allegheny Passage.

About 50 people attended the meeting in the St. Rita Church social hall in Connellsville, sponsored by the Progress Fund's Trail Town Program as it kicked off its preservation plan project.

The project's goal is to coordinate a preservation plan for Connellsville, West Newton, Ohiopyle, Rockwood, Meyersdale and Confluence.

Last night's meeting addressed the first three communities. A second meeting is planned from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. today in the Meyersdale Fire Hall, 202 Main St., to focus on the other three towns. Walking tours of the towns were scheduled to precede the meetings.

Trail users of the 135-mile Great Allegheny Passage, which stretches from Cumberland, Md., to McKeesport, are interested in more than snacks and restroom facilities, said Cathy McCollom, Trail Town Program director.

"They are looking for those communities that still feel authentic, that have original downtown buildings and stories to tell," she said.

Historic preservation does not have to be expensive, said Erin Hammerstedt, of Preservation Pennsylvania.

And it can improve a tax base, create jobs and stimulate private investment, she said.

Community members are being asked to identify resources that might be significant.

"We are not going to have the luxury of going door to door and looking at every building," Hammerstedt said.

Most of the six communities have numerous buildings on the National Register, she said, and more that are eligible.

Preservation planning firm Clarion Associates of Denver was selected to assist with the project, expected to last until year's end.

"We are going to be coming up with a universal set of goals," for the towns, said Matthew Goebel, Clarion vice president.

He added that heritage tourists are good visitors.

"They typically spend more money than other tourists," he said.

Goebel suggested the towns not view themselves as competitors, but rather pursue partnerships.

Focus groups drew up lists of issues, opportunities and hurdles the project might encounter.

Included in the Connellsville group were McCollom; Tom Rusnack, of the Connellsville Historic Preservation Commission; Connellsville Councilwoman and volunteer director of Wesley Health Center Marilyn Weaver; Connellsville Redevelopment Authority director and Connellsville Cultural Trust president Michael Edwards; and Adam Flett, of the Trail Town outreach program.

Among the issues they listed were owners who hold onto properties without repairing them, towns' lack of restrooms and lodging, and empty downtown buildings.

Hurdles included a lack of public interest in older buildings, insufficient funding and young people leaving because of a lack of jobs.

Code enforcement and persuading former local residents to invest in the area were among the opportunities.

Concentrating on preservation of a few buildings — such as the Brimstone Building, the WCVI building, Burn's Drugstore and the community center — was suggested.

The group also discussed possible actions it might take, from "adopt a building" programs to beautification awards.

Clarion representatives plan to return this summer with a needs assessment and draft of goals, objectives and strategies.

Together with Hammerstedt they will draft a final plan by year's end.

It will be something communities will be invited to endorse, Goebel said, rather than adopt.

Project co-sponsors are the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and Preservation Pennsylvania.

Funding came from the Katherine Mabis McKenna Foundation, Preservation Pennsylvania and the Preserve America Program of the National Park Service.

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