Small Town Transformation: The West Newton Trailhead
The Progress Fund and the community of West Newton were recognized at Urban Land Institute’s 3rd Annual Placemaking Awards for Excellence.
A special Jury Award was given to The Progress Fund for its multiple investments in West Newton. This ongoing effort, known as Small Town Transformation: The West Newton Trailhead, received “special recognition, given the standout nature of the project among all nominations, which impressed the Jury beyond existing award categories”. Watch the Jury Award video of our project below (Video credit: Pittsburgh Propeller Heads).
Read Urban Land Institute Recognizes West Newton’s transformation (Tribune-Review article).
Read ULI’s full press release (PDF).
Read Crossing the Bridge: The Trail to Downtown (PDF), the story of the entrepreneurs in West Newton. Read about Performance Kayak, our newest borrower in West Newton, in Paddling Under the Bridge: Where Pedal met Paddle (PDF).
West Newton is undergoing a renaissance. Community development loans and real estate redevelopment projects by The Progress Fund have supported the start-up and expansion of local small businesses that are changing the future of the community.
The small town of West Newton is located in the southwestern corner of rural Westmoreland County. It is home to 2,600 people who share many of the common stories of the region, of family, past steel and manufacturing jobs. The town’s commercial district and surrounding neighborhoods are compact and historically intact. On the flip side, West Newton experienced the decades-long deterioration that has affected many communities surrounding Pittsburgh.
Fortuitously, West Newton is stationed along the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP). The GAP is one of America’s best bike trails, known for its nearly level trail along winding rivers, shaded valleys, and small towns. Now complete, the Great Allegheny Passage rail-trail offers 150 miles of hiking and biking between Cumberland, MD, and Pittsburgh, PA. In Cumberland, the GAP joins the C&O Canal Towpath, creating a continuous 335 mile long trail experience to Washington, DC. Recreational use of the GAP continues to grow, recently surpassing 1,000,000 visits annually.
Thirty-four miles from Downtown Pittsburgh, the Great Allegheny Passage enters West Newton. This is a particularly scenic stretch of the GAP. The charm comes from the blend of natural and man-made features. Here, the GAP and the picturesque Youghiogheny River flow within sight, and the broad river channel provide open vistas to a backdrop of forested hills. Along the west bank of the river, a few historic houses and a restored railroad station line the trail. Across the river, the historic downtown prominently lines the east riverbank. The two sides are visibly tied by a handsome 108 year old bridge.
For many bicyclists, West Newton is stationed at the perfect distance from Downtown Pittsburgh. For an urban adventurer, the ride to West Newton makes for an enjoyable day-trip. Through-riders from across the world find this a perfect distance to/from Pittsburgh. For anyone else, the West Newton trailhead is conveniently located along S.R. 136. All that riding builds a healthy appetite. And when they’re there, the crowd wants food and beverage options, overnight accommodations, an occasional bicycle part and other retail goods. Others agree that economic prosperity rides in on bicycles.
Although opportunity was riding past West Newton, the town lacked the full range of services that riders were willing to buy. Opportunity was lost, but community leaders and The Progress Fund envisioned a different scenario for West Newton. Their shared vision, together with The Progress Fund’s strategic investments, was the action plan needed to make West Newton a “destination”. Our concept paralleled a destination ski resort, which provides food, accommodations and retail shops around an outdoor recreational venue.
The Progress Fund’s efforts were funded by the R.K. Mellon Foundation. Recently, an Anonymous Donor added to the initiative. The combined funding enabled The Progress Fund to rehabilitate four vacant/derelict properties, make community development loans to four separate businesses, fund façade grants, riverbank reclamation, and trail way-finding signage. The Progress Fund also provided funds to Downtown West Newton, Inc., a local nonprofit that needed funds to complete Simeral Square, their riverside reclamation project at the entrance to downtown. Downtown’s ties to the trailhead commerce are evolving, but that’s another story in itself. Read Crossing the Bridge: The Trail to Downtown (PDF).
The first redeveloped property of the Initiative was 101 South Water Street. This, the largest downtown parcel, included one vacant building, 200 feet of river frontage and is flanked by the handsome and historic 108 year old bridge connecting the town and trail. The redevelopment included complete rehabilitation of the building, riverbank reclamation, and rain gardens for on-site storm water management. The building came alive again in 2015 when Subway completed and opened its new “Metro Café style” restaurant. This was just the second time the new interior concept has been used in southwestern PA (the first in Oakland in Pittsburgh).
Another key effort involved four historic homes next door to the GAP Visitor’s Center. One house had been previously converted to a four room B&B and offers the only overnight accommodations in town. The three other houses were either vacant or in serious disrepair. Working in partnership with the B&B owner, all three were purchased and rehabilitated (the last to be completed in December of 2015). The three redeveloped houses add 11 new guest rooms that are in high demand by passing trail users. See Bright Morning Bed & Breakfast.
Earlier investments from The Progress Fund to the Trailside Café and Fox’s Pizza Den & Scoops-N-At, both at the parking area of the West Newton trailhead, add to the complement of rider-friendly businesses. Youghiogheny Canoe Outfitters also added another recreational activity to this growing recreational destination.
The West Newton trailhead, once just another convenient location to park and ride the GAP, was reimagined and redeveloped to serve as a recreational destination. The creation of this new place, a synergy of recreational and commercial activities, has improved both the physical appearance and economic future of West Newton.
Numerous vacant and derelict properties, all prominently located, most with historic significance were rehabilitated. As separate projects, each resulted in a noteworthy community enhancement. The sum of all those small-scaled developments is sizeable.
These physical improvements make West Newton a far more attractive and welcoming place for out-of-town visitors. Simultaneously, the services and physical improvements have made the community more “livable” for residents, reversed their slowly deteriorating economy, and generated much needed local jobs.
Impacts carry well beyond West Newton. The shared vision of West Newton’s leaders coupled with the strategic investments and initiatives of The Progress Fund prove the concept of trail-based economic development. This is important because many small communities across Western PA suffer from deteriorating local economies. In their search for opportunities, those lucky enough to have and utilize recreational assets can learn and apply lessons from The Progress Fund’s Trail Town Program which received a National Planning Achievement Award for Innovation in Economic Planning & Development from the American Planning Association. This award is shared with Allegheny Trail Alliance and Maryland Department of Planning for cooperative efforts to revitalize the Trail Towns along the Great Allegheny Passage.
These lessons and partnerships, an amalgamation of small-scale developments, are within the range of possibility for small towns. What doesn’t translate, what’s not financially possible and is out of reach for small towns are the urban tactics and large scaled projects that larger markets can support. Small towns need other examples, right-sized for their conditions. West Newton is truly a catalytic place; a model of rural redevelopment that should be recognized for the extraordinary impacts it has created.
Follow the transformation through the news stories below.
101 South Water Street
Best Subway anywhere with a riverfront view (April 2015) – Riverfront dining is a special and memorable experience. In this region, the options are few and so they become local favorites and tourist destinations. Add Downtown West Newton to the short list. Last week, Subway opened its best new restaurant, dare we say anywhere? Their opening is the culmination of The Progress Fund’s three-year effort to secure and rehab this exceptionally well-positioned property for a new commercial life. Continue reading.
Subway restaurant coming to West Newton (August 2014) – A Herminie native whose company operates 23 Subway restaurant franchises in the region plans to expand his business to the renovated former Riverside Lounge in West Newton, with hopes of attracting some of the Great Allegheny Passage trail users across the Youghiogheny River to eat. Continue reading.
Open house for renovated West Newton building sees good response (October 30, 2013) – The spruced-up and ready-to-occupy former Riverside Lounge was opened to public view on October 28, 2013 and the response was good. “The former tavern at 101 S. Water Street drew some local interest and some new ideas from people who inspected the space that has been remodeled for new uses,” said William Prince, Manager of the Trail Town Program operated by The Progress Fund. Read more.
West Newton property ready for tenants (October 9, 2013) – The Progress Fund is looking for entrepreneurs interested in renting the 2,500 square foot first floor, or buying the entire 5,000 square foot two-story building and one half acre parcel on which it sits along the east bank of the Youghiogheny River. The building has been renovated into a “vanilla box” which is ready to be leased. “It’s a blank slate. It’s a huge transformation,” from its previous life as a tavern, says William Prince, Manager of The Progress Fund’s Trail Town Program. Read more.
Phase 2 begins at former Riverside Lounge in West Newton (June 2013) – The second phase of renovations to the former Riverside Lounge along South Water Street in West Newton should begin this week, with extensive renovations planned for the interior of the two-story brick building to make it suitable for leasing this fall, the Greensburg-based nonprofit owner said. Continue reading.
Trail provides positive economic impact to West Newton area (June 2015) – Mary Lou Rendulic does not need a study to tell her about the economic value of the Great Allegheny Passage, the popular 150-mile recreational trail that cuts through West Newton as it connects Pittsburgh with Cumberland, Md. “We’re finding that we are renting more and more rooms per season,” said Rendulic, who operates Bright Morning Bed & Breakfast, The Annex Inn and the new Willow Springs Inn along Jefferson Court, just off the Great Allegheny Passage. Continue reading.
Bright Morning Bed & Breakfast to celebrate second expansion (October 2014) – This new addition to Bright Morning Bed & Breakfast will add four more guest rooms. The house was completely renovated with a restored front porch overlooking the Great Allegheny Passage. This house is handicapped-accessible and features a pathway connecting to the breakfast area at Annex Inn. Read more.
Rendulics expanding bed and breakfast business in West Newton (August 2014) – Mary Lou and Robert J. Rendulic, owners of Bright Morning Bed & Breakfast and the Annex Inn at 127 and 129 Jefferson Court respectively, are planning to have at least two rooms of the four-room two-story house at 131 Jefferson Court ready for visitors by September 25, 2014. Read more
“We need a place to sleep!” (April 2014) – The demand for overnight accommodations along the GAP is growing at an accelerating pace. Ten years ago, Bright Morning B&B, in West Newton, opened with only 1 room. In 2013, with our help, they expanded by purchasing and rehabilitating the vacant house next door. Continue reading.
Trailblazing Bright Morning Bed & Breakfast doubles down (May 2013) – One of the pioneers of West Newton’s trail-powered rebirth is expanding this month. Bright Morning Bed & Breakfast is opening a second guest house, The Annex Inn, which features three lovely rooms and a dining area that brings a new level of hospitality to one of the Youghiogheny River’s most vibrant towns. Continue reading.