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Blairsville’s finding a future in its roots

Date: 2/7/2012

Blairsville’s finding a future in its roots

By Dave Hurst


“Blairsville! Why would you want to retire in Blairsville?” asked the woman with whom I’d been talking.

Now this was a native of Blairsville asking this; a professional person who actively involves herself in outdoor activities and now lives in the Greater Johnstown area. Upon learning that she was from Blairsville, I’d made the observation that I was thinking about retiring there, which prompted her response.

Most of us tend to take our roots for granted. Because they are so familiar and seemingly commonplace, we have difficulty seeing the qualities of our hometowns as clearly as outsiders do.

For this person, Blairsville was a place to be left behind; a dreary little community, tucked into a pocket of the Conemaugh River below U.S. Route 22, crisscrossed with railroad tracks; a place with an undistinguished past and an uncertain future.

While it is true that Blairsville never has had the fame of a singular employer such as the Pennsylvania Railroad or a focused industry such as coal mining, its location has been its defining quality. This community already was a river port before the days of the Main Line Canal, and it was a regional railroad center well into the middle of the 20th century.

Today, Blairsville’s on the cusp of significant change that could create a new role for this town - as a recreation center. For its assets as a well-positioned river community are becoming important again as a decade or more of community planning and development efforts start to pay off.

To begin with, now that U.S. Route 22’s improvements have been completed, Blairsville is within one hour’s drive of downtown Pittsburgh. Keep that in mind.

The community recently celebrated the completion of a $2.5 million Diamond Square project, which restored Blairsville’s Diamond to its historic configuration, improves West Market Street’s traffic flow and enhances cyclist and pedestrian connections with the business district. Related projects improved sidewalks and pedestrian lighting throughout the business district.

Now construction is beginning on the Blairsville River Trail, which will follow the Conemaugh River on wooded U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) property from the Bairdstown Bridge (PA Route 217 just beyond the Diamond) to WyoTech Park. Beyond WyoTech Park the trail will re-enter the business district and loop back to the Diamond.

Not only will this trail be accessible to everyone in town, but eventually planners hope to connect it with three rail-trails that converge on the outskirts of Blairsville: the West Penn Trail, which runs 16 miles to Saltsburg then connects to the five-mile Westmoreland Heritage Trail; the Hoodlebug Trail, which extends 10 miles to Indiana; and the 36-mile Ghost Town Trail, which reaches Ebensburg.

The Blairsville River Trail also will turn the community’s attention back toward the Conemaugh River. Now that the Conemaugh’s water quality is improving, boaters are discovering its joys, and fishers are finding its waters fruitful.

But Blairsville’s leaders aren’t stopping there. They’ve obtained another $1 million to begin the Blairsville Riverfront Village project. Blighted buildings will be demolished and “infill” housing (building within confined existing spaces) will be developed.

Once completed, this development will offer new or renewed housing with immediate access to bicycle trails, boating and fishing opportunities. The backyards will be bordered by the USACE riverside property, which is guaranteed to remain undeveloped.

So to recap: Within the next few years, Blairsville should be offering nice housing next to wooded riverfront property with plenty of places to boat, fish and bicycle right outside the front door. And residents will be an easy hour’s drive from downtown Pittsburgh.

Now that’s my idea of a good place to retire. Not everyone will agree, but just in case you do, the line forms to the rear.

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