Downtown Washington in the 1990s was a gloomy place.
Sidewalks were broken and heaved, traffic signals were outdated, and light fixtures in front of empty stores didn’t work.
Today, after nearly $15 million in capital improvements that began in 2002, the center city is a brighter place with new landscaping, brick sidewalk accents, period lighting fixtures and buried utility lines.
But cracks are appearing in sidewalks, trucks have taken out decorative poles at intersections and curbs are damaged, repairs that must be made by the city, which is still paying off its construction loans. And, even with the formation of a special services business district and a business district authority and the hiring of a Main Street manager, empty storefronts remain and business in some areas remains elusive.
As the city is poised to begin a third phase of capital downtown improvements, this time from the railroad tracks on South Main Street to its intersection with Park Avenue, the question remains if the first two downtown revitalization phases were worth the money.
Opinions differ on project
“I don’t think it had the impact we thought it was going to have,” said city Councilman Ken Westcott, whose 1999 bid for mayor was based on opposition to spending additional money on the project.
But others say those impacts are being felt, just not as soon as anticipated.
“It didn’t get this way overnight, and it’s not going to come back overnight. It’s going to take time,” said Pete Stefansky, Main Street manager.
During the construction phase, said Steve Alexas, co-owner of Shorty’s Lunch on West Chestnut Street, his business suffered and only now has returned to normal. He admits the project did improve the appearance of the downtown but added that widening West Chestnut would have benefited businesses there more than adding brick sidewalk accents.
Improving the county seat was what the Washington County Council on Economic Development set out to do, said its former chairwoman, Debra Rhone. She believes the group achieved its goals, especially if people remember what the downtown looked like.
“It was dirty, there would be garbage everywhere. It was kind of embarrassing because that was your center city,” she said.
Next door to Shorty’s, Mark Hull has operated his shoe repair business for 13 years. Of the downtown project he said, “Personally, I don’t see any changes.”
Like Alexas, he would like to see the city address on-street parking, noting that his customers also come from Wheeling and Morgantown, W.Va., or Uniontown.
“A quarter for 15 minutes? This isn’t Pittsburgh,” he said.
Council does take parking complaints seriously, said Councilman Joe Manning. Recently they voted to provide two-hour free parking spots in about 22 blocks in the city.
Parking is one of three top issues Stefansky hears from prospective developers. The other two are the number of downtown blighted properties and taxes, especially those levied by the city but not in neighboring municipalities. While South Strabane Township has a mercantile tax, it does not have a 5 1/2 mill business privilege tax which the city levies on service businesses such as attorneys, doctors or hair dressers.
The city’s business privilege tax and its 1 1/2 mill mercantile tax on sales (split with Washington School District) are seen as a deterrent to small business owners. But Hull noted the cost to rent space in a plaza or a mall would be unaffordable compared to what can be had in the city.
And Washington’s location on Route 40 was a perfect spot for Alan Ralston, who opened Big Al’s Bike Shop at the corner of Main and Maiden streets. Ralston’s son, Josh, said they were looking for a building where their business would catch the eye of passing motorcyclists.
The updated downtown was another plus and Josh believes the third phase will be an added benefit for anyone looking to relocate to the area.
Next phase targets South Main Street
The third phase, slated to begin in the fall, is fully funded, said Rich Cleveland, former community economic development director for the Washington County Redevelopment Authority, who now serves as the city’s grant writer.
The $1.1 million project will improve the streetscape on South Main Street, add new lighting fixtures, upgrade storm sewers and install a traffic signal at the intersection with Park Avenue.
While Councilman Matt Staniszewski believes funds could have been used more wisely and strategically in the first revitalization phase, he sees that being done in the third phase while safety, congestion and recurring flooding at the intersection are addressed.
Main Street, south of the Washington County Courthouse, has seen more business and improvements than the northern end noted Peter West, owner of West World Galleries. The revitalization was good for replacing broken sidewalks but he wishes more was done to address blighted properties. His business has continued to do well but he doubts the downtown project materialized the way it was planned.
After making the initial capital improvements, it was hoped that developers would step in and invest in the downtown, said those who worked to get the project under way.
One developer’s plans did not come to fruition.
In 2003, Millcraft Industries Chairman Jack Piatt Sr. announced his $100 million “Crossroads” project, with plans to construct a hotel, townhomes, retail shops and a parking garage in the business district. But then came the 2008 financial crisis and that project stalled after construction of the Landmark Building and adjacent parking garage.
Still, Westcott said, those buildings are pluses for the city and three new tenants, including the Central Blood Bank, plan to move into the building.
And there are other positive signs for Washington.
“I think the foundation has been laid for future development,” said Manning. With the Allegheny Conference’s recent announcement that it would be providing a consultant for city projects, the city is poised to enter a new chapter in attracting new business.
The city is no longer financially distressed, a blight task force has been established and there are plans to designate a historic district so certain structures qualify for tax credits. Another plus in the city’s arsenal these days is new state legislation that allows the city to acquire and demolish properties without red tape. Funds are being sought for an enclosure over the Main Street Farmers’ Market, now in its 10th year. It will extend the market’s season and allow for other events there.
“Washington has a lot going for it if you compare it to other small towns in Southwestern Pennsylvania,” West said.