Nemacolin neighbors unite to take back their town

Neighbors uniting in effort to take back their town

March 15, 2014
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Tara Kinsell / Observer-Reporter
Vacant houses are shown along Petain Avenue in Nemacolin. Order a Print
Image description
Tara Kinsell / Observer-Reporter
From left, Angie Visnesky, vice president of Nemacolin Inc.; Karen Wolff, president of Nemacolin Neighbors United; and Rick Gottfreid, vice president of Nemacolin Neighbors United; stand by a recently installed drug-free sign at a bus stop pear Nemacolin’s community park. Order a Print

NEMACOLIN – There is more than a little bit of irony when one searches for Nemacolin seeking directions to the famed resort in the Laurel Highlands of Fayette County and ends up in the Greene County patch town of the same name.

There was a time when this Nemacolin was listed in high school geography books as a “model town,” so it isn’t farfetched to think there once was a time when it, too, was a destination of choice for many. Today, this former “model town” has been branded by many as rundown, drug-laden and beyond repair, but that may be about to change.

It was two years ago when a Greene County Drug and Alcohol program assessment identified two communities in need of the most help to overcome a growing heroin problem – West Waynesburg (also known as Bucktown) and Nemacolin. And, it was the drug issue, along with the overall landscape of Nemacolin, that prompted a group of concerned residents decided to take back their town.

“John Fox, director of drug and alcohol services for Greene County, applied for a small grant through human services. A community organizer, Bruce Decker, was hired to identify the strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities in West Waynesburg and Nemacolin,” said Angie Visnesky, vice president of Nemacolin Inc. “There are good and bad things going on in Nemacolin and not all of those things are in our control.”

From community meetings with Decker, Fox, county commissioners, Cumberland Township supervisors and the Cumberland Township Police that began two years ago, a vision for a revitalized Nemacolin began to take shape. From it, a new group formed, Nemacolin Neighbors United, to continue not only conversations but also actions in the small community. The 2010 census estimated the number of residents to be slightly under 1,000.

Those who are old enough to remember Nemacolin in its former glory knew it as a thriving coal mining town. They could attend the theater, go to its school, swim at the community pool, play tennis, shop in the company store, and even take a loved one to the hospital there. It was a self-contained community with one way in and one way out. The coal company that built the town designed it that way.

Visnesky, who moved to the community four years ago to be near family, said today absentee landlords are one of the biggest problems faced there.

A single family dwelling can be purchased for under $30,000. Half of a split house, one that is basically cut in half with two separate entrances, can run from $12,000 to $15,000.

“Safe housing is the number one thing here. There is a high rate of rental properties with absentee landlords and they are in disrepair. There is non-consistent code enforcement because they have one person trying to do all of this work,” Visnesky said, noting the low cost of housing being a two-edged sword. It gives first-time homeowners a great opportunity but gives “slum landlords” a golden opportunity as well, she said.

“There are few leases, mostly verbal agreements, so the only option to get something fixed is to hold out on rent,” Visnesky added, noting that rarely works. Vacant houses are also a problem. In fact, there is a row of them along Petain Avenue in the village, not a good thing in a community fighting drug problems.

Visnesky and Karen Wolff, the president of Nemacolin Neighbors United, agree these situations did not occur overnight but were the longtime result of the closure of LTV’s Nemacolin Mine in 1986.

Wolff, who grew up in Chicago and moved to her grandparents’ home in 2000, recalled visiting as a little girl. She saw firsthand the town’s former glory. She said she’s been “really shocked,” in a good way, by the support the town is receiving to bring some of that glory back.

“People are coming together. It is slow, one foot in front of the other, but things are happening,” Wolff said. Last week, a community meeting was held with planning and development consultants Mullin and Lonergan Associates Inc. of Pittsburgh, who have been brought in to assist the town.

One of the initial efforts that evolved from residents working together – cleaning up the town park – was tackled two summers ago. Fresh paint was added to playground equipment and new pieces were added. Visnesky wrote a grant to purchase indestructible picnic tables for this the revitalization project.

The desperately needed funds to resurface the basketball and tennis courts are currently a pipe dream. Both projects would take a large sum of money that just isn’t available.

In general, the park, with its baseball field harkening back to the days when Nemacolin baseball teams were a mainstay in the community, is in fairly good shape. It is safe, clean and inviting.

A new Cumberland Township “disorderly house ordinance” that would give the township the power to fine occupants or owners of houses to which police are repeatedly called for a variety of problems, along with a designation of the bus stops in the town as school zones, would help alleviate the drug problem.

Signage was placed at each bus stop in Nemacolin Friday to make the designation clearer to anyone who might consider conducting criminal activity there.

Nemacolin Neighbors United can actually see a time when its town reurns to a go-to destination for family reunions and town festivals. “I could sit in my house and do my own thing and not bother but I can’t; it’s not right,” Visnesky said. “We chose to live here. It is quiet, has that small town appeal and it has potential.”

Quoting Margaret Mead, Wolff said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

This ideal has now become the guiding principle for these united neighbors of Nemacolin.

Tara Kinsell started her career in journalism with the National Geographic Insider Magazine and the Gaithersburg Gazette Newspaper in Montgomery County, Md. Tara has written and photographed sports, features and news stories for the Herald Standard, Greene County Messenger and Albert Gallatin Weekly. She holds degrees in journalism and graphic design from Waynesburg College, now Waynesburg University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, respectively.

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