How is the Neighborhood Partnership Program Benefiting Downtown Butler?
Feb 27, 2015 06:36PM ● Published by Jack Etzel
A lot of changes are taking place in Butler, PA, in order to preserve and improve a once blighted and deteriorated downtown business district. A six-year endeavor—known at times as the Main Street Program, the Centre City Project, the Main Street National Register District of Butler or simply ‘our new downtown’—got underway in 2011 with a focus on preservation, restoration and innovation. The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (PHLF) is a major player in this enterprise, most specifically David Farkas, the associate director of real estate programs and director of its Main Street program.
North Hills Monthly Magazine (NHMM): David, exactly what is meant by the Main Street program?
David Farkas: The Main Street program work that we do focuses on revitalizing traditional central business districts, specifically in communities and small towns. This takes on a wide variety of shapes and forms because every town and situation, including the funding, is different. In Butler, where we are currently involved, our work is funded through the Neighborhood Partnership Program, a state tax-credit program that incentivizes private investments in community development projects. In Butler, the business sponsors are Armstrong and Huntington Bank, which generously provide the working capital necessary for the renovations that we’re doing. That work includes physical improvements aimed at connecting the central business district with the surrounding residential areas so that the residents who live around the downtown area, and others as well, will be encouraged to walk, shop and patronize local businesses.
NHMM: And what has this entailed?
David Farkas: To date, our changes have included the installation of significant lighting to connective streets with decorative historic but modern LED lighting to create a greater sense of safety. We’ve also made public space and gateway improvements, including getting rid of an old concrete median and replacing it with shade trees, new landscaping, new sidewalks, and much-needed signage. These are just a few of things that we considered critical infrastructure to the physical appearance of the downtown area.
NHMM: What kind of feedback are you getting?
David Farkas: I can say that it’s been very positive. Residents comment all the time. One local elected official recently mentioned that he has been enjoying the newly lighted streets. He said that he now enjoys just walking downtown and back to have dinner. It’s clearly a good thing for the area; anyone can see that we’ve been able to encourage more people to come downtown and there’s a noticeable increase in downtown patronage.
NHMM: Why is this going to take another couple of years to complete?
David Farkas: We began with a focus on tangible changes, but our work is not limited to just physical improvements. There’s more work ahead. Among other things, we are engaged in finding a new owner and user for Butler’s historic Penn Theater, a former movie house on Main Street. The Penn Theater is a place where everyone who lives in Butler seems to have a story in their collective memory that includes certain films or events. It has fallen into disrepair and is now owned by the city’s redevelopment authority. Because this building is so critical to our overall preservation and restoration, we are working with the authority to improve the exterior. We’ve been focusing on repairing the historic façade, including the original, beautiful terracotta material and the marquee, as a way to better entice a new buyer and user of the space to make the necessary investments required for the work that needs to be done on the interior of the building.
NHMM: Some of our readers might be wondering how an extensive public undertaking like the one occurring in Butler could happen in their own town or community. Where would they start?
David Farkas: We are always available for advice or information, and while it’s possible to start with an organized, dedicated committee, most often it begins with a savvy mayor or a high-quality manager. In any event, and most importantly, it should begin with a person or people who really know the town; who are going to advocate for it and who know how to find the funds to help it become a reality. Someone reading this who is unfamiliar with the Neighborhood Partnership Program could put those words in a search engine as a good place to start. The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation has a very successful track record of revitalizing communities and buildings throughout southwestern Pennsylvania, so we are a good resource for advice and information.
NHMM: Thanks, David. Any final thoughts?
David Farkas: Well, a historic building is a very important asset in any community or downtown area, but sometimes local officials struggle with how to address doing something with an old structure. It may no longer be in great shape or serve a purpose. I’d say that rather than thinking demolition first, be aware that there are very real ways to restore buildings in a downtown area. It might take a little more ‘jacking up the docks’ as we say, but it’s possible. Whether you’re thinking of an old historic building or a small business district, first consider ways of restoring it instead of demolishing it.
For more information, contact the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation at www.phlf.org or 412-471-5808.