Saving Brownsville: Is its history key to future?
Hamburgers and hot dogs sizzle on the grill at Fiddle’s Confectionery, where 15 counter stools fill as the lunch crowd arrives on a brisk afternoon.
Waitresses serve steaming cups of coffee with the $3.79 pizza burger special. Dozens of customers, including Warren Galiffa, of Bethel Park, and his 100-year-old aunt, Rose Hughes, dine in booths where generations of Brownsville’s sweethearts carved their initials on the tabletops.
“It’s a throwback in time,” Galiffa said. “It reminds you of the way things used to be.”
The “way things used to be” is a frequent topic in this bleak Monongahela River valley town that has bled population and businesses for decades.
Tara Hospital, the former Brownsville General Hospital, closed last year. Police and borough workers were laid off in December. In January, when a longtime lender, National City Bank, denied a $75,000 tax anticipation loan, council members begged the electric company not to shut off the town’s street lights.
“There ain’t nothing here,” said Levi Gnus, a lifelong resident. “We don’t even have a grocery store downtown.”
What’s happening in this Fayette County community is not unique. Experts say it is an example of a downward spiral common to small municipalities.
“It’s an unhappy situation, but it’s replicated all over the valley,” said Robert Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy in the Heinz School of Public Policy & Management at Carnegie Mellon University.
Like many southwestern Pennsylvania communities, Brownsville already was in decline when it suffered crippling job losses from the demise of the region’s steel mills and coal mines in the 1970s and 1980s. Families moved, college students never returned and failing businesses closed until the main thoroughfare, Market Street, became a desolate stretch of shuttered storefronts and empty lots.
In 1960, Brownsville had 6,055 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2005, death and migration cut the population to 2,690.
Between 1960 and 2005, the same thing happened all over the region. Pittsburgh’s population went from 604,332 to 316,718, while McKeesport’s dropped from 45,489 to 22,701 and New Castle’s fell from 44,790 to 25,030.
“We train people very well and then they leave,” said Albert Luloff, a professor of agricultural economics and rural sociology at Penn State University. “You can’t stop that unless we create jobs.”
Luloff and Strauss also blame Pennsylvania’s “fractured government system” for creating hundreds of municipalities with dwindling tax bases, no industry and limited means to provide services.
“It makes any effort by any community almost impossible as they’re trying to attract industries while competing with each other,” Luloff said. “They’re working at each other’s throats.”
Brownsville’s leaders agree that something must be done, but they are at odds over a solution.
Mayor Lewis Hosler said there is a power struggle between preservationists who want to bank on Brownsville’s rich history and people who favor projects such as a proposed velodrome for Olympic-style bicycle races.
“There’s people who don’t want to see change,” Hosler said. “They want to preserve the old buildings, and a lot of them aren’t even historical.”
Leading the preservationists is former mayor Norma Ryan, a volunteer with the nonprofit Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp., who believes the town’s history is critical to its future.
Located off Route 40, the National Road, Brownsville was the first meeting site for the Whiskey Rebellion, boasts the nation’s first cast-iron bridge and is where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had a boat built for their westward exploration.
“I think people have faith that the town will come back,” Ryan said.
Records show the organization received several million dollars in state, federal and foundation grants and matching funds since 1989 that were spent on property acquisition and renovation, cultural ventures and educational purposes.
Restoration of Market Street’s Flatiron building, Frank L. Melega Art Museum and Flatiron Heritage Center is perhaps its main achievement. A store that sells clothing for historical re-enactments and a flower shop opened in its renovated buildings.
“We are slowly acquiring and renovating buildings to get the town back on track,” Executive Director Alison McConnell said. “If you have the ability to see beyond the blight, you can see the potential.”
Councilman John Hosler, the mayor’s brother, disagrees.
“Nobody’s coming here. Why should they? You can’t go downtown to buy a dress or a pair of shoes or food. You need a hub store, not a store that sells flowers or relics,” he said.
Critics contend the organization has little to show for its efforts and claim it undermines viable projects while advancing its agenda of property acquisition.
“BARC doesn’t belong in the real estate business,” said Ray Koffler, owner of Tru-Copy Printing Service.
Luloff doubts that selling history will revitalize Brownsville. He said dozens of small museums and groups are trying to do the same thing.
“These places barely survive,” he said.
Plans for the community have been a point of controversy for decades. Central to the dispute are Monroeville developers Ernest and Marilyn Liggett, owners of Manor Investments.
Since 1992, they’ve pumped millions into some 100 blighted properties purchased on the assumption that “mass creates opportunity,” Ernest Liggett said. Although Brownsville’s access to highways, the railroad and the river made it ideal for development, problems obtaining permits and opposition from some circles blocked their plans for riverboat gambling, an Indian casino or a retail strip mall.
Some blame the Liggetts — who fell behind on taxes and have been fined for code violations as their properties further deteriorated — for all that is wrong with Brownsville. Others say it was in trouble long before they arrived.
“It’s not these people,” said hardware store owner Pat Ballon. “All they bought was the empty buildings.”
Ballon, Koffler, the Liggetts and others support the velodrome proposed by CB Richard Ellis, a real estate brokerage and management firm in Pittsburgh.
“I’d like to see Brownsville become to Olympic cycling what Williamsport is to Little League Baseball,” said Liggett, who envisions his properties filled with retail, hotel and office space.
Supporters are shocked that others in town question its chances for success.
“It doesn’t make sense to me why they’re not beating the cymbals, saying it’s Mardi Gras time,” Ballon said.
Frank Ricco, president of the Greater Brownsville Chamber of Commerce, said the Brownsville Free Public Library, the post office and American Legion Post 295 could be relocated from the Snowden Square area to a new civic complex to accommodate the velodrome, which would be owned by a public authority.
“There’s no question in my mind this could be the thing to save Brownsville,” he said.
Lead architect Jeff Slusarick, a principal of the Astorino firm in Pittsburgh, said CB Richard Ellis and Astorino consultants are developing plans for a project feasibility study.
Slusarick, whose firm designed Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, called the velodrome “a unique opportunity.” The 1980 Brownsville Area High School graduate has wanted to do something to help his hometown for years.
That’s the way it should be, according to Luloff at Penn State.
“When people care about each other and the place that they live, the community is alive and well. When they stop, it falls apart,” Luloff said. “If they really are interested in the best thing for the community, they’ll realize a community isn’t buildings and a community isn’t history. A community is people.”
Robin Acton can be reached at email@example.com or 724-830-6295.