Only eight years ago, Ridgway, Pennsylvania, a scenic town of nearly 5,000 in the northwestern part of the state, was like a lot of small towns. Its downtown building facades were an incongruous hodgepodge of styles and colors. Businesses were closing or just holding on, and the closing in 1977 of an anchor store, G.C. Murphy, seemed like a death knell for the town.
Dale Lauricella moved with her husband to Ridgway when he was transferred there in 1991. She worked from home as a project manager and informational systems analyst for the DuPont Corporation. In 1994, at her husband's urging, the couple bought and renovated an 1865 Italianate mansion built by a lumber baron, which they currently operate as a bed-and-breakfast.
Tim Leathers was born and raised in Ridgway but lived in Pittsburgh, where he managed a large home furnishing business. In 1996 he wrote an impassioned letter to the Ridgway Record, exhorting Ridgway's residents to save their town. He became so committed to the town's revitalization that he moved back to Ridgway and purchased an 1855 Greek revival homestead with his parents and a friend. In January 1997, Lauricella and Leathers organized the first meeting of the Ridgway Heritage Council (RHC).
Lauricella told attendees at a vacant property reclamation conference in December that the first meeting attracted about 25 residents and business owners. “Quite frankly, we were completely clueless about how to go about downtown revitalization,” she recalled, “and were not sure we could make any impact at all. Committee members were often told they were wasting their time trying to save a town that was already dead. Downtown revitalization had been tried in Ridgway in the 1980s, and it had mostly failed. Not one business owner had been willing to participate in the earlier attempt to restore downtown buildings.” However, the fact that Lauricella and Leathers were local investors gave them some credibility.
RHC obtained a technical assistance grant that was used to restructure the organization and develop a strategic plan based on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's four-point Main Street approach (design, economic restructuring, promotion, and organization). Then, in the summer of 1997, the husband-and-wife owners of Joey's Bakery asked RHC to help them restore their turn-of-the-century brick building in the heart of downtown. Leathers and Lauricella persuaded firms to donate an architectural rendering, awnings, and paint, and the building became RHC's first visible success.
RHC received a $45,000 grant from an area foundation that was matched by the Borough of Ridgway to fund a three-year facade program that started in 1998. The program seeks a major improvement in the appearance of downtown buildings — some are historic gems and others are unremarkable — restoring historical integrity within the constraints of owners' budgets. In the program's first year, 19 historic building facades were completed. The Borough of Ridgway has provided $15,000 to $20,000 a year for the facade program after the initial three-year funding expired.
From 1998 to 2003, RHC oversaw 80 facade projects and disbursed $147,000 in grants that leveraged total investment of about $500,000. RHC's work — the basis of three state awards in 2004 — has helped business recruitment. Since 1997, 21 new businesses have located in downtown Ridgway, including a regional candy company, a coffee and pastry shop, and antique and other specialty shops; the majority have been successful.
Ridgway's success in downtown revitalization has sparked a surge in historic home restoration in adjacent residential neighborhoods. Over 30 homes have been restored since 1997 in private investment estimated at over $2 million. Retiring baby boomers seeking summer homes and professionals working in nearby Elk County communities have been attracted to Ridgway by the availability of stately older homes and the community's overall ambiance. Most residential projects received a free consultation but did not get any funding.
An annual historic house tour funded Ridgway's nomination as the “Lily of the Valley” National Historic Register District, which was approved in 2003. Recently, six local organizations banded together to hire a full-time economic developer, who is creating an overall marketing plan for Ridgway. The six organizations are also preparing to raise matching funds for a proposed Main Street program.
Reflecting on the town's success, Lauricella said: “Ridgway's revitalization relied on surprisingly little money but benefited from a lot of emotion. People who love our town raise money, volunteer their time, enlist others with their enthusiasm, and infect everyone with their vision. For a long time, it wasn't clear that the effort was going to have a meaningful impact. After a while, people began to feel, ‘We can do this.' We have learned to set petty differences aside and develop very unique partnerships that have set us on the road to success.”
She said in an interview that small towns can become involved in downtown revitalization by contacting people and organizations with experience or funding in the field. The RHC has found it very useful, she noted, to be a member of the Pennsylvania Downtown Center (PDC) and attend its events.
Towns must stay focused over time on their priorities, she said, adding: “The road to success is built on a series of smaller achievements that you keep building upon. A lot of towns are in the situation that Ridgway was. It doesn't have to be that way. It's not impossible to turn things around. But it does require a core group of people who are passionate about preserving their heritage and creating a brighter future for their community.”