Aug. 17–MEADVILLE — A group of community leaders has a vision for Meadville.
They hope to develop a portion of the Bessemer Commerce Park as a heritage, educational and entertainment hub.
The idea is to provide activities and events for residents and attract new residents to the city, group founder Roger Willis said.
“It’s about the long-term viability of Meadville,” he said.
Willis, retired president of Meadville-based Universal Well Services Inc., now Universal Pressure Pumping, outlined the vision for a French Creek Heritage and Entertainment District at Thursday’s annual Greater Meadville Day dinner at the Country Club in Meadville. Willis was featured speaker for the event.
Meadville lacks amenities and activities that young workers, especially, want, Willis said.
“I had tried bringing new employees to town, but they or their husband or wife or partner didn’t want to move here,” Willis said in an interview. “It wasn’t just my problem. Everybody here, including Allegheny College and Meadville Medical Center, were having a hard time hiring the best people. I heard the same undercurrent talking with friends in town.”
Willis asked medical center, college, business and city leaders to consider what the community is lacking.
“We met two years ago and did a survey asking them to respond to ‘I need –,’ all focused on being able to attract the best person for their business or this community,” he said.
The consensus, expressed in different ways, was that Meadville needs a vibrant hub of activities and entertainment for residents, visitors and would-be residents, Willis said.
The heart of that hub, the group determined, should be French Creek.
“I’ve traveled in other areas that made (waterways) a feature, a centerpiece of the whole city,” Willis said. “In San Antonio, for example, it’s the River Walk.”
The group also commissioned studies of public waterway districts in Scranton; Charlotte, North Carolina; Wilmington, Delaware, and elsewhere.
A large brick building at the Bessemer Commerce Park alongside French Creek could be the ideal location for a Meadville heritage district with a heritage center including a coffee shop and meeting space, Willis said.
“It’s an old building with big beams and huge windows, and the creek side of the building is open,” Willis said. “It could be a kind of museum or cultural center showcasing the heritage of the community and the history of local business. The college could teach classes and interact here with elementary, middle school and high school kids. There could be a combination space with a maker’s space.”
The complex also could include bike paths and a launch for small boats and kayaks. A hotel and an amphitheater for concerts and other events could be built at the site, Willis said.
Shuttle service and a pedestrian pathway could connect the heritage and entertainment district with downtown attractions on the opposite side of the French Creek Parkway.
The concept was developed over three years by considering community needs, demographics, environmental issues, possible funding sources, and improvement projects already in progress.
“There are wonderful people and organizations in town with a lot of cool projects going on, but we’re not always aware of what someone else is doing,” Willis said.
The group also sought guidance from the French Creek Valley Conservancy and Economic Progress Alliance of Crawford County.
“We needed a cohesive vision before we ask people to buy into it,” Willis said.
Willis asked the region’s broader business community Thursday to weigh in on the concept and whether they are interested in making it reality — and if so, what expertise they might contribute.
Reaction to that vision from some 200 business leaders at Thursday’s Greater Area Meadville Day dinner was positive.
“This could be a game changer for the community,” said Economic Progress Alliance Executive Director Jim Becker. “We hope it’s an opportunity to connect the dots and take a waterfront asset and use it to generate economic growth and investment in the community.”
“If we do this right, generations 50 years from now are going to thank us,” Allegheny College President James Mullen Jr. said.
The heritage center will be the first step in an estimated 10-year project to develop the heritage, education and entertainment district, Willis said.
“We’re fairly confident that we have enough support from a variety of people to move forward now and make this pot with everyone’s fingerprints on it,” he said.
Valerie Myers can be reached at 878-1913 or by email. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ETNmyers.
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