“The Little Town That Could”
Slippery Rock Borough’s downtown district serves as the community’s front door and creates the first impression potential residents, business owners, Slippery Rock University students and employees acquire of the place. Unfortunately, the image and economic vitality of the district had slipped over time to the point that its deteriorated condition and worn-out appearance was discouraging both economic development in the borough and enrollment at the university.
Although previous town-gown attempts to address the situation had yielded some improvements, community and university leaders came together in 1999 to develop a bold new vision of Slippery Rock’s future.
The group came to call itself Slippery Rock Development (SRD). It’s guiding principal was: investment drives economic development, and Slippery Rock will be revitalized by investing in its downtown, becoming a visitor attraction and a place where residents can enjoy living, eating, shopping and playing. Change is possible when there is a community will.
Organizing. The first step was to incorporate Slippery Rock Development as a tax exempt organization (501c3) under the existing Town-Gown Association so that it could begin to solicit donations.
- A nine-member volunteer board was formally established, reflecting community leadership. The board meets once a month.
- Several committees were set up: finance, fundraising, special projects, transportation, and economic development. Others have been added as needed.
- A part-time project manager was added, and Tom McPherson has been staffing the project since 2005.
Getting Help. The second step was to find a firm of experienced community revitalization professionals who could design and implement the project.
- Members of the Slippery Rock Development board visited other towns that had undergone revitalization to review their plans and experiences.
- Requests for proposals were sent to appropriate planning and design firms, requesting an economic development and downtown renewal plan for Slippery Rock.
- The firm of EG&G, Inc. was hired in 2000. After reviewing their experience in remaking other towns and their proposal, a contract to undertake the planning and manage the revitalization effort was agreed upon. The initial planning costs were funded by contributions from SRD board members.
Listening. The third step was to gather community input concerning specific improvements Slippery Rock citizens most wanted in the downtown area. In January, 2001, a town meeting was scheduled in the local fire hall’s large bingo room. Although the heaviest snow of that winter was falling outside, the room was packed. Every single person had a chance to speak, including business and property owners, senior citizens and a young representative from a third grade class.
- Get rid of those darn wires! Mentioned most frequently were the unsightly overhead utility lines and power poles.
- We want slow food! A close second was the longing for ‘slow food’ — eateries where couples and families could go for a nice meal. (Slippery Rock already had a host of fast food and pizza providers and two diner-type establishments.)
- If we want ‘slow food,’ we can’t be dry … As one resident pointed out, however, as long as Slippery Rock remained a ‘dry’ borough, it would be impossible to attract the type of restaurants that people wanted. Thus, eliminating prohibitions on the sale of liquor by-the-drink became a community development issue.
- Vote Wet! In May of 2001, Slippery Rock citizens voted to allow bars and restaurants to serve alcohol for the first time since the community’s founding in 1798. This change set the stage for two new restaurants: Ginger Hill and North Country Brewing. It also significantly strengthened SRD’s efforts to attract a hotel to the community. Equally important, these establishments have vastly increased the foot traffic downtown – a boon to all businesses on the street.
Getting it done …
SRD also surveyed University students and staff and local shoppers, asking for ideas about the development of the downtown area. Working closely with all of this input, EG&G proposed a two-phase project to both to revitalize the image and economic vitality of the downtown district and better connect downtown with the nearby university campus. After assessing community support and the ability to raise the funds, it was agreed to move ahead with a Main Street renewal plan, called Phase I.
Main St. Project. The Phase I construction plan included reconstructing South Main Street from Route 108 to Cooper Street, about three blocks. This phase was expanded in 2003 to add another block, extending the project to the entrance of the university on Maltby Street. Completed in 2006, this work had several elements:
- upgrade the infrastructure, including burying all utilities and getting wires and poles off the street;
- improve the street and traffic flow, adding turning lanes, widening pedestrian crossings and rebuilding street and sidewalk surfaces and curbs;
- upgrade street amenities, adding decorative light poles, benches, trash cans, bollards, bike racks;
- improve the landscape and plantings, adding new trees, new beds of perennials and street gardens;
- create fifty additional parking spaces in an existing gravel lot adjacent to South Main Street, paving the surface and adding curbing, landscaping and lighting;
- construct amenities such as a gazebo for community gathering, a natural stone entrance sign welcoming people to the Village at Slippery Rock and a news kiosk for posting announcements;
- add two new parks and upgrade one park, using a rock motif theme;
- repave all sidewalks with a rock pattern in the pavement
And we must have a waterfall!
An existing gravel parking area was renovated. Bordering this renovated parking lot along Route 108 (the highway into town from I-79), a Gateway Park with a double waterfall feature was constructed. Although the waterfall was not part of the original plan, Slippery Rock Development felt that it was absolutely essential to include a special feature, highlighting the town’s unique marriage of rock and water.
Franklin St. Project.
In 2004, it was decided to start Phase II, to further enhance the downtown area and to connect the proposed new hotel and shopping complex with the downtown area. The Phase II plan was designed for 1,400 linear feet of street scape on Franklin St. to match the program on South Main Street.
Construction began in October, 2006. Funded in part by a $950,000 Home Town Streets grant, Phase II extended the project eastward from Main Street along Route 108, the borough’s other major thoroughfare. It included the installation of historic-style street lights, sidewalks and landscape enhancements. In addition, a cozy entrance park with a large boulder entrance sign, benches and landscaping was created.
Facades get a make-over …
A privately funded brick restoration project was done on four storefronts on South Main Street, removing layers of paint and revealing the original warm brick surfaces. The first state-funded facade grant program ran from 2001 to 2006. Fourteen grants were awarded for a total of $43,762. In addition, there was a $63,000 investment of private matching funds in façade improvements, affecting twenty-five properties along South Main Street. These improvements helped to attract approximately $2,300,000 in private investment.
The second facade program was awarded in 2008 and includes approximately $25,000 of matching funds for additional properties in both the Phase I and Phase II areas.
Where’s the money?
How did a small (some say tiny) community like Slippery Rock manage to finance such a huge project? Fund raising was — and still is — relentless. This effort was aided by the fact that anyone who viewed Slippery Rock’s sad downtown could clearly understand how desperately change was needed. Key support came from State legislators, private foundations, two Governors, and from many, many private citizens. Phase I total cost of $5,200,000 was raised through:
- Pennsylvania Governor’s Capital Bill
- Department of Community Economic Development
- Appalachian Regional Commission
- Private Contributions
- Slippery Rock University Foundation
- Slippery Rock Municipal Authority
- Slippery Rock Borough
- Western Pennsylvania Conservancy
- Legacy Sales of Memorials (street lights, benches, bricks and trash receptacles)
- In-kind construction
Phase II total costs were 1.8 million. Support came from:
- PennDOT Safe Streets
- Slippery Rock Borough
- Slippery Rock Municipal Authority
- Slippery Rock University Foundation
- Legacy Sales (trees, benches, bricks, etc.)
- Private Contributions
Almost enough, but not quite …
Unfortunately, escalating construction costs for Phase II outpaced SRD’s ability to acquire all of the necessary funding, and a substantial deficit remains. SRD is raising money for Slippery Rock’s Clean and Green fund which will finance regular maintenance of the street scape and parks plus additional cleaning and spruce-up efforts. Donations to help with debt reduction and the Clean and Green fund will be most gratefully accepted:
Slippery Rock Development, Inc.
PO Box 273
Slippery Rock, PA 16057.
The results: worth every penny …
As a result of the revitalization project, Slippery Rock now is a vibrant university town with a growing business sector, including new restaurants, retail shops and a hotel under construction.
A hotel at last!
Recruiting a hotel to locate in Slippery Rock was identified as major target for business in 2001. First, a nine-acre parcel of land bordering Route 108 on the eastern edge of the borough was donated to the Slippery Rock University Foundation. Then, SRD purchased the parcel in 2002 and marketed it to hotel developers. Groundbreaking occurred in 2007 for a Marriot Fairfield Inn and Suites and several out-parcels.
A dramatic transformation
“The transformation has been dramatic,” said Bill Sonntag, chairman of Slippery Rock Development, Inc. “Downtown sidewalks used to roll up at 5 pm. Now, there’s pedestrian traffic in the evening and great interest in developing new businesses.”
- Since 2001, private and public investments in new capital construction are estimated to total more than $252,900,000: within the borough = $33,900,000; within the township = $168,900,000; and at SRU = $50,100,000.
- Slippery Rock Development has worked throughout the project to identify and bring new businesses and investment to the borough, including meetings and phone conversations with realtors, developers and potential investors; presentations and data collections.
- In 2002, the university announced a strategic plan to increase enrollment, expand capital projects and work in close partnership with SRD.
- In 2004, SRU awarded incubator and multi-tenant grant for research and technology. This project will create a new entrance to the campus from Route 108, which will face the entrance of the new hotel and Butler Health Systems – FastERCare outpatient facility.
- A new Sheetz is now located at the highly visible corner of Route 108 and Main Street.
- A recent boom in construction of privately owned apartment complexes (far in excess of the number of SRU students), suggests that investors are now seeing the community as having potential for growth.
- Business retention is also an important element and critical focus. The Slippery Rock Business Association was formed in 2005 to organize and support local businesses.
- Since the inception of the renewal efforts, over two dozen business properties in Slippery Rock either have been constructed or remodeled and/or have found new business occupants.
- There are several new restaurants in the Village at Slippery Rock: Ginger Hill Tavern, North Country Brewery, La Familia Pizza and Pasta House, Inferno Pizza, Rock’n Yogurt, and B&J Draft House.