On one recent October weekend, more than 120 guests toured the old Bethlehem Steel blacksmith shop, learning about the structure’s history and future before watching the demonstration of a refurbished, nearly century-old, 3,000-pound power hammer that was manufactured in Chambersburg, Franklin County.
The sound of metal striking metal rang out – while a forge, glowing red in the darkness, burned at about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit – recalling a day when steel was king in the valley.
But the sound and fire also symbolized a future for the Center for Metal Arts, which, for about two years, has occupied the space that was built in the 1860s, but had been vacant since the early-1990s.
Move forward then to November when a 36-foot-tall animated Christmas tree will be on display – attracting children, parents, residents and visitors alike to Johnstown’s Central Park, just like it has since first being installed in 2015.
Every night through early January, holiday songs, such as “Carol of the Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman,” will ring out. More than 70,000 lights – red, green and white – will sparkle and dance.
The Christmas carols and tree lights, the striking of metal on metal and fire are among the sounds and sights of a Johnstown that has been reimagined in recent years, as the city works to emerge from decades of negativity, epitomized by being in Pennsylvania’s Act 47 program for distressed municipalities since 1992.
Melissa Radovanic, president of the Discover Downtown Johnstown Partnership, which organizes the annual Christmas display in the park, said the tree has had both an economic and communal impact.
“We were able to see the restaurants full of people, and the bars full and the meters parked full,” Radovanic said. “But, now at the end of five years, we can definitely say that there’s certainly a human element, too. It made the community proud. New traditions have begun here at the park throughout the holiday season. So, overall, the effect has been human, it’s been economic, it’s been pride. It’s just brought our community pride.”
Past vs. future
Part of the DDJP’s mission was to create a new Christmas spirit in town, as opposed to people just recalling “old” days that included displays in Glosser Brothers and other businesses.
Patrick Quinn, the Center for Metal Arts program director, has no memories of that past, having relocated to the city when the metal-smithing school moved from New York state with support and assistance from several organizations, including the Johnstown Area Heritage Association and Community Foundation for the Alleghenies. He acknowledges that – from his perspective of seeing the city with fresh eyes – some residents seem weighed down by the negativity of the old days.
“I think the main difference is I spend a lot of time appreciating what it used to be, but focusing on what it’s going to be,” Quinn said.
For him, Johnstown and the old blacksmith shop have provided inspiration.
“When I first saw that hammer, when I first saw the ram go up and down, it sent shivers down my spine, for multiple reasons,” Quinn said. “The blacksmith in me has always wanted to run a hammer that big.
“The person who unexpectedly fell in love with Johnstown and the heritage of the steel mills here and everything – to see that hammer running again and to give new life to it was really rewarding and an amazing experience. I come here every day and I’m just so thankful that this is where I work. It’s an incredible place to spend every day of your life.”
‘Heart and soul’
Center for Metal Arts is located on old Bethlehem land, along Iron Street, that has been repurposed by businesses, such as JWF Industries, a welding company involved in defense contracting, and Hanging Gardens, a medical marijuana growing facility.
On the hillside above those properties, the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority is working to convert the long abandoned 115-acre, Rosedale/Lower Ore Yard and Matterhorn Tracts into an industrial park that could, one day, be home to 500 or more jobs.
JRA, over the past two years, has also transformed the empty former Lincoln Center, located on Main Street, into a hub with its offices, along with Cambria Regional Chamber, Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Camille’s House of Styles Boutique, Coal Tubin’, Johnstown Paper Company and Beyond/Hello, a medical cannabis dispensary.
Those businesses are part of a mix downtown that includes historic establishments – George’s Song Shop and Coney Island, for example – and newer destinations in Balance Restaurant, Press Bistro, Stone Bridge Brewing, Flood City Café, Hope Cyclery, The Vault Salon and World War 3 Paintball.
“We’ve been very successful, over the last four years, with relocating businesses, as well as expansions, to the city of Johnstown,” JRA Executive Director Melissa Komar said.
Along with those businesses, there are events and attractions, both new and historic, intermixing in downtown, Cambria City and other neighborhoods – Inclined Plane, 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial the home of Kraft Hockeyville USA, Johnstown Flood Museum, Bottle Works, Peoples Natural Gas Park, Venue of Merging Arts, Sargent’s Stadium at the Point, Thunder in the Valley, AmeriServ Flood City Music Festival, Johnstown Tomahawks games, the All American Amateur Baseball Association National Tournament, Sandyvale Wine Festival and Johnstown Slavic Festival.
Katie Kinka, 31, has watched the growth firsthand, as a resident of downtown for three years.
“That being my nexus of focus, I can’t help but notice all the changes that have been made for the better in the very short amount of time that I’ve lived downtown,” Kinka said during an interview at Press.
While optimistic about the city’s future, Kinka does find herself coming back to “a more realistic perspective.”
“I don’t want to call myself a pessimist,” Kinka said. “But I like to consider myself a little bit of a realist. I think part of that is just the impatience that’s deeply embedded within my soul because of having the energy to want to make the impact and see the change happen and then reminding yourself that things take time and you have to exercise a bit of patience.”
Paul Kushner, a retired West End resident, said he admires “people who create, use their minds to create ideas and products,” but that follow-through on projects – not just ideas – is needed. “I could stand here at the top of Harold Avenue and envision a street paved with gold,” Kushner said. “That’s a vision. I can envision that easily. But actually getting there is almost ridiculously impossible. I think we’ve done a lot of that. You’re not going to bring this city or any other municipality out of the doldrums with Sheetz and little restaurants. All of that is nice as periphery. All of this is nice as sort of like icing on the cake. What we’re missing is the heart and soul of the economy. We don’t have one.”
The Stonycreek River, which once ran orange with foul-smelling acid mine drainage, now welcomes kayak and canoe paddlers all summer long, following years of remediation work, which earned it the title of Pennsylvania Conservation and Natural Resources’ 2012 River of the Year.
It hosts the annual Stonycreek Rendezvous, attracting local and visiting whitewater enthusiasts.
About 10,000 people also float down the river on bright, orange tubes from Coal Tubin’, which opened in 2009.
“As I traveled around, I saw people do much with so little, and we have done so little with so much,” Chad Gontkovic, co-owner of Coal Tubin’, said. “I asked myself, why is that? Usually I could come to the conclusion that it was because obviously the rivers were dead and orange for years.”
Coal Tubin’s presence is part of an effort to rebrand Johnstown from a dying Rust Belt community – known most for the 1889 Johnstown Flood – into a small mountain town.
“When people come and visit from out of the area, when the word ‘Johnstown’ comes to their mind, our job is to shape what images are going to go into their head,” Gontkovic said.
The region is home to miles of hiking and biking trails, lakes for boating and streams for fishing.
“This is something that we can count on,” Johnstown City Councilwoman the Rev. Sylvia King said. “We don’t need a particular industry or a name brand to market this. This is something that we own. This is something that is God-given that we have that we can market.”
‘Really come together’
The Vision 2025 initiative was announced in 2015.
Supported by Johnstown Area Regional Industries, Conemaugh Health System, The Tribune-Democrat, JWF Industries, Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, Crown American Realty Trust, Cambria-Rowe Business College, Concurrent Technologies Corp., Wessel & Co. and Carnegie Mellon University’s Remaking Cities Institute, the movement had a goal to begin imagining what a new Johnstown could look like in a decade.
The focus was placed on creating a vibrant and open local economy, life-sustaining landscapes, and a strong sense of community through the efforts of grassroots capture teams that work on their own specific projects under the larger umbrella of Vision 2025.
“I think there’s just a lot of collaboration,” Cambria Regional Chamber President and CEO Amy Bradley said. “I feel like a lot of businesses and organizations are working together, sharing information, sharing resources, trying to work together to try to move the area forward. I feel like we have a lot of positive and progressive people working together.”
Much of the effort has been spearheaded by a new generation of leaders in Johnstown, including Bradley, Radovanic, Komar and Kinka.
“For me, the biggest things and the drum I will just keep beating on and keeping marching to with is that we need fresh, new, young, vibrant, different, diverse people and ideas at the decision-making table,” Kinka said.
But the work is being done in a community that is struggling with poverty, population loss, blight and an opioid crisis. Also, two years from now by no later than Oct. 28. 2021, the city will be required to leave Act 47, losing access to the program’s benefits.
“If in October 2021, it’s a dead stop – and we lose the funding and the other benefits of Act 47 – it could be catastrophic for the city,” Mike Kane, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, said. “The work that we’re doing, I hope, will give the state and others some confidence that the continued support of a turnaround for Johnstown is worthwhile. I strongly and firmly believe it is. In fact, I’m more optimistic now about the short-term possibilities of the city in advancing, I think, than I’ve been because you can see so many people working together right now.”
Deborah Grass, the city’s Act 47 coordinator, said Johnstown’s level of cooperation and activity among groups and individuals is uncommon for municipalities in the program.
“That is not typical for a community that is an Act 47 community,” Grass said. “Generally, we don’t see a lot of new businesses, new housing starts, anything like that. In Johnstown – in particular in the downtown area – we’re seeing a lot of investment, a lot of private investment, a lot of professional people who are really excited and interested and supportive of Johnstown.”
Dennis Davin, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, which oversees Act 47, concurred.
“I think the leadership in Johnstown has really come together,” Davin said. “Every city and every area has issues, obviously, with elected officials in some cases maybe not getting along all the time. But the leadership I see has really come together.
“Some people just look to the elected officials. But really to us – in state government – what represents true leadership is the business leaders, the business community, the institutions and then, in some cases, there are foundations, kind of all coming together and coming to the state saying we need help and we need help in these particular instances. And I see that in Johnstown.”