For many years, rising multi-million dollar pension obligations and budget shortfalls have often kept the City of Johnstown from being an active player in the community’s economic development efforts.
But efforts to get the city’s fiscal house in order – including the $24 million sale of Johnstown’s sewer collection system – are enabling that to change, Mayor Frank Janakovic told community leaders Thursday during the annual State of the City address.
“There have been times we’ve have had to turn down large grant opportunities because we couldn’t afford a 5% match,” Janakovic said, noting those matches can quickly add up to six figures. “We’re going to have more flexibility now.”
City officials and partners cited difficult decisions over the past two years by council and outgoing city manager John Trant – and improved partnerships with a list of local organizations – as reasons for optimism that city momentum will continue moving forward in the years ahead, despite current COVID-19 challenges.
“It’s been a heck of a year,” Economic Development Director John Dubnansky said of COVID-19. “But the city hasn’t stopped.”
City government, which had a reputation for deficit spending for years, has strung together consecutive years in the black. And one of its largest annual revenue drains – a $2.8 million annual pension contribution – will now be reduced to a little more than $400,000 per year, thanks to the collection system revenue, Janakovic said.
It’ll free up $2 million or more to work with within the budget for the coming years, while $4 million remaining from the $24 million collection system sale is being dedicated to road projects downtown and areas such as Plainfield Avenue, he said, citing blight removal projects and grant contributions as other examples.
Across the city, partnerships involving the grassroots Vision Together 2025 initiative, Johnstown Redevelopment Authority, Discover Downtown Johnstown Partnership, Cambria Regional Chamber and Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, among others, are changing and improving the community, Dubnansky said.
One of those efforts involving the CFA, Johnstown Redevelopment Authority and city has leveraged more than $1.7 million for blight removal – a key concern among residents – over the past two years, enabling 178 demolition permits to be issued to bring down eyesores, including the Conrad Building, Dubnansky said.
Demolitions have been focused on city gateways corridors, areas where blocks of properties could be cleared for business development or add neighborhood green spaces.
He said two dozen more properties could be leveled between now and the end of the year.
And efforts are also shifting to blight prevention – efforts to help subsidize costs that could upgrade properties that might otherwise end up condemned in the years to come, he said.
Among some of the recent successes:
• Through its new owner, the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority, the onetime Lincoln Center building has added at least nine new tenants, including the convention and visitors bureau and Beyond/Hello medical marijuana dispensary over the past 18 months in the heart of the downtown.
• Efforts involving the CFA, city and redevelopment authority have ramped up blight removal over the past two years – a key concern among residents.
• A tentative sales agreement is in place that would allow a local investment group to revitalize the State Theater.
• The American Blacksmith Foundation will call the historic Walnut Street Train Station home.
• Johnstown firm Wessel & Company acquired a 50-employee Pittsburgh public accounting firm that CEO Joel Valentine said he anticipates will strengthen the combined businesses and in-source jobs to Johnstown.
• The city has received $1 million in CARES Act funds to support businesses impacted by COVID-19 and the recent shutdowns.
• The collegiate-focused Prospect League will add a Johnstown team next year and play 30 games a year at Sargent’s Stadium. Efforts are in the works to add a video scoreboard, picnic tables and a shad cover for a section of stadium seats.
“Johnstown has good bones and infrastructure to build on now ... but the city can’t do it alone,” said Trant, who was hired as a temporary city manager last year to guide Johnstown through part of its Act 47 transitional phase. “Partnerships need to continue.”
In a move announced earlier this week, city officials noted they received funding from the state Department of Community and Economic Development to increase the first-year annual salary offering from $80,000 to at least $120,000 to better position Johnstown to fill its full-time city manager vacancy.
State Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr. and Cambria County Commissioners Tom Chernisky, Scott Hunt and B.J. Smith were among a crowd of approximately 50 local leaders who attended the event at Peoples Natural Gas Park in Johnstown.
Among developments eyed in 2021 and beyond:
• An investment group is planning to open a Voodoo Brewery Brewpub in the former Hey Day Diner site, despite efforts being slowed by COVID-19 since spring.
• Routes 271 and 403 into town are in line for upgrades and, in Route 403’s case, a dedicated bike lane in 2022.
• Reuse options are being explored to find new tenants for the former Lee Campus.
• The 35-acre Johnstown Specialty Castings property is being marketed for retail “box” development.
• $6 million is secured for Inclined Plane upgrades, while work on a “sliver” park and trails nearby continue.
Of course, challenges remain, they acknowledged.
Johnstown’s population continues shrinking. Drugs and crime – serious issues in nearly every city – remain, despite coordinated efforts to combat both remain and Johnstown faces potential problems when it exits the ACT 47 program that could hamper many of its financial gains if state leaders don’t continue to allow distressed cities to adapt and get support, Janakovic said.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the city was permitted to extend the ACT 47 deadline 18 months.
“But there are legislative issues we need to work on,” he said.