The Stonycreek, Little Conemaugh and Conemaugh rivers shape and define Johnstown’s landscape and identity more than any other natural resources.
In the past, those waterways enabled coal mines and steel mills to thrive, as generations of workers made the train rails, fencing, plows and wire that helped build the nation. But, they brought destruction, too, most notably when the 1889 Flood caused more than 2,200 deaths.
Since the mid-20th century, walls installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have protected the city from flooding, except for when a historic storm dumped 11 inches of rain on the valley throughout two summer days in 1977.
But those same barriers have cut people off from the water, and also have become deteriorated and overgrown in spots.
Now, as part of a re-imagined future of the region, the grassroots Vision 2025 organization plans to continue making river development a point of emphasis in 2019.
“Really, we’re hyper-, hyper-focused on connecting people to the rivers,” said Wally Burlack, a Vision 2025 coordinator.
Vision 2025, coordinated by Burlack and Ryan Kieta, was established in 2015 as an effort to reshape the region’s identity over the ensuing decade. Since its inception, the initiative has leveraged approximately $5 million – through grants and donations, along with federal and state support – to enhance the community.
Army Corps of Engineers officials recently conducted an analysis of the river walls, which Burlack expects to be released in the coming days.
“We will be doing more continued work with the Army Corps of Engineers,” Burlack said. “They have finalized the flood plain study, and we’re anticipating moving into the next phase, which would help us understand the river walls and blight and where there may be opportunities for green infrastructure within the flood-control system.”
Burlack envisions the rivers being a key element of an interconnected world of outdoor recreation, historic preservation and business development.
“The first part – and I think we’ve been working on this for a while – is just getting people to rethink what the rivers are,” Burlack said.
“In a lot of folks’ heads, it either served as a gutter for pollution or it served as protection from floods. Just getting folks to change their minds, to think, ‘let’s go down to the river, let’s float’ and that kind of stuff is the biggest part of it. The next thing is then to do some demonstrative projects.”
Development has already occurred – over the decades – with the Stonycreek being transformed from an orange-stained, foul-smelling waterway into a river that attracts anglers, kayakers and canoe paddlers, including during the annual Stonycreek Rendezvous.
Part of Vision’s goal is to improve access to the rivers, while integrating the waterways into other outdoor assets, such as miles of hiking and biking trails, along with proposed amenities, including a zip line on the Inclined Plane hillside.
“Johnstown really needs to re-create its image,” said Brad Clemenson, an active member in the Vision initiative and a leader with the Lift Johnstown project.
“There’s a growing consensus, among community leaders, that we have a great opportunity if we can define ourselves around these natural resource assets – the rivers, the mountains.”
Clemenson said if Johnstown can develop an image as an “emerging mountain town,” then “younger people, millennials, will want to live here, and that will help establish a quality of life that will help us to attract entrepreneurs and help us to attract businesses.”
Burlack said Vision 2025’s mission for this year also includes working to develop the downtown, encouraging schools to follow Pennsylvania Highlands Community College’s lead and establish a presence in the central business district, educating property owners about how to reuse their structures in a way that meets with historic codes, supporting Greater Johnstown United Neighborhoods, and putting together a strategy for redevelopment that will address transportation, blight elimination, and health and wellness.
“That’s a huge effort, which is really encompassing,” Burlack said.