Windber ballroom

Matt Grohal, Windber Municipal Authority director, stands inside the historic ballroom at Windber Recreation Park. Aug. 5, 2020.

WINDBER – The summer schedule for Windber Recreation Park’s historic ballroom has been booked full the past few years, Matt Grohal said.

But the old-school, open-air ambience that draws in crowds also works against the space when the months turn cold, he said.

“Every Saturday from May to October was pretty much booked with weddings, or reunions or parties – before COVID-19 hit,” said Grohal, Windber Municipal Authority’s director. “But after that, it all depends on the weather.”

Borough officials now have a price tag for what it will take to change that.

Thanks to a now-complete feasibility report on the nearly 110-year-old ballroom, borough officials have a plan to transform the wood-frame dance hall into a year-round draw by adding heating and air conditioning, insulation and a commercial kitchen.

And with estimates now putting the job at nearly $800,000, Windber Borough officials are eyeing a state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant to make it a reality. 

‘Finding a balance’ 

Johnstown-based CJL Engineering completed the $4,800 study.

The firm said the ballroom has held up well for its age. But desired upgrades – such the HVAC system – will need to be paired with structural updates.

That includes replacing the structure’s asphalt shingles and a list of updates to meet Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines.

The study also recommended updating the building’s three small restrooms – and noted renovations to the building would also mean that a designated parking area would be a must.

Building-wide electrical system updates would allow the ballroom to have a modern commercial kitchen that would better accommodate large events, CJL determined.

The wood-frame ballroom’s vintage lighting fixtures – metal chandeliers, among them – could be adapted for modern LED lights, the report noted.

“The rustic, historic look is something we want to maintain,” Grohal said, calling the dance hall Windber’s crown jewel. “The goal is to make it a year-round facility while finding a balance to keeping its character (intact).”

The report didn’t delve into needs and costs to add a multi-purpose deck at the landmark.

Borough Manager Jim Furmanchik pitched the idea earlier in the year for outdoor dining and, potentially, as a stage during special events.

Furmanchik said that addition is a “high priority” for the project – but it would be treated as a contingency at a cost separate from the main project. 

When town was ‘booming’

Like most of Windber’s surviving structures from the early 1900s, the ballroom was built by Berwind-White Coal Co.

The ballroom might have been reserved for company events during its early years – but by mid-century, it was the part of the community’s summer escape, Eureka Coal Heritage Center President Matt Scislowicz said.

He recalled seeing a traveling Howdy Doody show in the 1960s. Nationally-known polka bands and record hops would pack the place.

“Windber (Recreation Park) was like a mini-Lakemont Park in those days,” Scislowicz said, noting Windber Fire Department owned the site at the time.

“Back when the community was booming, families were up there every day of the week.”

The ballroom has been through ups and downs in recent decades, Grohal said.

But since 2014, efforts to dress up the space have sparked “word-of-mouth” interest in the ballroom, he said.

Grohal credited the authority’s head of maintenance, Marisa Smith, for finding creative ways to add modern touches that fit the space – such as string lights on pillars and weathered pallet wood accents around the stage.

“With the response we’ve been getting ... I just feel like there’s unlimited potential with the ballroom, if we can use it year-round,” he said. 

‘Enormous step forward’

Furmanchik said the Windber Economic Development Committee is hiring grant writer Travis Hutzell to complete a formal application for the state RACP.

The committee will seek $1 million for the project – enough to modernize the ballroom and, hopefully, add the deck, he said.

A 50% match is required – but in-kind services and other assets qualify, Furmanchik said.

He said local officials are optimistic about the project’s chances.

“This could be an enormous step forward for the economic development of Windber,” he said.

“And it’s all coming together for us, like a hand in a glove.”

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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