New Light to a Once Dormant Town
Revitalizing Brownsville: Bringing New Light to a Once Dormant Town
California University of Pennsylvania
Brownsville, called a modern-day Ghost Town for having few amenities and a broken-down appearance, had a depressed outlook and few economic opportunities for residents. Recent developments are having a hopeful impact.
A warm summer’s evening finds exciting music playing in the background, twinkling lights swathed about the tree branches and pavilion posts, while the recently graduated class of 2020 finally has a chance to gather, gossip, dance, relax, and have fun outside after many months of fear, isolation, and anxiety. The scene is happening in the least likely of places, downtown Brownsville, Pennsylvania. Anyone holding a Senior Prom for the local high school in the past five decades would have never imagined holding a formal, special event for teens in the dilapidated, dark, dirty parking lot. Now exuberant laughter rings out where not long ago the only sound came from the occasional lone car racing to get through town as quickly as possible.
Brownsville’s history is rich and varied, but its large manufacturing bases of the past are not coming back. After decades of being a ghost town, the abandoned, trashed, and rusted buildings are being replaced by new businesses and a living community for the town’s older members in renovated buildings, and a new stage for cultural performances. The new and stimulating establishments were fueled by a grass-roots effort from the town’s youth, former residents, and historic preservationist.
From bustling trading post to bedroom community
The town of Brownsville, Pennsylvania has an interesting history starting with being an early vantage point for explorers during the British Colonial Era. It had already developed as a trading post for trappers, scouts, and military expeditions to replenish supplies by the mid-to-late 1700s. It continued to be important as it transitioned into a vast boat building industrial area. Throughout the 1800s it was a vital stop for those traveling on westward, seeking out a new life in the wilderness. This enabled settlers and their cargo to continue west to Ohio and beyond, also south to Louisiana, all by way of the river system of the Monongahela, Ohio, and Mississippi. Starting in the late 19th Century, Brownsville was at the center of Washington and Fayette County’s coal mining and coke producing industries which fired the steel mills that drove the Industrial Revolution.
Sadly, it has been on the decline for several decades due to the loss of coal mines, coke ovens, and railroad and river transportation since the late 1950s. The town’s people and businesses have been dwindling away ever since, leaving many abandoned buildings and very few businesses. Over the years the town has come to look depressed as facades crumble, sidewalks and alleys become weed-choked and dirty, and fewer establishments remain open. While it is still home to a few thousand souls, it has become mostly a bedroom community.
In the early 1990s, a Monroeville couple brought innovative ideas and a large
bank roll to Brownsville. By buying up over 100 abandoned or barely used property in and around the downtown area, Ernest and Marilyn Liggett made believers of many hardened, skeptical locals, with the idea of revitalizing the town. The excitement was contagious as they claimed Brownsville would become a tourist mecca with restaurants, bars, hotels, boutiques, and outlet stores by creating a “Williamsburg on the Mon,” a rural theme park that would highlight Brownsville’s history, recalls The Post-Gazette in 2001. As years went by without any change, hope faded.
Later, the Liggetts investigated building a Native American casino resort complex. Negotiations with the Canadian Six Nations of the Grange River Iroquois Tribe who ran one of the world’s largest resort casinos in Connecticut ended abruptly. The daunting process to gain permits and permission from the state were too much and this plan never developed.
Next the Liggetts tried for something new – the building of a Velodrome, an Olympic-style bicycle racetrack and auditorium. The construction of such a facility was thought to be able to make “Brownsville become to Olympic Cycling what Williamsport is to Little League,” reported The Tribune-Review. However, historic preservationists in town did not want to see the town landmarks such as the post office and the public library torn down and moved to build an unusual sporting venue. Members of the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corporation (BARC) and the Brownsville Historical Society, who had worked hard over the years to raise money, get grants, and buy abandoned property to renovate for use, wanted to see the property in question continue to be used for historical and educational purposes. Without being able to come to a consensus, this project also fell through.
A New Beginning
After years of counting on outsiders to help the town with huge, dynamic plans needing immense financial backing, a new era of rebirth and transformation was begun by a group of high school students. “It is my opinion that when our Students in Action (SIA) took on a project it sparked community interest. Their stage is great! These young people are phenomenal! That was a jump start and I believe resulted in new young interest in government,” relates Norma Marcolini-Ryan, BARC founding member and former Mayor of Brownsville. The Keystone Edge tells how SIA worked to get donations and design help from local companies and built a beautiful stage that has been used in recent years for musical concerts, dance programs, and other performances. Most recently it was used for the 2020 Brownsville Area High School Senior Prom. The prom had been planned and canceled twice due to the Covid 19 scare, but parents threw a beautiful and joyous, last-minute prom for the class that had missed so much this year. Succeeding senior class projects of the SIA have made other improvements to the town such cleaning and painting, and most recently broke ground for an addition to the Brownsville Free Public Library.
In 2018, The Perennial Project, a local civic-minded group, was formed to revitalize Brownsville from the ground up including planting gardens, installing local pop-up art projects, and hosting town clean-up days, as reported in the Herald-Standard. It was founded by Joe Barantovich; a former resident who moved away in the late 1970s. He would come to Brownsville from Miami to visit his family on his summer vacations from teaching. He did not notice the slow, long decline over time until retiring and splitting his year between Brownsville and Miami. Inspired to action after attending the ribbon cutting ceremony of the local High School student’s Ampitheater, Barantovich exclaimed, “It’s the kids!,” they started something great and the adults needed to get motivated. He looked around town and said “It doesn’t have to look like this.” He decided to plant some flowers – a little something he could do just to please himself. From there the teacher and coach in him took over and started planning and talking to others. He has since involved several organizations in plans for improvement projects around town. Beyond just cleaning and enhancing the town, the next Perennial Project is extremely exciting. Digital photography is being used to take a 3-dimentional scan of downtown Brownsville’s 1927 Union Station Building. The scan will make a virtual reality, interactive experience where your avatar walks up to the door of the station as it looks today and when stepping inside the building, it appears as it did in an earlier era. You could go inside and press the button for the elevator to go up to one of the many offices upstairs, or purchase a ticket at the train window and be on your way down the tracks to... who knows where, maybe Kennywood! This program has many applications and the Brownsville Area High School students are currently working on them. “...the Perennial Project helped cement the forward movement by getting the community involved.” informs Brownsville Borough Council Member Paul Synuria II.
Another major key player in the updating of Brownsville is William James. A local native who played in the NFL, James came back to the area after his football days ended and became an athletic apparel entrepreneur. He also founded the TeamHumanity Games to bring large crowds, fun, and attention to Brownsville. He started with buying and renovation one building for a program to have young people learn the skills to design and produce a t-shirt. That idea grew into renovating two more buildings and having an enterprise that not only teaches but also employs the youth in every aspect of entrepreneurship from concept, to design, to producing, and selling. James also mentors the teens, helping with school applications and supervising workouts in his exercise room. He also turned his eye to the large, long-empty G.C. Murphy store building. It was bought, renovated, and turned into spacious, beautiful apartments for senior-citizens. “These people/projects brought new light to a long dormant town.” explains Kathy Patterson Haluska, Brownsville resident and advocate.
So successful have these efforts been, that recently eleven new business have opened in the Brownsville Area and were celebrated with a joint grand opening ceremony sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. Even with all the turmoil going on in America this year with the pandemic, economic insecurity, and civil unrest, Brownsville and its people are building toward a new future. The historic town has seen its worst days, falling into disrepair and losing most of its manufacturing base. But the recent youth movement from the local high school has sparked excitement with improvement projects, along with an investor renovating several buildings for a business, youth-encouragement projects, and housing. The townsfolks volunteered to clean-up and enhance the town, and businesses soon followed their lead by moving into Brownsville’s downtown area. Now is the time to keep moving forward with revitalization and advocating for this amazing small town and its can-do spirited people.
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