Town on Fire: Sharon Heats Up with New Approach
When Laura Ackley thinks about the last three years in Sharon, she can't help feeling amazed.
"Holy cow, there are scores of volunteers that have just been motivated and mobilized in the last few years," says the Sharon Economic and Development Commission
member and past president of Visit Mercer County
. "It's this amazing grassroots effort."
hasn't always enjoyed such concerted and enthusiastic help from local residents and business owners. Ackley is part of the Winner family that runs several landmark businesses in the city, from the famous clothing store that bears their name to Buhl Mansion, which hosts many tourists and 45 weddings each summer. When Ackley first returned to Sharon a decade ago, after more than a dozen years out of state, "I did not sense this positive energy," she says. "In the past two to three years, there has been this positive energy that has come into the city that is kind of fun to be a part of. It's like a perfect storm.
To Ackley, the evidence of progress is all around. This is the first year that the Shenango River, which runs through the town, is being featured in Sharon's tourist guide -- because Shenango River Watchers
have been so diligent in cleaning it up. Residents donated 80 hanging baskets for downtown Sharon streets last year, and the Beautification Commission has logged thousands of volunteer hours sprucing up the area. Sharon has partnered with Penn State-Shenango faculty and students to develop a new marketing pitch to attract businesses, including a month-long promotion called DownTown Shop Around–Sharon PA
, and together they have created a new logo featuring the river, a Facebook page and, soon, a new city Website. The city next summer will re-start its Bavarian Fun Fest to add to December's Night of Lights and the annual Car Cruise.
Sharon is also in the final stages of contracting to hold WaterFire
, a river-borne spectacle of light that originated in Providence, R.I., and which will include music and art throughout Sharon. WaterFire has been a very successful event for the New England city, and its founders have licensed versions from Rome to Kansas City and Columbus. "They're talking Paris WaterFire -- and now they're talking Sharon, Pennsylvania. It's going to be huge," says Ackley. It will also provide an opportunity to further market Sharon as a tourist destination to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Erie, Akron and nearby Canadian cities.
"We're like a lot of other cities in this state that had a hard time after the steel industry caved," says Ackley. "We're trying to embrace our past but move forward. And we're trying so much to focus on creating a destination, because that is economic development."
Home Rule Advantage
Ackley credits the people of Sharon for moving to a Home Rule Charter three years ago. "It really has shaken things up and mobilized people," she says. And she gives particular credit to City Manager Scott Andrejchak, the city's first permanent administrator under the charter.
"Scott has been here only a little over a year, but he has made a monumental difference," she says.
"Our economy changed here 30 years ago, just like the rest of Western Pennsylvania," Andrejchak says. "It knocked a lot of people out. But I don't think it knocked us out. We had a lot of resources to keep us in the game," from the city's healthcare center to the city's infrastructure, along with "buildings that have good bones."
The move away from an elected mayor, he says, showed that residents "wanted to change how business was done. I think the public reached a level of frustration over the years, and that brought people up to the plate. They're starting to see some victories. It isn't the city doing it. We can have a plan and we can fund some things. But it's a new attitude -- the community is engaged in a way that probably hasn't happened before. It has taken on an organic quality and people are working together."
That attitude and the funding have led to building renovations and infrastructure improvements downtown, with a plan to re-do the street lamps along State Street -- Sharon's main drag -- next year.
"We actually have some industrial expansion, and that's a big part of it," Andrejchak adds. The city has recently improved its 12-acre Renaissance Commerce Park with a grant of more than $700,000 from Pennsylvania's Department of Community and Economic Development
(DCED). Sharon Fence Company
has just begun building its new corporate headquarters and manufacturing plant there on Sept. 19. The Dock Street development is also gaining improved space for industrial equipment for nearby businesses such as the Sunbelt Transformer Company
, which Andrejchak reports is expanding as well.
DCED Executive Deputy Secretary Rich Hudic recently toured Sharon with other department and city officials "who are committed to restoring economic vitality," he says. "We all left completely enthusiastic, inspired and appreciative of all the transformational activity happening in the city."
He credits business leaders, including families with long-standing Sharon companies, for jump-starting the local economy with a multi-faceted vision, from propagating the arts to encouraging industrial expansion. "Seeing how they are investing their own resources and working so closely with the city manager and community organizations to restore downtown is amazing. The downtown itself, with all the artists moving into vacant buildings, the attorneys moving in …. They're on the move. We saw some very fantastic things happening, and in a true public-private partnership."
Sharon, Hudic reports, has even become a kind of touchstone inside DCED. "In a lot of things that we do here, we go back and refer to Sharon -- 'Look at what they are doing.'"
Bringing Back a 'Sense of Responsibility'
Adrienne Gordon also sees much of Sharon's success created by local buy-in to community-wide improvement efforts. As a community planner with the Community Action Partnership of Mercer County
, she has been putting $250,000 a year in DCED Elm Street Program
funds -- the successor to Weed and Seed, which was discontinued in 2010 -- to good use in Sharon and neighboring Farrell.
During 2009 and 2010, the residential thoroughfare leading to downtown Sharon -- the 1200 block of Hamilton Avenue in Farrell and adjoining 900 block of North Oakland Avenue in Sharon -- received streetscape improvements, including curbs and tree planting.
"We just had such great support from the neighborhood," Gordon says. Now the task is encouraging residents to keep up homes and properties. There is already some wear and tear on the rehabbed street, "but the sidewalks are beautiful," she reports.
The money has also gone to create eight community gardens throughout Mercer County, including in Sharon. Together, they grew more than 450 pounds of produce donated to community food warehouses.
"It helps revitalize the area by giving neighbors something to gather round, be a part of and be proud of," she says. "It gives back some sense of neighborhood … to get a community back to caring about itself. It brought back a sense of responsibility."
The secret to revitalization success, she says, has been "using government funds but local resources -- volunteers, plus local businesses donating seeds and tools. Churches, schools, the master gardeners of Penn State Cooperative Extension, even county workers on their days off, have donated time and energy.
"These endeavors really help our municipality stay in tune to what we need in our neighborhoods," Gordon concludes. The recent period, during which Sharon residents have taken a more active role in their city's government and future, "has caused our municipalities to be more aware of what the residents of our community want. We taught the residents how to become involved, not to be afraid of actually coming to council meetings. Once you empower them, they have a voice."
MARTY LEVINE is a Pittsburgh freelance writer trying to cover the waterfront from the water. Send feedback here.