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By Steven Bishop
The “twenty-tens” may be remembered as a decade that set the stage for Union City’s resurgence.
That effort actually began a few years earlier with the creation of Union City Pride, the community nonprofit established to fill the gap created when the Union City Chamber of Commerce closed.
Having a nonprofit targeted specifically to community improvement, that could tap into a variety of funding sources, was just one of the puzzle pieces. Another was the establishment of the Union City Community Foundation, which through a variety of local donations and bequests provides funding to support improvement initiatives.
Still another factor was the creation of the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority (ECGRA), which distributes casino funding to worthwhile community initiatives and projects countywide. Finally, a more recent development was the appointment of Borough Secretary Cindy Wells, who recognized those opportunities and actively sought to capitalize on them.
“It’s the old adage of the stars lining up,” said Union City Community Foundation Chairman Steve Jones. “We had a need, the resources began falling into place, and then the right people were in the right positions to begin really making a difference.”
It would be understandable to think those efforts began just in the past few years, given the publicity generated by initiatives like the recent downtown historic preservation plan process and façade improvements, or the recent awarding of a $258,000 grant to Union City Pride from the Erie Community Foundation’s “Shaping Tomorrow” program.
The seeds of the resurgence, however, were planted as early as 2009 when Union City Pride was awarded a grant from the Union City Community Foundation to tear down three blighted houses on Concord Street, near its intersection with Main Street. That was quickly followed by the same two organizations teaming up to purchase and demolish a block of blighted commercial buildings on South Main Street.
Union City resident Greg Bowes was involved in the 2007 creation of Union City Pride, and served as the organization’s vice president for several years. He said the community needed a nonprofit vehicle to address initiatives like blight and downtown improvements, and to facilitate initiatives like the annual French Creek Gathering.
Removing the blighted houses on Concord Street was important to the community’s image, because they were on a route to Union City Area High School taken by many out-of-town motorists. The blighted Main Street buildings were likewise important because of their high visibility, he said.
“The vision was to make any entrances to the town and school look good,” said Bowes.
Bowes noted there were many meetings between about 2008 and 2012 involving Union City Pride, the school district, borough and Union City Community Foundation “to kind of get an overall vision of Union City.”
While those efforts at the time didn’t bring a specific plan into focus, he said, “I’m excited that some of the work the (Pride) board laid the foundation for finally has come to fruition.” “It’s exciting to see that happening now,” Bowes added.
To mark this “decade of progress,” and to bring transparency to the rapidly evolving community initiatives, the community foundation, Union City Pride and the borough have collaborated on creating a list of the decade’s most significant projects. That list, or “chronology,” contains community development projects undertaken since 2009, identifies each project’s funding sources and funding totals, and the status of each project.
“We understand the community’s interest in what’s going on, but we also understand the difficulty in keeping track of who’s doing what, and where things stand,” said Jones.
The “project update” list has been posted on the borough’s and foundation’s websites, at unioncitypa.us, and unioncitycf.org. It contains both the most significant projects of the past decade, and new projects as they are announced.
“We all realize the importance of keeping the public informed regarding the projects in the borough,” said Cindy Wells. “The grant money that is received is for the betterment of the borough as a whole.”
It’s a remarkable list, totaling more than $2.85 million from multiple sources since 2009. In addition to razing the Concord Street houses and Main Street buildings, projects include rehabilitation of single-family homes, downtown façade and building improvements, downtown streetscaping elements including flower planters and benches, creating the downtown historic preservation plan, the recent acquisition by Union City Pride of the iconic Union City Dinor, and much more.
A number of current projects are also listed to keep the public apprised, including the effort to create conceptual designs for the downtown “gateway” at the Main and High streets intersection, the effort to build a new public parking lot across Main Street from Union City Public Library, improvements coming to Caflisch Park, and the upcoming effort to establish a master design plan for Union City’s four public parks.
Additional current projects include structural assessments that are being conducted on the borough’s historic downtown buildings at no cost to the owners, and a matching fund program that later this year will be opened to assist those building owners in making internal and external improvements.
“When you see the list of past and current improvement projects, you can see why we felt the need to create the project update list,” said Union City Pride President Dave Nothum. “It celebrates the significant progress we’ve made as a community, acknowledges the remarkable generosity of the organizations and funding sources that made it possible, and keeps the public in the loop on everything that’s going on.”
Nothum said public awareness is also critical because there may be other individuals or organizations that want to get involved, but may not know what opportunities exist or where the community is headed.
The community foundation’s Jones also noted the list can serve as an impetus to those who have a vested interest in the community, and want to help boost these and future efforts by donating to or establishing a “named fund” within the foundation.
“Knowing you’ve had a hand in securing Union City’s future, and attaching your or your family’s name to that effort is a pretty powerful legacy,” Jones added.
The foundation kicked off the 10-year run by funding the earliest blight removal efforts in 2009. From there, the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority has become a primary financial facilitator of Union City’s community initiatives, supplemented by other local and state sources.
“We can’t say enough about ECGRA prioritizing Erie County’s communities,” said Wells. “Their funding has been the catalyst to make many of these initiatives possible, and to set the stage for other projects.”
Union City Pride’s Nothum notes there were many other smaller contributions and initiatives that aren’t included on the list, but that also played a big role in the community’s resurgence. Sidewalk improvement projects, funding to support the French Creek Festival and alumni Homecoming parade, and much, much more weren’t included to make the list manageable, he said.
“We had to draw the line somewhere, but the point is to demonstrate that things are happening in Union City,” he said.