Blairsville hopes for bigger Elm Street district
October 19, 2013 11:00 AM
by SAM KUSIC

Blairsville Borough is looking to expand its Elm Street district to include most of the borough’s eastern side, a move that would give residents in that area access to state money for exterior home improvements.

As it is, residents who live to the east of the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks that cut the borough in two have been shut out of the facade improvement program — a condition of eligibility is that property owners must live in an Elm Street district. Blairsville’s Elm Street district currently covers the western side of the borough, ending at the railroad tracks.

Through the facade improvement program, property owners may be reimbursed for up to half of the cost of a project. The reimbursement is capped at $5,000. The program has been popular in Blairsville, with more than 70 facade projects having received funding through the program.

The borough is proposing to expand the district generally from the railroad tracks to Cornell Avenue and McArthur Street, with a small extension to include homes off East Brown Street. Northward, the expansion would end at Maple Avenue. The expansion also includes eight homes near the existing district on the west side of South Walnut Street.

Expanding the Elm Street district will require state approval — it’s a community revitalization program funded through the state Department of Community and Economic Development. But whether that comes to pass remains to be seen.

Leann Chaney, executive director of the Blairsville Community Development Authority, said that the size of the proposed expansion relative to the borough’s boundaries — the expansion would place almost all of Blairsville in an Elm Street district — probably will work against Blairsville’s application.

“I think that, generally, the state will consider the proposed Elm Street area versus the size of the borough as a negative because they are looking to make an impact in a small, focused area,” Chaney said.

In fact, the DCED said no other municipality in the state has that much of itself enrolled in the program.

The Elm Street program is meant to complement the Main Street program, another community revitalization program focused on reinvigorating downtown areas.

As the DCED explains, “The reasoning behind the (Elm Street) program is that our restored downtown commercial areas will be far more attractive to visitors and customers if the neighborhoods adjacent to them are just as appealing.”

But in Blairsville, most of the neighborhoods are a stone’s throw away from downtown. And that, Chaney said, is a point officials hope to make to the state.

“Our position is that the existing and proposed Elm Street areas do in fact make up the core area of our traditional downtown and that expanded neighborhood revitalization efforts will complement our downtown revitalization efforts,” Chaney said.

Blairsville had applied for an expansion in February 2012. The state rejected the request, but suggested that it refile with plans to create a second, independent Elm Street district with its own district manager, Chaney said. But given the cost of hiring a manager, it wasn’t feasible for Blairsville, she said.

As an alternative, the community development authority, which manages the Elm Street district, has worked to build up its managerial capacity by adding two directors to its board and by working to invigorate its team of volunteers.

That having been done, the borough refiled the expansion request in September. This time around, the state asked for some additional information, such as an amended five-year neighborhood revitalization plan and a statement of revised goals and objectives.

So it didn’t reject the idea out of hand, Chaney said.

“That’s encouraging.”

Chaney said she expects that the borough will hear back from the state sometime around the end of the year.

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