Retired orthopedic surgeon Arthur Steffee gives a tour of his development properties in Foxburg on Dec. 7. Dr. Steffee has become a one-man community redevelopment machine since returning to the small town about 10 years ago.
The buildings of the Foxburg Pizza and Country Store, the Foxburg Inn Hotel and the Allegheny Grille can be seen on the Allegheny River in Foxburg on Dec. 7.
The view of the Allegheny River from the Allegheny Grille in Foxburg on Dec. 7. Retired orthopedic surgeon Arthur Steffee developed the property and has become a one-man community redevelopment machine since returning to the small town about 10 years ago.
By Kris B. Mamula / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Foxburg has no traffic lights, no industry, no Starbucks.
What this Clarion County community does have is a grandfatherly doctor who has become a one-man community redevelopment machine. Arthur Steffee’s vision: Capitalize on Foxburg’s scenic views of the Allegheny River to create a destination for tourists and lift the region’s economy.
The effort may be getting traction. “The only way you can survive is to utilize the beauty of the place,” the 81-year-old Dr. Steffee said. “This little town has an enormous future.”
Foxburg, which is about 90 miles from Pittsburgh in the northwest section of Clarion County, traces its roots to the early 1800s, not long before the original oil boom that transformed Western Pennsylvania into clusters of derricks. The borough was incorporated in 1930 and the town was eventually served by two railroads as its population swelled to 1,000.
Foxburg’s fortunes waned as the lumber, oil and gas operations played out. The population today is fewer than 200.
What remained were spectacular views of the river, masked by dereliction of the town.
When Dr. Steffee, a native of Oil City in Venango County, returned to the area in 1998 after a career as an orthopedic surgeon in Cleveland, the half-square-mile borough of Foxburg was looking tattered.
“Just a big mud hole,” Dr. Steffee said. “Downtown was just one little restaurant. Everything else was either a dump or closed. The riverfront was totally a mess.”
This series examines the ways the Pittsburgh region’s defining waterways help shape its economic opportunities.
Foxburg is just upstream from the mouth of the Clarion River. By leveraging the town’s views and investing carefully, Dr. Steffee has been helping to breathe new life into the borough while feeding a growing tourist economy.
Foxburg’s sleek new Go Foxburg! website touts the town as the Tourist Destination of the Allegheny Clarion River Valley.
A gourmet chocolate shop, pizza and country store, winery, Segway and boat tours, bike rentals and the 24-room Foxburg Inn, featuring “elopement packages,” all owe something to Dr. Steffee’s investments.
He owns virtually every business in town, except for the Foxburg Country Club located a few miles and up a steep grade from the town’s main business district. The club features a nine-hole golf course, created in 1887, where “our fairways are narrow, our rough is deep and our greens are small and fast,” according to its website.
Foxburg has the Allegheny RiverStone Center for the Arts, a one-time medical office building that had been empty for years before it was purchased by Dr. Steffee. Today, it sponsors concert performances in a hall replete with a fully restored 1928 Wurlitzer theater organ, which Dr. Steffee bought.
Foxburg Mayor Chuck Gisselbrecht has been promoting the town’s annual ice fishing tournament, which has grown in recent years, complementing the concerts and activities such as the annual fall festival that drew about 5,000 visitors in October.
Mr. Gisselbrecht, who likes to ice fish, said winter recreation could make the town a draw during colder months when business typically slows and he credits Dr. Steffee for Foxburg’s rebirth.
“I’m proud of the town,” Mr. Gisselbrecht said. “It’s just a little niche in the river valley that’s very beautiful.”
In recent years, a small sewage treatment plant was added and the highway into town was rebuilt. Better still, Foxburg will be a stop along the 270-mile Erie to Pittsburgh bicycle trail, which is nearing completion. State money paid for the restored Route 58 into town and also helped build the sewage treatment plant.
Dr. Steffee declined to say how much he has spent on buying up run-down frame houses in town and turning them into business and recreational opportunities. Foxburg is not an investment, he said, adding, “We will never get out of it what we put into it. The point is to leave something behind.”
Just outside Foxburg, Dr. Steffee and his wife, Patricia, live in a 26-room mansion built on 1,500 mostly wooded acres along with farm outbuildings and several smaller homes for family members. The Steffees put the estate up for sale for $24 million about five years ago, but there have been few takers, he said.
The couple plan to build a smaller home on the estate. The house is just too big for them to continue to maintain, Dr. Steffee said. But he said they have no plans of leaving Foxburg and he praised the can-do attitude of the people who are helping turn the little town around.
“We don’t blow away, we don’t float away, we don’t run away,” he said. “Find me a better place than this.”
Kris B. Mamula: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1699.
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