Reaction mixed on visitors center under construction at Ohiopyle

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A long-awaited $9 million visitors center scheduled for completion next spring in Ohiopyle has generated a mix of reactions from business owners in the Fayette County community as construction causes added congestion and visitor confusion during the busy summer season.

Some like the design and location of the 11,500-square-foot glass, stone and wood building that overlooks the Youghiogheny River. Some don't. But all want it completed before next Memorial Day, the official start of the season for the town's four commercial whitewater rafting outfitters.

James Juran, the operations manager of Ohiopyle State Park, said the new Laurel Highlands Falls Area Visitors Center will be open by that date. "It's now 32 percent complete, it's on time and it's on schedule," he said. "It's probably the first major improvement since the park opened in 1965."

The new building will contain the park's administrative and environmental education staff, exhibits, a classroom and restrooms. It will have a green roof with plants and a small open area where the public can step out and see -- and photograph -- the town's signature 18-foot-high waterfall just upstream. (In 1754, George Washington had to abandon his plans to use the Youghiogheny as a water route to Pittsburgh because of the falls.)

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Mr. Juran said the center, which is being built "on the exact same footprint of the old structure," hopes to be certified as a Gold LEED building. LEED -- Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design -- is a nationally accepted benchmark for design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.

Mr. Juran said the center will be the point of contact for everyone preparing to paddle the Lower Yough, a 7-mile stretch of the river from just below the falls to Bruner Run. That includes the town's four commercial rafting companies as well as those who rent or own their own.

"The new center will allow more one-on-one contact with the public," said Mr. Juran.

Pam Kruse, owner of the Falls Market & Inn along Route 381 and the nearby Firefly Grill, doesn't like the design of the new center or its location, which is "a travesty," she said. "It's going to cause a lot of congestion and confusion. It should have been built on the Ferncliff Peninsula [a section of land that southbound motorists on Route 381 would pass before entering the town] where there would be more room for it and more room for parking."

Jim Greenbaum, on the other hand, said, "It's going to be great." He's operations manager for White Water Adventurers, a commercial rafting company that also rents rafts, inflatable kayaks and bicycles. "It will bring in a lot of visitors who will want to arrive an hour earlier just to walk through the center. It will really enhance their visit. We're looking forward to its completion."

So is Mayor Mark McCarty who, with his wife, Linda, owns and operates Laurel Highlands River Tours, a full-service whitewater outfitter.

"Things will get better when it's done, but the construction work has had quite an impact on the town, especially in terms of visitors finding a parking space and figuring out how to get to the falls." "The Green," an open grass-covered lot about two blocks from the falls, is being used as a temporary parking lot to make up for the spaces lost to the construction site.

Mr. McCarty said the outfitters are concerned about changes proposed near the launch area. That's where commercial customers pick up their rafts and carry them down to the river after getting off the buses that bring them into town from an out-of-town parking lot.

"The turning lanes for the buses are wrong," he said. "They're too constricted. I've explained our concerns at at least six meetings, but it hasn't done any good so far."

"The new visitors center will be a fabulous addition to Ohiopyle State Park, but did they have to build it during the busiest part of our season?" asked Joel Means, co-owner with his wife Robin of the Ohiopyle Trading Post, another whitewater outfitter.

"It's also taking them much too long to build it," he added. "Joe Hardy would have had it built in six months." He was referring to the get-it-done founder of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, where its two-story, 28,000-square-foot Sundial Lodge was built in five months last year.

"We're in favor of whatever helps out the area, but it's been hectic with all the construction work going on," said Rob Joseph, co-owner with his wife, Julia, of the Ohiopyle Bakery & Sandwich Shoppe. "Eighty-five to 90 percent of our business comes up those front steps," he said, referring to the 21 steps leading up from Route 381, the main drag in town.

Many of his out-of-town customers prefer to park in the 150-space lot directly across Route 381 from the base of their steps. Construction took half of those spaces -- they'll all reopen when the center is completed -- and a chain-link fence around the work site has dissuaded some from visiting the multilevel wooden observation decks that overlook the falls.

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Lawrence Walsh writes about outdoor activities for the Post-Gazette.


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