Aspinwall Riverfront Park marks groundbreaking with community spirit

Community raised money, now breaks ground at riverfront

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Council President Mark Ellermeyer describes the borough of Aspinwall as a do-it-yourself kind of community. It's the type of place where neighbors will come together with neighbors to solve local issues.

Saturday was the celebration of one of the solutions -- a groundbreaking for the Aspinwall Riverfront Park.

The problem came to light in 2010, when Mr. Ellermeyer sat through a meeting with representatives of UPMC St. Margaret Hospital. They described their proposal to build a 600-car parking lot at the Aspinwall marina. He knew he had to get the word out to his neighbors.

That week, at borough council, he gave his report on the proposal practically straight to the reporter for the local paper, The Herald. An article about the proposal went in the paper.

Susan Crookston heard about the story. So she went to see the lot.

"I came down and looked at the property. It had a bunch of derelict buildings and 100,000 pounds of garbage on it, but I was just stunned by its potential," she said.

So she went home and wrote a business plan for a riverfront park, which would be supported by a marina.

"I knew the borough couldn't support a park," said Ms. Crookston.

Then she sent that business plan around to friends, associates and ultimately to Ed Seifert, a retired real estate lawyer.

Mr. Seifert started his own work on the plan, and Ms. Crookston kept talking. She talked to neighbors and business groups, community groups and business owners.

Volunteers started raising money. Sarah Tuthill, who has a background in marketing and public relations and got to know Ms. Crookston by standing at a bus stop, organized a party -- the River Rock Party -- which raised $30,000 its first year, double that its second and more than $100,000 the third year.

Ms. Tuthill's daughters, Lydia, 9, and Edie, 6, raised $144 with a lemonade stand. Glenna Van Dyke, 13, made dog scarves to sell and sold glow sticks. Che Esch, 15, spent the summer of 2011 mowing lawns to raise $5,000 for the park.

Children emptied piggy banks and trick or treated for money to build the park. Their parents wrote checks.

Other members of the community tapped local foundations and businesses. Friends of the Riverfront, the long-standing nonprofit, came in to play a key role.

At the end of 2011, the land and marina was purchased for $2.3 million, with Friends of the Riverfront as the official owner.

And then the work really started.

For the last two years, members of the community have been cleaning out the lot. Volunteers razed the dilapidated buildings and dragged out the 100,000 pounds of garbage. They filled in a swimming pool and tore up more than an acre of concrete.

Che, the young man who mowed lawns, rehabilitated a small building to use as a shed at the park as part of his Eagle Scout project.

On Saturday, they were all at the park again -- and joined by hundreds of other members of the community.

Glenna played "God Bless America" on the bagpipes as she led more than 100 children from the baseball field to the new riverfront park for the official groundbreaking.

Now that the trash and the debris are gone, the professional earth movers are coming in. They will be building a hill that will be used as an amphitheater for concerts in the summer and for sledding in the winter. There will be a mile-long trail.

They will be grading the land for landscaping and installing a skating rink that will be ready to go this winter. The plan for the park even calls for three barges to be docked next to the park, covered with sand, that residents can use as a faux beach in the summer.

Che was one of the speakers.

"When the opportunity to do something amazing came along, we as a community stood up and said 'we would do it.' And we did," he said.

There is still more to do.

The Aspinwall Riverfront Park Inc. needs another $117,000 before the end of the year to keep on track. The group has raised 70 percent of the $5 million the park will cost.

Saturday was a time for celebrating the amount that has been accomplished. When the speeches were done -- and no one wanted to follow Che, who said it all so well -- the children who had gathered took their golden trowels and planted 2,000 bulbs.

In the spring, when 2,000 flowers bloom, it will look like a lawn dotted with 2,000 stars.

The real stars, however, gathered Saturday, to plant those bulbs in the lawn.

Ann Belser: or 412-263-1699.

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