Jeannette celebrates 125th anniversary

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It was deja vu for some Saturday as crowds gathered in downtown Jeannette for the city's 125th Anniversary Community Parade.

Children jumped from the sidewalks to pick up candy thrown by marchers. All applauded the numerous marching bands, floats and service groups making their way down the city's steep main street, Clay Avenue.

The day offered a brief look back at how the city was when the business district was thriving and residents boasted about being a Jeannette Jayhawk.

"It's not exactly like it was, but they're trying," said Ron Dinsmore, former city councilman and lifelong city resident, who attended the parade.

Several decades ago, when the factories still employed thousands, Jeannette's annual parade, which then was part of an annual Fourth of July celebration, was considered one of the best in Western Pennsylvania. The parade then consumed a whole afternoon and featured beauty queens and celebrities and numerous bands.

But about the time the glass factories shuttered due to foreign imports and the downtown started to see empty storefronts, the parades stopped. City officials found themselves faced with a decreasing population and tax base, resulting in financial conditions so severe that now bankruptcy may be the only option.

But Saturday's anniversary celebration brought "back lots of memories,'' said Mayor Robert Carter, a lifelong city resident. "Such events help pull the community together.

"It's wonderful to see Jeannette still trying to survive."

First incorporated as a borough June 7, 1889, Jeannette earned the nickname as "the glass city" in recognition of the numerous glass plants founded within its borders.

At times, there were as many as seven significant glass factories operating in the town's borders, including some of the most well known in the history of the industry, such as Jeannette Glass; Fort Pitt Glass; the Pittsburgh Lamp, Brass and Glass Company; and American-Saint Gobain. Many of the town's residents also worked at the Westmoreland Glass factory located only a short distance outside of town in the Hempfield village of Grapeville.

The industry supplied the country with everything from plate glass windows to bottles to dinnerware to candy containers and much more for many decades. Various accounts claim that Jeannette once produced some 70 to 85 percent of the world's glass.

Glass was not the only industry associated with Jeannette. In 1914, William Swan Elliott moved his company to Jeannette. The Elliott Company on North Fourth Street was owned by the Carrier Corporation from 1957 until 1979 and then by United Technologies Corporation until a 1987 buyout returned the company to a privately owned status. It became an Ebara Corporation subsidiary in 2000.

In 1952, the company produced the first diesel-engine turbocharger used in a race car and subsequently built more than 40,000 more for other diesel applications.

Today, the Elliott Company is the city's largest employer.

The Pennsylvania Rubber Works, which moved to Jeannette from Erie around 1903, was yet another key part of the city's industrial base. It made products for Jeeps and gas masks during World War II. After that it made play balls - basketballs, footballs, tennis balls, etc. - and carpet underlay as part of the General Tire Corporation.

The city flourished from the early part of the 20th century until the late 1960s, when it boasted a diverse population of around 16,000.

During its heyday, the city was home to Jeannette District Memorial and Monsour hospitals and had a business district that included several department stores, including J.C. Penney and Royers. There were also several theaters and nightclubs, making it a popular entertainment spot.

Fortunes fail

The tide began to turn in the 1970s, with industrial plant layoffs and store closures. It was the start of a decline from which Jeannette has not yet recovered.

Today, businesses are sparse, there are no more theaters and the population has dropped to 9,600 residents.

The city's hospitals are now closed. Empty buildings may soon outnumber existing businesses in downtown with the recent loss of two downtown mainstays, the Jeannette Bakery and Ager's Appliances, both of which serviced the community for more than decades.

Meanwhile, Junk for Joy, an antique store that has been in business for more than 10 years, has announced that it also is closing.

"We're trying to draw new businesses," but those businesses will have to offer a unique product to survive and compete against area malls and large discount stores, Mr. Carter said.

However, the city can't afford tax incentives to new businesses while desperately trying to stay financially afloat.

"We need all the taxes we can get,'' he said.

The city's latest attempt to increase its tax base is the South Sixth Street Housing Revitalization project that acquired and demolished a block of old row houses for the construction and sale of 25 single family homes and two nine-unit rental townhomes.

The city also is offering tax incentives to property owners who upgrade and first-time buyers.

Anthony DeNunzio, a former bank president and Jeannette supporter, said that while his hometown will never be what it was, there is hope it will at least become viable.

Mr. DeNunzio serves on the Economic Growth Board of Westmoreland County along with several other economic and cultural boards. He said plans are in the works to help but it won't happen overnight.

"Jeannette will never be like it was,'' he said, but he added there are other jobs that could come to the city, such as service-related industries.

Before that can happen, he said, the community must pull together while city officials take steps to cut expenses until the city's tax base increases.

Mr. DeNunzio, who played a crucial role in the city's 100th anniversary celebration, said he was impressed with last weekend's celebration, considering what the coordinating committee had to work with.

"I feel it was one of the better celebrations."

Rob Enrico, 59, is one who did not leave his hometown, but stayed to take over the family bakery founded by his grandfather in 1920.

Mr. Enrico said times have changed everywhere.

"Everybody is in your pocket now," said Mr. Enrico, who following graduation from Jeannette High School and went to college to be a mechanical draftsman believing that he'd easily find work in a city filled with industry.

Mr. Enrico then turned to the family business. He said business is still good, but he has serious competition from the big box chain stores. He noted that at one time there were five bakeries in Jeannette; Enrico's is the only one left.

"We live within our means," he said. "If others - including the city - would live within theirs, we all would be better off."

Mr. Enrico said he's afraid that the city won't survive unless it offers something to small businesses to stay or to move here.

"We're the wheels that make this country work," he said.

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Linda Metz, freelance writer: First Published August 1, 2013 10:30 AM


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