Brownfield turned into West Newton town square

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An abandoned brownfield in West Newton's old commercial district has been transformed into a handsome new square named after one of the area's first settlers.

The $675,000 Simeral Square project -- named for pioneer ferry operator Alexander Simeral -- has a stage, a sprawling lawn, bike racks, benches, light posts and a walkway that's handicapped accessible.

It is located on the Youghiogheny River at East Main and Water streets at the east end of the West Newton Bridge, which was built around 1908, and is expected to draw visitors, especially those using the Great Allegheny Passage, a trail that runs along the opposite side of the river.

Historic preservation is one of the goals of Downtown West Newton Inc., which owns the square.

"We thought naming the square after our founder on the site where we believe his ferry operation was located was very appropriate," said George Sam, project coordinator.

According to information collected by Ben Markle, board member of the downtown group, the Northwest Territory Expedition of 1788 started in what was then called Simeral's Ferry because Glade's Trail, a major thoroughfare of its day, passed through. Because of the abundance of trees, those on the expedition constructed keel boats that eventually took them down river to Marietta, Ohio.

In the 1820s, Isaac Robb bought the town from the Simeral family and incorporated it as Robbstown. Eventually, the town's name was changed to West Newton, although the reason for the change is uncertain. At one time, a huge paper mill, the town's first large industry, occupied the site of the current square, starting with construction in the mid-1850s and ending in 1922, when it was destroyed by fire.

"When we first started negotiating to purchase the site in 2004, all it had was a couple of burned-out commercial buildings and a gas service station with gas bays that leaked contaminants into the ground," Mr. Sam said.

After the group bought the site, it removed the gas tanks, razed the buildings and put in wells to drain the contaminants with a $100,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

Simeral Square is designed on a "Bridge to Tomorrow" plan that connects the square on the east side of the bridge with the trail on the town's west side. A visitor center for the trail and its towns has opened in a new building based on the design of the old Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad station that had stood on the same spot. Officials said the trail and visitor center has already spurred economic growth on the west side with the opening of the West Newton Bike Shop, Bright Morning Bed and Breakfast, Trailside Restaurant and a Fox's pizza and ice cream shop.

"The plan is to draw traffic from the trail to the square by making it an activity center," Mr. Sam said.

On June 1, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held, attended by Freida Reamer, a descendant of Alexander Simeral who still lives in the area, and state and local officials. Also that day, the square hosted the first of its weekly farmers markets, which will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday through Oct. 22.

"Now in the planning stage is a series of evening movies, late afternoon arts-in-the-park events that include the performing and visual arts and vendor-driven, informational fairs that focus on topics like health and wellness," Mr. Sam said. "We're hoping the square will produce an 'aha moment' when trail users see the activities and are drawn to town and patronize our shops, restaurants and lodgings."

The square was funded by these grants: $250,000 from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; $218,000 through the Appalachian Regional Commission sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; $144,000 from the Westmoreland County Department of Planning and Community Development; $70,000 from the Progress Fund through the R.K. Mellon Foundation; $50,000 from the state Department of Community and Economic Development; $10,000 from the Port of Pittsburgh Commission and from local donors through the Bricks & Amenities Campaign.

"The park is meant to be enjoyed by the community, to attract visitors, serve as an economic catalyst and improve the image of downtown West Newton," Mr. Sam said. "We invite everyone to embrace the project as their own."

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Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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