Monday, September 17, 2007

Warner Brothers First Theater Town

“In the early 1900’s we were growing faster than Pittsburg. We were the Tin Plate Capital of the World,” Linda Nitch, Executive Director of the Lawrence County, PA Economic Development Corporation was explaining to me about New Castle, PA. New Castle (population 26,309) is the largest city in Lawrence County about an hour north of Pittsburg. New Castle sits in a beautiful valley at the confluence of the Shenango River and Neshannock Creek.

Linda went on, “But tin got passed by steel and our population peeked in the mid 30s at around 50,000. Our factories ran full out during WWII but we’ve been on a population decline since then.”

But, the ED group is fighting back and has a number of projects in the works that could have the community back on a growth path. They are building a new Millennium Technology Park, a 533 acre high-tech park, a project that will require moving over 1 million cubic yards of dirt at a cost of $1 million. The park already has its first building under construction. Steelite International USA, a British company, is establishing its USA headquarters in the park.

Two weeks ago Bedford Downs, a one mile long harness racing track and slots casino was announced for the county. The county’s take from this project is estimated to be over $15 million per year with the funds earmarked for economic development projects within the county.

The real undiscovered gem that I saw was the downtown area which sits along the river and has a river walk. Having once been a city of over 50,000 gives a town like New Castle a much larger downtown than what it needs today. But, those underutilized buildings offer the potential to develop a special “sense of place” that can’t be easily duplicated.

John Dimuccio, who was the city manger for 20 years, first envisioned a renovated downtown in 1995 and was able to break ground in 2000. He told me, “We’ve got some wonderful history in the downtown area. The Warner Brothers, who grew up in nearby Youngstown, OH came to the fastest growing city in the USA to build their first theater in 1907. We were able to save it as part of our downtown revitalization.”

The work is still ongoing but New Castle’s downtown has some wonderful potential.

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