Many people have heard stories about how great New Castle, Pennsylvania was in the 1940s and 1950s. Downtown New Castle was a busy commercial and industrial hub at the time, and the population peaked at nearly 50,000 people. Businesses were booming with five and dime stores, furniture stores, clothing stores, hotels, apartments, and many other forms of businesses.
Today, very few businesses are situated in the downtown region. Many buildings are empty or physically unstable for any new business to move into. Rather than businesses moving into the city, many are moving into the surrounding townships, where completely empty land is available for use.
New Castle was founded in 1798 by John Carlyle Stewart who was a civil engineer that was surveying land for soldiers who had served in the Revolutionary War. He discovered that approximately 50 acres at the confluence of the Shenango River and Neshannock Creek, which at the time was in Allegheny County, were unclaimed. He claimed the land for himself, setting up what would become New Castle in the future. In 1825, New Castle became a borough, then soon thereafter became a part of Mercer County. In 1849, an act was signed by the governor of Pennsylvania creating Lawrence County out of parts of Mercer and Beaver counties. Twenty years later New Castle became a city, and grew to a population of about 6,000, booming until the end of the 20th century.
Today, New Castle is a part of the rust belt, an area between Chicago and Buffalo where millions of industrial jobs left between the mid-20th century and the start of the 21st century. This, of course, impacted many of the jobs throughout the Shenango, Mahoning and Beaver Valleys. The change in income per capita between 2007 and 2012 in the local area is much lower than the rest of the country, according to a study by Governing Magazine. Many people were forced to move out of the area because of the lack of jobs in the region, and some people who live in New Castle have to commute over 30 minutes just to get to their job, which then causes congestion on roads.
Route 422 going east of the city towards Butler is congested in morning commutes, mostly due to the truck traffic on the road slowing down traffic. The road only has two lanes and a center turn lane in most parts, which causes congestion, as you cannot legally pass a slow-moving vehicle.
Jobs are still leaving the area, with one of the most controversial examples recently being the “reallocation” of the General Motors Lordstown Assembly Plant in Trumbull County. 1,400 people lost their jobs due to the closure of the plant, although the plant could be revived either by General Motors or another automotive company within the decade. This plant closure is causing a ripple effect through the entire Mahoning Valley, as many of the other small factories that supply parts to the General Motors plant are starting to lay off employees due to the plant shutting down.
New Castle continues to lose businesses much faster than it gains businesses. Recently it was announced the Eat N´ Park on West Washington Street is going to close on February 17, 2019, therefore leaving over 55,000 square feet of land empty within the downtown area. Nowadays, it seems as if the only businesses moving into New Castle are Dollar General stores, gas stations, and ATM machines. If action is not taken immediately to fix some of these issues within the downtown, eventually it will just become a large town of blight, and crime rates will increase dramatically.
However, other Rust Belt communities are beginning to emerge from their Act 47 status. Act 47, or the Financially Distressed Municipalities Act, is an act created in 1987 by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to label financially distressed cities. It provides a restructuring of debts, limits the ability of financially distressed communities to obtain government funding, and authorizes municipalities to participate in federal debt adjustment programs. New Castle was designated as a financially distressed community in 2007. Nearby cities, such as Farrell, are ready to exit their Act 47 status, according to a recent report by the Sharon Herald.
One example of a city that had plenty of abandoned industrial and commercial buildings is Sharon, PA. Sharon has many abandoned buildings along Dock Street into Farrell that were completely razed as a part of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s road widening and corridor enhancement project. The project added a center turn lane to the road, brand new sidewalks, and brand new street lights, complete with a roundabout in Downtown Sharon. Sharon has recently begun to boom with businesses moving in. Part of this rise could have something to do with the fact that the city looked unattractive before this project started a few years ago, but now has an enhanced and attractive main corridor from Interstates 80 and 376.
This brings me into how, as both a city and a community, Downtown New Castle can be recreated into a bustling city similar to how it was in the middle of the 20th century. The first phase to attract development into Downtown New Castle is to completely raze the nearly empty Cascade Galleria Towne Mall. However, this is not all that would need to be done to the property. In order to attract commercial development, a brand new street grid would need to be created in this area to attract businesses to move into Downtown New Castle. If developers see brand new street grids on their maps, as well as land selling for a reasonable price, they will likely want to create a new building at one of those locations.
To further add on to this idea, every other street within Downtown New Castle would also need redesigned to look exactly the same as all of the new streets that would be built on the site of the Cascade Galleria. This includes new pavement, modern street lights, new sidewalks to replace the crumbling ones, and every single street across the downtown with a more modernized parking meter system, as some major cities such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are beginning to implement. Streets that would need to be redesigned include the Columbus Interbelt, Beaver St, Jefferson St, Mercer St, Mill St/Highland Ave, East St, Grant St, Falls St, North St, Washington St, South St, Lawrence St, and Grove Ave.
Another project to help the economic development of Downtown New Castle is to extend the Riverwalk trail along the Neshannock Creek from its current terminus at Mill St. Some possibilities include creating a new park at the confluence of the Neshannock and Shenango Rivers, where railroad tracks formerly used to occupy, extending it to be on both sides of the creek, or making the trail along both rivers from its beginning at East Washington St until it reached the bridge at Falls Ave.
The amount of underutilized buildings within Downtown New Castle is very large. One of the biggest examples of an underutilized building is the old United States Post Office at the Diamond. What would be very great for the historical building is if its exterior was cleaned up, and the interior of the building was modernized to an extent? Then, the city hall and all of the offices located within the city hall could be relocated into the town hall. Then the former town hall could be razed and advertised to developers looking to build up the city.
Generally, blighted buildings cause a major issue with the downtown district as well; these include buildings such as the former Days Inn hotel near North St and East St and the former Joseph’s Marketplace along South St. These buildings are not attractive to developers as they may not be for sale, and the large buildings still exist on site, therefore raising the cost of construction for developers as they must raze the existing building(s). If the city were to tear down the former buildings, there is a possibility a developer could become interested in the property and start building upwards.
Once developers begin constructing brand new buildings in the downtown district, many popular restaurant chains that are not already established in New Castle will begin becoming interested in the developers. This would be a win-win for both the city and the developers, as the city makes taxes off of the property, and, as businesses start moving into the new buildings, the developers would make money for rent of the properties. On top of all of this, there now would be brand new places for residents to shop, eat, and generally hang out.
Another issue with much of our downtown is the excessive amount of parking. I estimate using data from Google Maps that there are about 800,000 square feet of parking space. That’s about 2,000 parking spaces, excluding on-street parking and the parking garage on Mercer St. If buildings could be erected on sites of parking lots, and the lots were condensed into a few new parking garages, the downtown district could become a bustling town center within just about a decade.
Also, once the development begins sprawling throughout the downtown district, more blighted buildings throughout the city will eventually begin to develop as well. Areas that have been neglected with abandoned industry and commercial buildings will begin building up as well. Areas such as Grove Street south of the Neshannock Creek, Washington St, Butler Ave, Highland Ave in non-residential zones, and many more areas will begin sprawling with new development that can raise the land value around it. People will begin moving into New Castle, rather than leaving. Crime rates will drastically reduce as the blight is removed, and more and more people will love this town for not only its traditions and history but for what it has become.
Ways to increase the chances of developers purchasing land and building up are rezoning the entirety of Downtown New Castle to a mixed-use zone, allowing all types of development. Ordinances should also be created that only allows high to medium density buildings to be developed within the Downtown district, rather than low-density buildings such as gas stations. Ordinances could be created that allows a minimum amount of height to a building, and temporary tax breaks could be given to developers wishing to buy and develop the land.
Another great way to enhance the economic development within the city is to raze the former Shenango China factory just north of the downtown district. According to the New Castle News, the city is actually looking for a state grant to tear down the blighted factory. Increasing its blight, the plant caught on fire in apparent acts of arson in 2011 and 2012. The city is looking for at least $1 million in state funds to buy the property from its current owner, conduct required environmental tests from the state, and eventually raze the building. The current owner has owned the site for over 25 years and done very little to the property, and was fined thousands of dollars by the city for the high amount of code violations on the building late last year, and could be fined thousands more in the future. Once the building is destroyed, the area will become prepared for redevelopment and could bring more industry to the New Castle area in the future. The site is specifically great for any industrial developers due to the services it has on the property, including rail lines and high-voltage power lines, and high-capacity water lines.
Some of these projects will cost the city a lot of money. The city would need to invest in roads, tearing down blight, and purchasing of properties within the city. A lot of these projects would become more possible after the city emerges from its Act 47 status, as federal loans and grants would be more possible as well. The city would be able to complete similar projects as Youngstown, which is investing in brand new infrastructure near the campus of Youngstown State University. Considering New Castle is expected to emerge from its Act 47 status soon, projects that I have stated above may soon become available for the city to begin investing in, and overall will make New Castle a great city once again.