ST. MARYS — Deeply rooted questions, which have been at the forefront of the St. Marys City council’s agenda, were opened to the public for the first time in the history of its work sessions.
Among them were — “who are we and what do we want to be,” “how do we get there,” and “what’s the problem.”
The work session is the culmination of a four-year plan to engage the public and empower its citizens to help grow the town of nearly 14,000, known historically as “the Powdered Metal Capital of the World,” into a vibrant but reimagined Main Street economy.
An issue identified early in the discussion by both Councilman Greg Gebauer, residents, and business owners was parking.
“I don’t care if it’s a quarter — people don’t want to pay it,” Gebauer said. “I see my own council people driving around and not paying parking to come to this meeting tonight.”
Another issue discussed is the effort for the city to make the downtown more aesthetically pleasing and walkable.
“In honor of tonight’s meeting, I decided to walk here,” said Councilman Chris Pletcher with a laugh. “I think the key question that we’re trying to address is what is the purpose of downtown. Whatever the purpose is, we as a council need to agree on this because it is going to impact all of the other decisions that we make.”
One of the biggest hurdles of downtown is that it was designed over 150 years ago and was not intended to grow to the size that it is. That physical structure, particularly the “Wagon Wheel,” or “Diamond,” downtown, does impact the community and was not designed to support the traffic it now sees.
“It is really a space designed for community gatherings and to celebrate the culture that we have. This is a town with rich heritage and a lot of culture,” Pletcher said.
St. Marys Area Chamber Director Ann Gabler said she sees that vision encapsulated in the downtown park by the parking garage and its amphitheater.
“It’s very easy to live here,” said Gabler, who moved here from Pittsburgh. “I’d like it to be better downtown but I think we’re all very lucky where we live.”
Solicitor Tom Wagner said the city is on the cusp of something big, especially in the light of local growth in tourism. However, with that, he feels the city has to start to invest.
“Government has to step up here with some kind of program that is going to step into this,” Wagner said. “We can’t fund programs with nickels we have to fund them dollars. And maybe the city should consider that.”
Susan Goetz, of the St. Marys Heritage Preservation Group, also took to the microphone saying that aesthetics is important — the group has seen that through the popularity of its downtown flower program. It is also hoping to continue to work with the city’s grant writer to beautify downtown.
Goetz said the city should look to Ridgway to see if a Main Street Program would serve its mission.
Both Councilpersons Margie Brown and Andrew Mohney said the untapped tourism market is imperative.
Brown said she was in Joey’s Bakery in Ridgway recently listening to a family speaking French. Through the waitress, she came to find they were from Europe and traveling through Ridgway via Route 219.
Both asked how you get tourists and travelers to get “up the hill” and into St. Marys to explore.
As for Ben Samick, a caterer who serves almost 1,000 dinners every Friday night at his business, he expressed concerns about how businesses even break into downtown, especially considering parking.
“I plan on living here until I die. This is my first time but not my last time coming to a meeting,” Samick said. “From the outside perspective, I go out to eat almost every day to other people’s restaurants and I go to Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Erie and we take that stuff and we bring it home. We’re the Powdered Metal Capital of the world and we haven’t reinvested our money in town.”
Work sessions like this will continue the first Monday of every month with different topics being discussed by residents and the council.
For more information and a council schedule visit www.stmaryspa.gov.