For all its beauty, Johnstown is a hard luck city. A notorious 1889 flood devastated the city and killed more than 2,200. The 20th century wasn’t much kinder, with Johnstown suffering the post-industrial economic decline shared by many Rust Belt cities, compounded by another flood in 1977. Today Johnstown has a population of about 21,000, down from 75,000 a century ago. More than one-third of its population lives in poverty.
Now an effort is underway to revitalize the beleaguered city with an innovative vision that brings together the new economy and the old.
Every time I drove into the valley, I was struck by the awesome beauty of the industrial past and the uniqueness of the Johnstown setting.Paul Rosenblatt
Creator Square, the brainchild of architect Paul Rosenblatt, principal at Pittsburgh’s Springboard Design, and Donald Bonk, an economic development consultant and Johnstown native, is a competitive residency program that aims to bring makers, artisans and crafters to Johnstown.
According to a Creator Square flyer, “The program is designed to connect the dots between the region’s manufacturing heritage and contemporary advances in small batch manufacturing and makerspace innovation.”
“Creative masters” working in metals, wood, glass, plastics, textiles and more will be housed in live/work spaces at the downtown Parkview Building, which will also include exhibition and community space, and capacity for ground-floor gallery, retail and café storefronts.
Rosenblatt became interested in the area several years ago when his work with the Johnstown Flood Museum brought him regularly to the city.
“Every time I drove into the valley, I was struck by the awesome beauty of the industrial past and the uniqueness of the Johnstown setting,” he recalls.
Rosenblatt saw Johnstown’s challenges as opportunities: Its high unemployment means a large and willing workforce. Its closed factories and vacant historic buildings offer affordable real estate and urban charm, only an hour from Pittsburgh.
In 2014, Rosenblatt and Bonk taught a class at Carnegie Mellon University that birthed the initial idea for Creator Square. The proposal quickly drew excitement and financial support from sources such as CMU, the University of Pittsburgh, the Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment (which provides help to communities that have lost defense-related manufacturing jobs) and the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies (CFA).
Mike Kane, CFA’s president and executive director, sees Creator Square as a powerful economic driver and essential component of the city’s Vision2025 community engagement and revitalization effort.
“By bringing revolving classes of makers, we will be bringing fresh people, vibrancy and development downtown,” explains Kane. “Each new group of makers will be creating their own activities and attracting people to what they are doing. We hope to encourage the groups leaving to remain downtown, take a building to live and work in, and showcase what they are doing.”
By bringing revolving classes of makers, we will be bringing fresh people, vibrancy and development downtown.Mike Kane
The artists will be in residence from two months to two years. They will receive low-cost space at the Parkview Building, paid teaching opportunities at nearby schools, and products and materials donated by local manufacturers, Home Depot and Goodwill Industries. In exchange, they will offer workforce development and job skills training sessions and participate in the life of the city. An interest in staying beyond the residency is highly encouraged.
“We want people who have an interest in Johnstown, who appreciate the benefits of being in a place like this,” says Rosenblatt.
The Parkview Building — acquired for Creator Square by the Johnstown Business District Development Corporation — is a three-story, 1920s structure that most recently housed a pizza shop, located at a prominent downtown location facing Central Park. Construction is set to begin and Rosenblatt is hopeful the project will be complete by fall so residents can start to move in. (Artist Alyssa Feather was the program’s first creative master last fall.)
Rosenblatt notes that many Rust Belt cities have embraced technology incubators as an economic development strategy but “one size doesn’t fit all…we are trying to connect Johnstown’s past and present, to make this feel like an organic part of Johnstown. On the surface this is an artisan program, but its DNA is in economic development. It’s an economic stimulus and acceleration plan.”
ELISE VIDER is news editor of Keystone Edge.