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Spotlight: Tamaqua area group focuses on development, preservation

In the 25 years since the creation of the Tamaqua Area 2004 Partnership, there have been a lot of changes in and around the Tamaqua area.

“None of it was easy,” says Ted Block, whose 1994 visit to then Rep. David Argall served as a catalyst. “There were a lot of great people in the area, involved in many organizations, but not everyone was supportive. It was a matter of getting the right people involved.”

Initially conceived as a 10-year goal to improve the local communities, the partnership had met or exceeded many of those goals when 2004 rolled around.

But there was still a lot of work to be done and the volunteers were still willing and able. Block remembers how “the continuing successes attracted even more volunteers, partly because there were no politics involved.”

The partnership had become somewhat of an umbrella organization, providing focus for the many civic groups already established within Tamaqua Borough and Rush, Schuylkill, Walker and West Penn townships.

Moving ahead

The group was re-christened as the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership with the same basic concerns as before — economic development, historic preservation, downtown revitalization and recreation/tourism. A new concept had been added — the arts. Micah Gursky, hired to work two and one half days per week in 1995 and then a legislative aide to then Rep. David Argall, was still at the helm.

Original goals, such as the development of Depot Square Park in the center of the community, the establishment of a Main Street Program as Downtown Tamaqua Inc., more jobs at TIDEwood Industrial Park and the combined Eastern Schuylkill Recreation Commission, were successfully being implemented. Flowering trees planted along Railroad Street, as well as along the train tracks between Hazle and Broad Streets, brought a burst of color every spring and welcome shade during the summer.

Lehigh Carbon Community College constructed a campus in Tamaqua’s South Ward through the generosity of the John E. Morgan Foundation and a pledge to match those funds from then Gov. Mark Schweiker. The Morgan Foundation also pledged funding to provide Tamaqua Area High School graduates with two free years of higher education at LCCC. The partnership facilitated the extension of the campus by purchasing the original South Ward Fire Company and leasing it to the college.

While downtown revitalization efforts continued, the focus turned to the surrounding neighborhoods, and the South Ward section of town was selected to apply for an Elm Street grant through the Department of Community and Economic Development. The group was dubbed the South Ward Neighborhood Committee, and their efforts brought several million dollars in improvements to the area. A pedestrian walkway was built connecting Spruce and Van Gelder streets for easier walking access to the LCCC campus, and the South Ward Playground received a total makeover, complete with a new community center.

Block said, “We used every available Harrisburg resource to the fullest, using whatever we could find to make our area a better place.”

Additional historic markers were erected, with many becoming stops on the Molly Maguire Auto Tour.

The facade improvement project continued downtown and in the South Ward.

A 52-block area, containing 900 parcels, was designated as the borough’s historic district.

Playgrounds within Tamaqua and the townships all saw improvements through the efforts of the ESRC. The Owl Creek Reservoir area also saw many improvements, becoming a recreational jewel through the efforts of volunteers, such as the Owl Creek Reservoir Committee. A new playground was also created there.

Efforts to bring and keep the community united resulted in a Spirit of Christmas Festival and a New Year’s Eve celebration at the Tamaqua ABC High Rise. The nonprofit Alliance For Building Communities had purchased the high-rise building from the borough and became so involved with providing affordable housing in Tamaqua, that efforts between ABC and TACP resulted in the transformation of two blighted buildings, 401 Hazle St. and the former Aiken Building Supply on East Broad Street, into mixed housing units.

The arts

Bringing the arts to the area became a major goal.

Two nationally recognized painters, Joseph Marioni and Stephen Bennett, toured Tamaqua and decided to make the small town their individual headquarters, thanks to the proximity to New York City and the large, open space buildings for sale.

In 2011, the partnership entered into a new arena by establishing the Tamaqua Community Arts Center. Using its very own beginning as a template, the nonprofit organization hosted a series of community meetings looking for ideas and ways to bring the arts to the area.

A vacant church on Pine Street was purchased and transformed into a center for the fine and performing arts, with a grand opening in 2012 with the goal of using arts and culture as the next step in community development. Leona Rega was hired as art center director and immediately began looking for ways to get the community involved. The first official event in February 2012 showcased kids crafts, guitar lessons, a jam session and an open mic night.

The partnership also wanted to focus on safety, with the creation of the Tamaqua Safety Initiative. That led to four very successful National Night Out events and the introduction of new businesses in the safety corridor.

An artist in residency program was created and a problem bar was purchased and turned into living quarters. The first resident artist was Jeffrey Collins, who was able to work undisturbed on the cavernous third floor of the Tamaqua Elks building. Additional artists were attracted to the area, such as Kevin Smith, who is currently turning an old wagon works building into maker spaces for a variety of small businesses.

Rega says “The Safety Initiative began as a way to take a closer look at our own home, our neighborhoods and our relationship with local code and law enforcement as a way to identify and correct property neglect and crime. National Night Out on Aug. 2, 2012, was our first big community initiative that focused on safety. The event theme was “lights on, crime out” and focused on the importance of neighbors working together, neighbors working with the police and borough to report crime and purposeful property neglect. It called out absentee landlords and developed plans to address needs in a designated area of town. That area was directly around the arts center and continued to the five points intersection and Mauch Chunk Street. We hosted NNO for four years and then turned our efforts toward other activities as a way to continue change.”

None of it was possible without volunteers from throughout the community.

Jeffrey Collins was the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership’s first artist in residence. Collins is just one of numerous artists who have taken advantage of all the partnership has to offer. KATHY KUNKEL/TIMES NEWS
LEFT: A new community center was built as part of the revitalization of the South Ward Playground through the state’s Elm Street Program, known in Tamaqua as the South Ward Neighborhood Committee. The program falls under the umbrella of the TACP. KATHY KUNKEL/TIMES NEWS
ABOVE: The Owl Creek Reservoir/Recreation Commission, Tamaqua Borough and TACP worked together to create a playground at the Owl Creek Reservoir. FILE PHOTO
A Hess gas station once stood at the Five Points intersection in Tamaqua. Numerous groups worked together with the borough and the partnership to transform it into a show piece. DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS
Depot Square Park now stands as a testament to what determined volunteers can accomplish. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS