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Fayette City in search of better times

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Jim Ference | Trib Total Media
Fayette City Mayor Herb Vargo and borough council president Jim Eley look over the new Fayette City welcome sign on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014.

Fayette City resembles larger Mid-Mon Valley river towns beset with declining populations, business losses, infrastructure problems, low-income households and public indifference.

Borough officials, some whose roots go back generations, have heard enough doom-and-gloom talk. They’re attempting to reverse course by restoring pride and potential in the small municipality incorporated more than two centuries years ago.

The task promises to be a challenge for a place consisting of only 74 acres, 600 people, a $105,000 annual operating budget and a one-man street department.

“We’re going to do what we need to do to save Fayette City,” longtime Mayor Herb Vargo Jr. asserted following a recent council meeting. “Some people are waking up and realizing that we can have a future.”

Starting with a primary thoroughfare, Connellsville Street, and four other streets this year, practically every borough-owned street is being paved. Seven more residential streets are on next year’s schedule.

What’s left?

“Not much,” said Jim Eley Jr., borough council president since 1997 and Fayette City Volunteer Fire Co. chief for the past eight years.

He succeeded his father, James Eley Sr., who was chief for 45 years.

Officials secured a low-interest, $174,000 loan from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Bank and raised property taxes by 2 mills to repay the street paving debt over 10 years, the predicted life of the new asphalt. Fayette City soon will be the only local town to offer virtually all new streets to help maintain property values and improve appearances.

The police department consisting of a chief and two patrolmen, all part-time, is getting high-tech tools to fight crime.

Borough council has purchased a soon-to-be-installed video street surveillance system consisting of seven cameras, video recorder, radios and monitors. Police will be able to access cameras from smart phones while on patrol.

“We have a low crime rate…petty stuff like theft and vandalism,” Vargo said. “Drugs are a problem here, just like everywhere. The new cameras will be a deterrent and an enforcement tool.”

For years, Fayette City had a reputation as home to a Pagans motorcycle gang, an issue that has gone away over time as a result of arrests and participants “moving on,” said Vargo, who has now been mayor for 21 years and seen it all.

Fayette City is not a “city,” per se, but a borough with PennDOT-owned Route 201 cutting through downtown as a divided highway – Main Street for northbound traffic and Second Street for southbound traffic.

It’s where the oldest buildings in town sit, some more than a century old and hugging the sidewalks.

Officials have started ridding the landscape of several abandoned and blighted ones with help from the Fayette County Redevelopment Authority, although at least a dozen others must go to keep progress on track.

The former Crawford Auto Body Shop at the north end of downtown was among those razed. A “gateway” park to Fayette City is being planned, providing Route 201 traffic with a better first impression.

At the south end, Vargo owns a small triangular plot at the Route 201 split. He purchased materials for a new sign welcoming people to Fayette City and calling attention to more than 200 years of history.

While the biggest challenge rests in bettering downtown, part of the borough – “Town Hill” – is less seen and known.

“A lot of people think it’s Brownstown (part of Washington Township), but it isn’t,” Vargo said. “Our borough extends to the Christian Alliance Church. The boundary runs through the church property.”

Many hillside homes are located on nice, quiet streets with views, where values have gone up slightly in recent years, according to real estate sites that list affordable homes occupied by people of median incomes.

While Fayette City has lost a bank, pharmacy, gas station and a few small businesses over the years, Vargo and Eley pointed out significant community assets remain, including a barber shop, post office, small convenience stores, car wash, fire department, American Legion Post 484, the Eley-McCrory Funeral Home, a ballfield used for youth sports and a small Mon River boat launch, accessible via an underpass of active railroad tracks across Water Street.

If measured by per capita, Fayette City also might lay claim to “the most religious town around,” said Vargo laughing. Located within borough limits are these churches: Fayette City Presbyterian, First Christian, United Methodist, Community of Christ and Christian Alliance. A sixth, Holy Spirit Roman Catholic, closed only six years ago.

Although Washington Township surrounds Fayette City, borough officials said relations have been lukewarm over the years. Townspeople have no interest in merging despite limited resources for borough governance.

“We’re not giving up our identity,” said Vargo, citing a history of more prosperous days when local coal mines boomed, twice as many people lived in the town and sports figures were prominent, including former Major League Baseball player Jim Russell and longtime NFL official Jim Hamer.

The landmark Fayette City School, which ended up as an elementary school, still stands.

It was closed in the early 1970s as part of the Belle Vernon Area School District merger. It’s another shuttered monument of the past that public officials hope an enterprising business will buy and re-purpose, thereby serving as a badly-needed catalyst to boost revitalization efforts.

State law entitles council members and the mayor to receive small stipends for their public service, such as $600 a year for Vargo, but nobody accepts a cent.

He and Eley said that while Fayette City may be “small town,” such status can be viewed as a plus. They said residents look forward to activities that include an annual Halloween parade, Light-Up Night with Santa, Memorial Day parade and ceremony, and firefighters carnival.

The fire department used federal dollars to help buy a new truck in 2007 that is still considered relatively new for such equipment. Small weekly bingos attract loyal players and help pay operating expenses.

While making significant headway in some areas, Vargo and council are still forced to deal with never-ending other challenges.

For example, after the association in charge of Auburn Cemetery dwindled to one board member, it basically dissolved. The borough, which already takes care of the Fayette City Public Cemetery across Connellsville Street, is now acting as trustee for the larger Auburn Cemetery.

About $97,000 in the cemetery treasury, mostly money for perpetual care, is being held in escrow by borough officials while they seek volunteers to reactivate the nonprofit association.

Finding dependable members is a challenge at the Fayette City Sewage Authority, which has failed to meet for the last two months for the lack of a quorum.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Protection has notified town officials that it wants to meet and discuss still-unknown “issues” they fear may mean problems for the half-century-old facility.

Police Chief Larry Wilson might retire at year’s end. There’s a part-time patrolman vacancy. The animal control officer has resigned. A road-opening impact policy and fee must be developed to protect newly-paved streets.

“We do this for the community,” Eley said. “None of us is compensated.”

To which Vargo wryly added, “We don’t even get an ‘atta-boy.’”

Joe Grata is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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