Engineering permeates life — supporting agriculture that grows the food we eat; treatment for the water we drink; mechanics in the businesses that make products we use; and safety in the buildings we live and work in. Civil engineering at its best knits a community together, uniting stakeholders around common goals and assisting with project planning and implementation. Civil engineers help to create enjoyable, sustainable locations where people desire to live, conduct business, or visit.
Blossburg Borough, founded in 1802, is just such an example of civil engineering in action. Located in Tioga County, Pa., an area known for its mountains, forests, panoramic views, trickling streams, and other natural resources, the town was originally dependent on the coal mining, railroad, and manufacturing industries. Today, Blossburg has benefitted from the bourgeoning energy production in the Marcellus Shale Play, and the borough’s leadership wanted to funnel funding from Pennsylvania’s Act 13 into a comprehensive plan to harness the economic possibilities.
In the last two decades, Blossburg had successfully accomplished several community improvement projects such as a new skate park, community swimming pool rehabilitation, walking trail, downtown building façade improvements, community garden, and a downtown organization, and secured several thousand dollars in funding. While the projects turned out well, the process was uncoordinated and none were a part of any comprehensive long-term goals or plans. And as can often happen, projects with different interested parties can compete for the same time and financial resources.
Many in the borough wanted to enhance and promote their community as a great place to live, work, shop, play, raise a family, and operate a business. But the existing comprehensive plan was almost 20 years old and lacked the guidance needed for the community to move forward. Additionally, the school district planned to close its schools within the borough, which highlighted the need to solidify plans for the future and create congruent efforts.
Blossburg selected RETTEW as its consultant to engage the entire community and lead it through the comprehensive planning process. RETTEW brought its experience working with municipalities in project planning and implementation. The firm used its balanced approach for this planning project by focusing on policies, partnerships, programs, and projects, bringing particular expertise in securing funding for future projects.
The first step was to hold a kickoff meeting. RETTEW organized the meeting with leading members of Blossburg’s stakeholders: Borough Council, Borough Planning Commission, Blossburg Visions in Business & Entertainment (VIBE), Blossburg Improvement Association, local business operators, residents, and community and nonprofit organizations.
The kickoff meeting detailed the entire process scope, outlined the budget, and designated a timeline and related responsibilities. Attendees appointed Jill Nickerson, borough council vice president, as the main liaison between RETTEW and the municipality. The group outlined all expectations and discussed the preferred method of communication for each part of the project. Lastly, the group created a list of the community’s issues and assets to be examined during the planning process.
RETTEW then gathered and reviewed the borough’s past and current planning documents, ordinances, maps, media coverage, and meeting minutes.
After reviewing the documents, RETTEW’s community development team immersed itself into the community by conducting interviews with stakeholders, touring the area, and holding meetings with local officials and the public. RETTEW then divided the planning into three stages — visioning, goal setting, and plan and strategy development. Each meeting thereafter was focused, fast-paced, and effective to be respectful of everyone’s time, as many participants were volunteers. The following weeks included four steering committee meetings, three community public meetings, one day-long officials meeting, and a tour of the town with input from more than 20 elected and appointed officials and dozens of key stakeholders.
As those involved identified the borough’s most important assets and concerns in need of attention, RETTEW worked with the municipality’s leadership to develop and prioritize the order of specific projects moving forward. The public and community stakeholders then voted to prioritize the top three issues to be resolved and top three assets to enhance, protect, or promote.
To keep costs down and fully utilize existing resources, RETTEW recommended using a modified version of Blossburg VIBE’s vision statement and Tioga County’s comprehensive plan as the base planning document. The team also incorporated many pieces of the PA Wilds Design Guide in the future land use and development plan.
Those involved identified major themes to carry throughout the comprehensive plan and resulting projects, which included combining a growing economy with the rural hometown feel of Blossburg, increasing employment, enhancing and promoting both downtown and recreational opportunities, and furthering the stewardship of natural and cultural resources.
From the process, five projects were identified as top priorities and RETTEW guided creation of action plans for each that included a project description, responsibilities, potential partners, potential funding sources, specific tasks, and action steps.
Throughout the nine-month comprehensive planning process, RETTEW facilitated input and meetings, summarized the details, and communicated with the public and those involved in the decisions. RETTEW provided professional and technical insight to develop an attractive and usable plan that can be implemented easily.
An impending school closure, along with many active volunteers facing burnout, was creating a challenging atmosphere in Blossburg. Some were frustrated by a lack of community participation, while others were looking for communication improvements. Questions arose as to why the borough would pursue this comprehensive planning initiative; many were skeptical of spending time and other resources on planning instead of acting.
However, Blossburg boasts a framework of successful volunteer organizations, active elected and appointed officials, and others who work hard to start and successfully complete projects. The depth and breadth of community spirit served as a backbone for the planning process, molding with RETTEW’s expertise to create a seamless result.
Throughout the process, RETTEW demonstrated its practical planning approach that emphasized action steps and implementation. As the consultant, RETTEW continued to highlight the value of the planning process, potential outcomes, and how having the right plan in place can keep a whole community moving forward together. Through the planning process, responsibilities are spread among all interested parties, resources are allocated based on priorities, and timing and communication can flow smoothly since borough officials, the various organizations, business operators, and residents are already on the same page.
Following the process, many of those who were earlier unsure became the most vocal supporters of the comprehensive plan and its related implementation efforts. Residents expressed their gratitude for RETTEW’s guidance and for bringing new perspectives while reenergizing the community’s efforts.
The community-driven effort resulted in a comprehensive plan completed three months ahead of its original schedule. The first five prioritized projects are a park and recreation master plan; a capital improvements program; forming an active partnership with the school district; developing a community communications program; and a community branding and promotion program.
Fostering community pride, cooperation, and stewardship, Blossburg’s comprehensive plan received final approval in June 2014. The community is well on its way to completing the first five projects, which is an unheard-of timeline — many municipalities slowly dig into upcoming projects over time, often several years after adoption of the plan.
Some of the other projects highlighted in the plan include revising the borough’s zoning, subdivision, and land development ordinances to use best practices; conducting a market study and analysis; exploring development of a business operators’ organization; and coordinating downtown betterment efforts. Other pursuits include developing greenways and trails; establishing signage programs; supporting cleanup of the Tioga River and other streams impacted by acid mine drainage; developing volunteer recruitment, development, and retention programs; and continuing support for community festivals and events.
During finalization of the comprehensive plan, RETTEW worked with the borough to submit an award application to the 2014 PA Champion of the Wilds program. The judges selected Blossburg in the Great Design category for outstanding work to preserve, protect, or enhance an area’s rural community character.
Like many small towns in a rural locale, Blossburg could have limped along, facing burnout from its committed volunteers and lacking an overall strategy to bring the community together. Instead, the municipality chose to take a thorough, measured journey to align its goals and community interests and to focus its limited resources on the right projects at the right time via a civil engineering firm. Civil engineering has and will continue to play a major role in Blossburg as it reaches its full potential.
Holly White is marketing and communication specialist, and Christopher Knarr, AICP, BCO, CZO, is community development specialist with RETTEW (www.rettew.com).