The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

David Knepper

August 11, 2013

David Knepper | Build, but will they come?

— With little fanfare, the Forest Hills School District is moving forward to construct a middle/high school that will replace the present high school in Sidman. When completed, tentatively in time for the 2015-2016 school year, this modern educational facility should prove to be a powerful incentive as a magnet to attract new families to the Forest Hills area, reinforcing the long-held belief that parents appear to associate the quality of the school to the level of student achievement. 

However, any decision to move into the district may hinge on whether one can find suitable pre-existing housing or land in one of the district’s townships or boroughs to build their dream house. 

If the choice is the latter, families face the distinct possibility that public sewage and water may not be available in the sprawling townships of Adams, Croyle and Summerhill as it is in the boroughs.

Of course, an on-lot private sewage system is an option, but that is dependent on whether the building lot can pass rigid state Department of Environmental Protection standards.      

For there to be a positive spike in school enrollment in the district, all local governmental bodies, including the school board, should now be engaged aggressively to address the need for expanded infrastructure in the Forest Hills region. 

Public sewage and water are the essential elements that are the antecedents for new, expanded housing development.

The last major sewage project in the Forest Hills region, which connected only boroughs and villages to the new sewage- treatment plant in South Fork, occurred in 2000. It is imperative for the three townships to now have their turn in connecting into this plant. But for that to happen, there must be a cooperative multimunicipal agreement by township supervisors and by the Forest Hills Municipal Authority to move forward without delay to develop a plan that will be on the fast track.

Incidentally, expanded public infrastructure in a number of potential growth areas in the townships was identified as a high priority in the Forest Hills Regional Multi-Municipal Comprehensive Plan of May 2010. It is in these townships where the likelihood of growth and development would occur if public infrastructure was provided,

For too long now, it may be stated, we have continued to limp along that road that leads to prosperity while other regions have passed us by. To continue to do so would only cripple and rob us of any hope for halting the spiraling population decline that Cambria County has experienced for many decades. 

According to recent U.S. Census data, the Forest Hills region continues to experience a decline in its population by -7.2 percent from 2000 through 2010.  

This new middle/high school may be our best hope for reversing this trend.

The late U.S. Rep. John Murtha stressed the importance of expanded sewage and water infrastructure as being the key to economic development. As a longtime advocate for infrastructure, Murtha’s vision was clearly focused on putting federal dollars to work in our region to build new sewage and water infrastructure. He knew that would be a wise investment on our future. 

Our citizens should be engaged in lobbying the Forest Hills school board – as well as our municipal officials – to go on public record in support of expanded infrastructure in order to stimulate not only housing development, but commercial development as well. 

Let us hope that meeting new-infrastructure requirements can be overcome and not become a barrier for families who wish to enroll their children in what promises to be a “school for the future.”

Recalling that memorable line by “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in the movie  “Field of Dreams” – “If you build it, they will come” – seems most appropriate as we now begin to build our “field of dreams” right now, right here in Sidman. 

David A. Knepper is president of Allegheny Development Group LLC and is currently the executive director of the Forest Hills Regional Alliance. He holds a doctorate in educational administration from Penn State. He writes a monthly column for The Tribune-Democrat.

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