The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

October 3, 2013

Benson sees growth in upgrades

David Hurst

BENSON — The Stonycreek River wraps around Benson Borough like a horseshoe, practically hugging the tiny town.

Given the growing number of boaters – and tourism dollars – lured to the Stony’s banks annually, there might not be a better place in the region to lay out a welcome mat, Somerset Redevelopment Authority Director Stephen Spochart said.

Benson will take a big step toward that early next year. With work expected to get underway on a $350,000 sidewalk makeover, it will replace aging sidewalks with new walkways, trees and stenciled crosswalks, plans show.

And if all goes well, a dilapidated home at Main and Whistler streets also would be leveled to clear the way for a borough minipark, council members said.

“With the Rendezvous and the Stonycreek coming back to life, Benson is strategically placed for things to happen there,” Spochart said, noting that bed and breakfasts, cafes and shops that cater to boating enthusiasts could find a home in Benson. “It could become a river town the same way we’ve seen trail towns grow here.”

Oftentimes, there needs to be a bright, welcoming downtown in place to make it happen, he noted.

That’s just what Benson council members pictured this week, while looking over sidewalk project plans.

“This is going to go through the heart of the borough ... right at the Route 403 corridor,” Councilman Kevin Holsopple said. “It’s really going to improve the look of the town.”

Engineering plans drawn up by the EADS Group show several blocks of the borough – parts of Main and Whistler – seeing new sidewalks and other upgrades. Along the way, trees and new walkways would be added in front of the post office and borough building, with a parking lot added where a vacant lot currently sits.

According to plans, a dilapidated home’s demolition would allow PennDOT to widen the Whistler and Main intersection in town, eliminating visibility issues that have created trouble there in the past, Holsopple said.

Most recently, a tractor-trailer tried to make the turn and took a fire hydrant with it, he noted.

The Somerset Redevelopment Authority is overseeing the project and its funding.

Over the past four years, the borough received approximately $90,000 from the county in Community Development Block Grant money for the project design and funds to purchase the dilapidated home at Main and Whistler. The authority secured the other $250,000 through the Federal Transportation Enhancement funding program, Spochart said.

If all goes well, the project would be out to bid in February and underway in the spring, he said.

Holsopple and Councilman Tim Hutzell said if all goes well and bids are low, the sidewalk project will continue down Main Street toward the river.

And council envisions a gazebo in the yet-to-be-built minipark at Main and Whistler, although it likely would be a later addition, the board members said.

David Hurst covers parts of the Conemaugh Township School District for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @tddavidhurst.