After years of struggles, the Windber Coal Heritage Center is apparantly closing for good.
But a deal between its owner, Rosebud Mining Co., and Windber Medical Center promises to create a new use for the museum’s historical 15th Street home, Rosebud and medical center officials said Monday.
Four years after buying the property for $250,000, Rosebud plans to donate the onetime Berwind-White Coal Mining post office building to Windber Medical Center. Many of the heritage center’s artifacts will be given to the Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation for preservation and display at its Somerset visitors center.
“We are grateful to Rosebud Mining Co. for considering our organization as the recipient of this gift, and we plan to repurpose the Windber Coal Heritage Center in a way that is meaningful to the community and in line with Windber Medical Center’s charitable mission,” Windber Medical Center CEO Barbara Cliff said.
Plans for the building are still being finalized, she added.
The Windber Coal Heritage Center was a Windber mainstay for a decade following its 1997 opening, offering visitors a look at both the region’s coal industry beginnings and the lives of those who were a part of it.
But dwindling numbers and tough economic times took a toll at the center in recent years. A site that once greeted 32,000 or more visitors annually saw those numbers drop to an average of 7,000 guests during the most recent years the facility was regularly open, center Director Chris Barkley said.
The site briefly closed several times, including once in 2009, before Rosebud bought the location from The Progress Fund.
“Economic difficulties ... definitely changed the number of people coming through the doors,” Barkley said, noting that in recent years, many folks have cut back on the dollars they spend on travel and tourism. “It’s sad. But we’re lucky we were able to keep the center going as long as we did.”
Sandra Pritt, president of the Eureka Coal Heritage Foundation formed to preserve the Windber area’s heritage, was saddened by the news Monday. But Pritt said she understands why the move was made.
“It’s tough because the groups that really would want to operate a place like this, ones like ours, don’t have the financial means to do it,” said Pritt, whose group spearheaded the original museum effort 20 years ago.
“But if the building can’t be a museum as it was intended, turning it over to the hospital is probably the best-case scenario because they are local. They’re part of this community.”
Rosebud Mining Co. posted notices on the building’s doors in recent weeks notifying the public the center would remain closed until a new management deal could be found.
“While it’s unfortunate that declining visitation and increasing costs made it impossible for us to continue to operate the Windber Coal Heritage Center, we’re pleased Windber Medical Center will be able to use the facility in a way that serves the community,” Rosebud company officials said in a statement.
Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation Director William Arnold and his staff today will begin packing and moving remaining Quecreek or mine industry-related items to its Somerset area location, Windber Medical Center officials said.
“Tamping rods, picks and old coal shovels ... those are the types of things that will be taken down there,” Barkley added, noting Windber-specific items would stay in the borough.
Cliff said it will likely take a month to transfer all of the items that are heading to the Quecreek site.
David Hurst covers Windber for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tddavidhurst.