WASHINGTON — The Washington Blight Working Group (WBWG) announced its plans to walk the neighborhoods in the city of Washington beginning in late March in order to survey properties to strategize ways to fight the spread of blight, Rep. Tim O’Neal said.
The WBWG is a 15-member group made up of government officials, nonprofits, economic development groups and housing authorities brought together following a Blight Roundtable hosted in May 2019 by O’Neal. Other members include:
• Claire Shrontz, direct office manager for O’Neal.
• Jeff Fondelier, vice president of operations at Blueprints.
• Liz Handzus, outreach coordinator at Blueprints.
• Mallory McHugh, program supervisor at Blueprints.
• Scott Putnam, mayor for city of Washington.
• Christie Rowing, executive director of Citywide Development Corporation.
• Mike Gomber, mayor of East Washington Borough.
• Sandy Mansmann, executive director of Highland Ridge CDC.
• Brooke Gawlas, board member of Highland Ridge CDC and representative of Washington Financial Bank.
• Aaron Miller, executive director of The Dreamers Company.
• Todd Ashmore, board member at The Dreamers Company.
• Jim Irwin, chief financial officer for Washington & Jefferson College.
• Rob Phillips, assistance community development director with the Redevelopment Authority of the County of Washington.
• Christopher Jursa, GIS manager with the County of Washington.
“Blight is a key issue for our community,” O’Neal said. “By working to improve our neighborhoods, we can help so many other issues, including property values, economic development, crime, homelessness and livability.”
During the four meetings of the group, members have discussed their separate organizations and what they bring to the table, including funds, programs and experience. They have also developed strategies for moving forward and turning plans to action.
A top priority of the WBWG is to create a group that can bring resources together to focus on neighborhoods where neglect is evident, to push back the tide and to reclaim entire wards rather than just individual properties.
“The key to success is not scattered efforts,” Ashmore said. “It is focusing the energy, funds and activities of all stakeholders in the same area, so the impact is large and clearly visible.”
Another priority for the group is to create more owner-occupied residences by working with landlords to sell properties to residents who are ready to purchase their own home. The city of Washington is currently 60% rental homes, and this directly contributes to the condition of our neighborhoods. By creating more owner-occupied homes, the sense of pride in communities will return and residents will be more invested in their properties and their neighborhoods.
“The city of Washington has so much to offer young families and we want to ensure that our homes can house the next generation of Washingtonians,” Putnam said.
WBWG is working on this issue in two parts. The Citywide Development Corporation, Redevelopment Authority and Blueprints all offer programs for home rehabilitation and homeownership to help residents with financial assistance to work towards their goals. These groups are working together to pool resources to help as many homebuyers as possible to not only purchase homes but to also make the necessary improvements that are needed.
The other component is incentivizing landlords to sell their properties to owner-occupied buyers. The WBWG believes that there are landlords who, for many reasons, may be looking for an exit strategy. The group will be sending letters to all landlords seeking input on what would help them decide to sell properties to homeowners.
The final top priority is to developing strategies and plans for renovating blighted properties within the eight wards of the city. Mission Washington, a week-long program developed by The Dreamers Company where its volunteers hit the streets of Washington and undertake small renovation and/or construction projects within blighted communities, is one of the ways this is being addressed. WBWG is working to build off this existing plan to grow the effort this summer. But the first step is surveying the community.
Late in March, volunteers will begin to visit the eight neighborhoods of the city to collect data on where WBWG should be focusing its efforts to make the most impact. The volunteers will be wearing identification and will be happy to pass on additional information while they are out and about. Additionally, the data collected will remain confidential and will not be used by code enforcement.
An informational session is scheduled for Tuesday, March 24, from 6-7 p.m., in the Washington High School cafeteria for community members who would like to learn more. Any resident, contractor or other volunteer interested in helping with the survey or with the projects throughout the summer are asked to attend the meeting or call O’Neal’s district office at 724-223-4541.
Representative Tim O’Neal
48th Legislative District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Tracy Polovick