Chester talks riverfront’s future

CHESTER — Now that construction has begun on the Rock Springs Business Park, the city of Chester is getting some outside help with what to do with the rest of the riverfront.

About a dozen Chester officials, residents and business owners met Thursday with a team from the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Riverlife to brainstorm about the riverfront’s future.

But first they came up with a list of words to describe the riverfront as it appears today — “sloppy,” “uninviting,” “inaccessible,” “underutilized,” “underappreciated,” “wild,” “green,” “beautiful,” “overgrown,” “steep” and “priceless.”

Then they answered two more questions: “How would you describe your ideal riverfront? What are the biggest impediments to riverfront development?” — and posted the words on a board.

“I’m really encouraged that half this board is positive. It speaks to what could happen in the future,” said Nina Chase, Riverlife senior project manager.

Chase and Riverlife Vice President Jay Sukernek said their goal was to leave Chester on Thursday with a list of next steps toward the implementation of a riverfront project.

“Trying to find out what works for the community is really important,” Sukernek said. “There’s a big difference between downtown Pittsburgh and downtown Chester.”

Some of the groundwork for such a project already has been laid, starting with the 2011 acquisition of the old Taylor, Smith & Taylor pottery site by the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle.

The cleanup of the riverbank was put on hold while the BDC oversaw the demolition of the TS&T factory and the remediation of an upper pad that was contaminated with asbestos. That was completed in 2012, prompting a lengthy process of marketing the site for economic development purposes.

Those efforts finally came to fruition in November 2015, when the BDC received a $2 million loan from the West Virginia Economic Development Authority for the construction of a 30,000-square-foot building.

More pieces fell into place in the spring, and state and local officials broke ground in June. Steel for the building, which will be suitable for a tenant in the energy, chemical or value-added metals industry, was delivered this week, said BDC Executive Director Patrick Ford.

How the building develops in terms of offices, utilities, floor plan and other details depends on the tenant. The West Virginia Development Office has been marketing the property and is narrowing down a list of prospects, Ford said.

A second building, a mixed-use office complex, is being planned for the section closer to the river. Meanwhile, crews are cleaning up the lead contamination of the riverbank above and below the Ohio River waterline.

But Thursday’s discussion turned on what to do with the riverbank once it is clean, recreation and tourism opportunities, and how to connect the Upper End to the city’s central business district. Some preliminary plans for a pedestrian/bicycle path have already been developed, although a grant application submitted in the spring was unsuccessful.

Chester got the attention of Riverlife through the BDC and the WV Brownfields Assistance Center, whose redevelopment specialist Anna Withrow also attended Thursday’s meeting.

“It’s up to the people in this room to make this site accessible to the community,” Withrow said.

Riverlife received a grant from the Pittsburgh-based Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation to replicate the success it has had with Pittsburgh’s riverfronts with smaller communities in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Among other projects, Riverlife has been instrumental in the renovation of Pittsburgh’s Point State Park and the development of North Shore Riverfront Park & Trail and South Shore Riverfront Park.

Riverlife has produced “A Guide to Riverfront Development” that includes design standards and other resources for riverfront communities.