Fred Fleet, president of Highland Ridge Community Development Corporation (HRCDC) in Washington County, Pennsylvania, remembers when Locust and Highland Avenues in the city of Washington were among the most coveted and classiest places to live.
Stately Victorian homes presided over plush manicured lawns and tidy, tranquil, tree-lined streets. But by the 1980s, the region had devolved into a decaying shell of its former self.
The victim of urban flight, the once-pristine enclave had been overtaken by time and crime. The formerly proud grand dame of Washington was now dotted with scraggly weeds, cracked sidewalks, wind-blown litter, crumbling shingles, and vacant lots. Neglect took root as a seemingly permanent tenant. But no more.
The community decided to take back their blocks.
In 2001, Highland Ridge Community Development Corporation became a 501 c (3) nonprofit. Its goal was to conduct a top-to-bottom face-lift of the Highland Ridge area, the region housing the highest concentration of the poorest population in the city of Washington.
With its corporate headquarters only a few blocks from the Highland Ridge neighborhood, Washington Financial Bank became a leader in the extreme makeover.
In 2006, Highland Ridge CDC was awarded a $100,000 Elm Street Program grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. Funding arrived in 2008, and was magnified by an outpouring of local community and business support and sweat equity, including from community friend Washington Financial Bank.
The Elm Street Project came on the heels of a successful Main Street Project, bringing several new businesses to the Downtown Business District and developing plans to transform long-vacant storefronts into newly vibrant places of business.
According to its January 2014 brochure, by 2013, the Highland Ridge CDC had improved 15 residences through the Façade Improvement Program; installed 7 security cameras to enhance police patrols; created the largest community garden in the city; planted attractive drought-resistant plants; placed 22 trashcans in strategic locations along the Route 19 corridor and throughout neighborhoods; planted a variety of hearty trees and flower beds; and hosted fundraising events such as the Washington Film Festivals.
In 2012, Centerville Clinic redeveloped property on Ridge Avenue with a $5 million redevelopment project, bringing a two-story medical home for doctors and dentists to a woefully under-served area.
Two years later, PennDOT completed the Route 19 Corridor project on Highland and Ridge Avenues, and an $18 million renovation project is on the drawing board for the Washington Trust Building, according to the bank’s Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations, Betty Guerrieri.
Church youth groups were in the forefront of the Highland Ridge renovation effort. While many youth groups travel to some exotic tropical location to perform mission work, three Washington area churches decided to travel just three blocks up the road to help the decaying neighborhoods in their own city. Donning fluorescent orange and yellow vests and bearing hammers and hoes, more than 40 teens and church leaders weeded and seeded, planted and painted, and cleared brush and siding.
The teens spent their days chopping back vegetation and trees that had grown over the front yard of a vacant house, chipped away rotted siding from one long-time resident’s home, painted the foundation of another house, and planted flowers in tiny gardens. The group also planned to mow and weed some vacant lots.
The work was part of the fledgling phase of the HRCDC ’s “Mending Fences” beautification program, extending a healing touch to dilapidated houses and vacant lots along Locust Avenue.
Their work in June 2014, featured in the Washington Observer-Reporter, was bolstered by Washington Financial Bank and a long list of other area partners.
The bank’s efforts to bring back Highland Ridge earned them recognition in PACB’s “Grow Your Own Community” Awards competition, along with national accolades.
According to HRCDC Vice President, Rev. Patricia Cherry, the Mending Fences initiative was launched in 2014. The first recipient was an elderly widower, and a veteran of the Korean War, who had no close family members and who had fallen on hard times.
“His hope was to maintain the safety of and to continue living in his home,” Cherry said.
The veteran shared with them that he had prayed to God to send someone to “fix his roof’.”
His prayers were answered –and more.
“The Mending Fences initiative, with the partnerships, collaborations, and non-profit organizations, was able to replace the roof, paint every room, repair the bathroom floor and fixtures, and replace the basement steps,” Cherry said.
“Washington Financial Savings made a substantial donation to our proof-of-concept program and with this funding, the final siding installation and construction of a new front porch was completed.”
“This project was a perfect fit with the Bank’s philosophy of giving—providing support of health and human service needs and community redevelopment,” Guerrieri said.
“The Mending Fences project exemplifies the true giving of Washington Financial,” Bank President and CEO Brian J. Smith said. “Our Bank remains dedicated to helping make a difference by investing in the communities we serve.”
Cherry added: “What touched me deeply was the collaboration and unity of so many people to complete this one home. To see the youth diligently follow instructions and work in excellence, while those skilled in labor were willing not only to do the work, but to teach others. Also the willingness of others to give to someone in need. To see our recipient in awe, acknowledging that this was more than he could have ever imagined. He is thankful and appreciative.”
“Together, as a corporate team of volunteers, giving of time, talent, and treasure, we are committed to seeing the positive impact on the communities of Washington, to reach one house, one block, one street, one community, one step at a time.” Cherry said.
Christina Oravetz, Assistant Vice President/Compliance Manager for Washington Financial Bank, echoed Cherry’s sentiments. The bank’s participation in the Mending Fences program also earned them a national Community Impact Award in San Diego last year.
Oravetz, said the national award from Wolters Kluwer Financial Services was akin to winning a Grammy for her. Community reinvestment officers were there from throughout the nation, representing the best of the best.
“It was very, very exciting,” she said.
In front of so many CRA officers, “To be recognized for that was a huge accomplishment.”
She was joined at the awards ceremony by Michael Chaido, Senior Vice President/Chief Operation Officer for the bank.
For more than a century, Washington Financial has worked behind the scenes to help and heal their community.
Now led by President Brian J. Smith, Washington Financial has operated for 116 years. It has accumulated assets of $1.08 billion and capital ratios well in excess of regulatory requirements, and has earned a five-star rating by Bauer Financial. Its eight branches operate throughout Washington County, famous for its role in the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion, and also serve a portion of Allegheny County.
The bank is also active in the United Way, and each year, helps an organization in the community based on customer nominations.
“We are very thankful and appreciate the support of Washington Financial,” Cherry said.
And now, the bank and HRCDC are answering the prayers of more people in need. The HRCDC will use the lessons learned from its Elm Street revitalization program to help other troubled Washington-area neighborhoods.
Fleet said their new project will give them more flexibility to mobilize across the city.
He hopes the program, which is garnering outside donations as it builds its fundraising foundation, will focus on one street to fix each house or blighted spot on the block. The focus will be on helping people who are low-income, elderly, disabled or veterans with upgrades inside and outside their homes.
Some changes could include installing public art in vacant lots, repairing a roof, addressing safety issues or fixing a home’s stairs.
For them to expand citywide, “It helps build the neighborhood back up to what it was many, many years ago. To focus on one block and build off of that, it will just help the city grow,” Fleet said.
Their ultimate goal is to eliminate blight, reduce crime and enlist the aid of both young people and their parents.
The bank’s employees are part of that new continental army, building and rebuilding homes, one family, one block at a time. With a little lumber and a lot of love, a dilapidated house becomes a warm, safe haven for someone in need. A house that could not accommodate a wheelchair, leaving an owner trapped indoors and on one floor, becomes not just handicapped accessible, but a monument to independence.
Donors can give at the smallest level, by buying a box of nails or screws, or at the more generous levels, to purchase appliances and handicapped ramps.
A resident of Canonsburg and a Robert Morris graduate, Oravetz reflected on the recently completed home and the home to come: “I feel like I have really made a difference in the community.”
Compared to our peers, she said, “We go above and beyond to meet the needs of our community.” Coming from a much larger bank, her efforts to heal her hometown are what keeps her motivated.
At the kick-off celebration for Mending Fences, a handful of Pittsburgh Steelers joined the effort. “It was great to see the community all come together to help this gentleman.”
“The strength of a nation is derived from the integrity of its homes,” said Confucius, in 500 BC.
Centuries later, Washington Bank knows the veracity of that age-old truth and personifies the belief that it takes a village to heal a village. And like their hallowed namesake, they are investing the sweat equity to take back their blocks.
This Community Bank Profile can be found featured in the February 2015 issue of Transactions. Not a subscriber? Visit the Transactions page on this website or call PACB at 717-231-7447 to start receiving the magazine.