Chip Minemyer | Burkert’s gift: Strategic planning beyond ‘walls of a museum’

Chip Minemyer | Burkert’s gift: Strategic planning beyond ‘walls of a museum’

Posted: September 27, 2023 1:46 pm

This column by Chip Minemyer appeared in the September 24, 2023 edition of The Tribune-Democrat and is reproduced here with permission.

In April 1991, just two years after the Johnstown flood centennial and 12 years into Richard Burkert’s time in Johnstown, the local heritage association released a strategic plan with goals to preserve the region’s historical assets and grow cultural tourism.

And guess what? The Johnstown Area Heritage Association and its partners actually achieved many of the concepts outlined in its Johnstown Heritage Development Plan – with some proposals continuing to unfold even as Burkert retires after 44 years leading the region’s cultural heritage efforts.

“Usually, these types of plans don’t get implemented,” Burkert said shortly after stepping aside on Aug. 31. “This one mostly did, and that just shows you the importance of planning.”

Consider these points made in the planning document and the outcomes that have emerged since:

  • Creation of a new local industry built around cultural tourism – now among the leading drivers of the local economy and quality of life thanks to our many museum and cultural attractions and events such as JAHA’s AmeriServ Flood City Music Festival and the heavily used Peoples Natural Gas Park.
  •  Preservation of important local landmarks to be marketed as tourism destinations and for use as museum and office space. The Johnstown Flood Museum project, the Johnstown train station reclamation effort, the Heritage Discovery Center (in the former Germania Brewery/Morris Paper building), Bottle Works and many other active sites can be tied to this point in the plan.
  •  Establishment of a Cultural Facilities Network to link sites across the region for purposes of cross-promotion – a precursor to the heritage trail and the Johnstown Heritage Pass, launched in 2021 in conjunction with the Bandwango online site that allows visitors to purchase tickets to multiple attractions in one spot.
  • Elevation of the Cambria City neighborhood as “the cultural heart” of Johnstown, due to its proximity to the Cambria Iron Works, the Conemaugh River and downtown. This effort was accelerated by the decision to close several historic churches in Cambria City, which led to the formation of the Save Our Steeples group.

The area around Bottle Works and Venue Of Merging Arts on Chestnut Street near Ace’s has blossomed into exactly what the strategic plan envisioned.

Several concepts in the plan were adjusted, revised or set aside – such as:

  • A national historical park at the site of the former Cambria Iron Works. That park never developed, but JAHA and the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority helped preserve the location, now home to the Center for Metal Arts blacksmithing academy – which is celebrating and sharing the city’s steel and manufacturing history.
  • A festival park along the Conemaugh River, with riverfront pathways and a performance stage on Power Street. The park concept shifted east to the current site of Peoples Natural Gas Park, and enhancements along the city’s rivers remain more a target on the long-range planning list than an emerging reality.
  • A hotel and conference center complex along the Little Conemaugh River between the train station and Point Stadium, supported by a new Walnut Street Bridge. Instead, the Frank J. Pasquerilla Conference Center was built several blocks away.
  • A trolley track running from downtown through the iron works site to Cambria City to connect the key areas of the cultural and economic push.

The plan proposed: “Passengers would move in trolley cars of the type which operated in Johnstown during the height of the steelmaking era …”

A trolley terminal was envisioned near the Glosser Brothers Department Store on Franklin Street, with cars carrying shoppers and tourists along Washington Street – to the Johnstown Flood Museum and Penn Traffic Co. – and on to the train station and the West End. Trolleys instead were relegated to Johnstown’s history books, and an effort earlier this year to find investors for a single trolley in need of repairs generated scant response.

Still, Burkert said, much has been accomplished – even as state and federal funding dwindled and more of the preservation and marketing burden shifted to private investors and local fundraising.

“We had done the flood museum project (in 1989),” he said. “There was a lot more money around then, both federal and state, so you could do discretionary planning.”

Burkert has turned JAHA leadership over to Patty Carnevali, who said the organization is moving forward in the development of its next strategic plan for cultural heritage – building on the successes of that 1991 document while reflecting new realities.

Working with a changing board of directors and an evolving JAHA staff, the new president said, and with information from the community, she hopes the new strategic plan will be finished by Dec. 1.

Carnevali said JAHA faces the same challenges all nonprofits face in raising money in the COVID-19 era – while benefiting from grants and government programs for larger projects.

“JAHA is not a fearful organization,” Carnevali said. “We’re still going to plan, to hope, and to look at ways to be a cultural tourism driver and an historic preservation leader.

“If JAHA had been fearful all those years ago, a lot of what has been accomplished would never have been realized.”

Burkert came to Johnstown in 1979 as a historian and a storyteller, and then found himself in the crucial role of economic development. And he said the key to a successful plan – and a vibrant community – is having a great story to tell.

“What makes a place interesting to visit is the same things that make people want to live there,” Burkert said. “If you’re trying to increase awareness of Johnstown for its culture and history, understand that people are drawn to communities with a sense of place.”

Renewed interest by private investment in city properties is a good sign, Burkert said.

“People are coming back here,” he said. “They see an opportunity. … The misperception always was that if you get an education, you get stranded here. But as you keep looking at Johnstown, you scrape off a lot of layers until you get to know that place – and it’s worth it.”

Burkert hopes people continue to visit the flood museum – as a million have done already – perhaps getting off a train nearby and also visiting a festival, a restaurant or another local historic site.

Those steps fall together along a path to a meaningful and successful Johnstown experience, he believes – for JAHA and the region collectively.

“We don’t stop at the walls of a museum,” he said. “There’s something far more ambitious and something with far greater impact on the community happening here. The main focus is our service to the community. …

“It can’t just be a museum. You have to be working in economic development and have an impact on the community.”

The April 1991 Johnstown Heritage Plan can be downloaded: 

Johnstown Heritage Development Plan. part 1 of 2

Johnstown Heritage Development Plan, part 2 of 2