Residents pull together holiday display

Monday, December 23, 2002

GREENVILLE, Pa. -- The residents here have had precious little to cheer about the past year, with the community budget in tatters, a scandal at the college and the water service breaking down.

But at least downtown is decorated for Christmas.

It may seem a small point that folks in this borough of 6,380 managed to get a handful of wreaths spread through the business district, but last Christmas they didn't even have that. The decorations were in disrepair, and Greenville didn't pay to fix them.

This year, a group of volunteers calling itself the Greenville Area Preservation Association refused another season of downtown looking so bare, so it raised some money -- a spaghetti dinner and "name the moose" contest helped -- and refurbished as many wreaths as it could.

The decorations went up early this month and people are saying that, at last, something positive has happened in Greenville.

'This is uplifting'

"When you don't have any kind of decoration, it's kind of depressing. This is kind of uplifting, in a small kind of way," said Betsy Hildebrand, spokeswoman for Thiel College in Greenville.

"It's huge," said David Henderson, a member of borough council. "They have donated their time. That's what we need, people who are willing to participate."

Most agree the situation has been grim in Greenville, which was known for making rail cars until the plant shut down a few years ago.

Blaming fiscal mismanagement, officials in the borough about 70 miles northwest of Pittsburgh asked the state this year to help it close a deficit estimated at $1.7 million -- more than $266 per resident.

'Distressed' area

Greenville was declared "distressed," a designation that freed up a $660,000 loan but also required a plan for getting the borough back on track. There are calls now for nearly doubling the income tax, freezing wages and cutting services.

The problems don't stop there.

A pump broke down at the municipal water system, so for two weeks in November, residents were advised to boil what water was being pumped from the Little Shenango River.

Then, in December, a fraternity at Thiel lost its standing at the college when officials said members had signed out vans and used them to transport people to an off-campus party. Phi Theta Phi lost its recognition just days before a charity event it was organizing for a children's hospital in Pittsburgh.

"It's been a challenging year," said Doug Riley, executive director of the chamber of commerce. "It seems like an endless journey."

Comfort and joy

Which may be why the wreaths have been a comfort.

Last winter, when the financial problems were surfacing, people were upset, said Lorrie Smith, who helped organize the volunteers. When there were no decorations downtown during Christmas, it made it seem even worse, "like a physical manifestation" of the problem, she said.

Smith and others wondered what they could do. This fall, they had a piece of wood cut in the shape of a moose and held a "Name the Moose" contest. People donated money. (The winning name: "Unity.")

Then, there was the spaghetti dinner, which was such a hit the organizers ran out of food.

Smith says the group raised about $2,500 -- enough to fix up the 18 4-foot-wide wreaths. Volunteers from the fire department wired new lights to the wreaths, which were installed on utility poles in the three-block downtown.

Businesses joined in, decorating their storefronts. And volunteers raised enough to buy 3-foot-high trees to line sidewalks.

Greenville residents walking through the tiny downtown see it as a turning point, a spark of desperately needed morale.

"They're just so happy to have decorations," Smith said.

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