The City That Wasn’t: Shenango Valley and the Failure of Consolidation

The Shenango Valley of today is a fascinating blend of beauteous rural areas, suburban sprawl, stark urban decay, and industrial landscape. One can travel through the sprawling malls and shopping plazas of Hermitage, filled with shoppers and dense traffic, to another world only miles away. In neighboring Sharon the downtown is a picturesque, if semi-vacant shell of itself. The streetlights even fail to light on the weekends, when it’s possible to walk whole streets without seeing another pedestrian. In neighboring Farrell urban blight is mixed with old storefronts and places out of another era, like the New Deal Club and the Croatian American Civic Club.

Main Street in Sharon, PA. Via Egg Writer on Flickr

Yet, much of the Valley is intertwined, whether many will admit it or not. And over several decades of decline, plans have proliferated to unite the area in some form of regionalization. Less than a decade ago we saw the sad climax of perhaps the last attempt to consolidate the area and save the Valley. The failure of that forgotten proposal, which would have combined Hermitage, Farrell, Sharon, Wheatland, and Sharpsville into “Shenango Valley City,” has much to teach us. It’s also a glaring example of the continued regional Balkanization that affects many parts of the Rust Belt.

The Shenango Valley owes much of its historical growth to the rise of the iron and steel industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Companies like Sharon Steel and Westinghouse Electric attracted tens of thousands of immigrants, transforming the sleepy Valley into an industrial colossus. This growth led to the incorporation of the City of Sharon in 1918 and the City of Farrell in 1932. Before suburbanization, early efforts at consolidation focused on these two cities. In 1935, over a thousand individuals signed a consolidation petition that would have combined the two cities into a community of 50,000 people. However, like other efforts in later years, nothing came of it. Nor did it seem necessary to many after the Depression years when Sharon and Farrell, the latter dubbed the “Magic City,” still boomed.

Starting in the 1950s, more people began moving away from the mills of Sharon Steel toward places like Hickory Township. In the 1970s, after two decades of solid growth, Hickory Township became Hermitage, Pennsylvania, which became a city in 1983. During the fifties, sixties, and seventies, upwardly mobile individuals fled to the low-density confines of Hermitage, chewing up scenery and rural land in the process. In Shenango Valley as a whole during the eighties, rural land disappeared into retail and suburban development at a rate about one third greater than overall population growth.

The 1980s brought the beginning of the end for Sharon Steel. Massive layoffs drove many communities in the Valley into dire straits. In 1987, Farrell became the first city in Pennsylvania to be named a “financially distressed municipality.” The Financially Distressed Municipalities Act, known as Act 47, also allows for the consolidation of adjoining municipalities suffering from budgetary problems. Soon talks of consolidation revived, except this time centering on Sharon, Farrell, Hermitage, and the nearby boroughs of Wheatland and Sharpsville.

A study done during the late sixties, as local cities were shrinking, recommended the consolidation of Sharon, Farrell, Wheatland, Sharpsville and Hermitage. In 1998, Sharon and Farrell agreed to be part of feasibility study looking at merging the two municipalities. This later expanded to include both boroughs and Hermitage.

The Shenango Valley Intergovernmental Committee was formed to study the proposal and recommend whether or not such a consolidation would prove beneficial for the area as a whole. Perhaps the best draft proposal came from the sub-committee on “Government Structure and legal Issues.” In this draft, the five municipalities were to be combined into the third-largest municipality in Western Pennsylvania, to be known as “Shenango City,” later to be called Shenango Valley City. The five communities would have retained their identities as “districts” of the city. These districts would also have had separate “service districts,” e.g. separate fire service districts, sewer, etc. However, the real gain would have come by eliminating duplication of local services: one police department for the city, one public works department, one tax collection department, one economic development department, one zoning department, and one parks and recreation department. This would also have put an end to the senseless scramble to locate jobs and businesses within certain communities.

Each district was to have one elected city council member, with six elected “at large” members. The mayor and council members in turn would elect a city manager. The benefits of such a plan seemed obvious: The bulk of taxes could be shifted from property taxes to something called a “local wage tax,” which was to be levied on all employed workers in the city. The drafters of the consolidation plan likely saw the local wage tax as a way to assuage the concerns of home owners with higher property values in Hermitage.

The real problem seemed to be convincing the most prosperous community, Hermitage, and the least prosperous, Farrell, to accept the plan. African Americans constituted almost half of Farrell’s population, and it seemed that they might be reluctant to lose political power with the consolidation. The commission in turn approved one district in the city to be majority-minority. While Hermitage seemed to be fairly well off, and thus less likely to be tempted by the consolidation, the commission pointed out that the vast majority of Hermitage’s population growth came

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from the over-75 age group. They also brought up a more basic point: “Will your children come back to the Shenango Valley because Hermitage has a new super-Walmart?” Developing the area’s older urban centers would be crucial to attracting younger residents to the Valley.

During this four-year study, the SVIC brought in David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque and legislative/program director for the U.S. Department of Labor. Rusk spent most of the previous decade researching and writing about urban regionalism. He recommended the consolation idea and speculated on what might have happened if the idea had gotten off the ground earlier: “What if a consolidated city of Shenango Valley had been created several decades ago? Would subsequent events have moved Sharon-Mercer County onto the high-growth track of its ‘big box’ peer regions rather than kept it on the slow-growth track of its ‘little box’ peers? Many past precedents argue that the answer would have been ‘yes,’ but history never answers the question conclusively.”

Despite four years of study, the SVIC came to no agreement on whether or not to recommend the consolidation. The committee’s report was long on statistical findings, but little else. All in all, it proved an embarrassing outcome. Despite making no recommendation, the committee added this warning.

In the absence of consolidation, there must be no complacency…Even Hermitage is doing relatively poorly compared to the reminder of the State and the nation. And even its relative success will not continue if the Valley as a whole continues to decline. Things are broken and need to be quickly corrected. Unless younger people begin to stay in the Valley and others move in to create wealth producing employment opportunities for themselves and others there cannot be a positive future. Those who remain will find themselves increasingly facing a community of decline.

A measure vague on details ended up on the ballot in 2004. Sharon and Farrell voted in favor of the measure; Wheatland and Sharpsville did not. Hermitage overwhelmingly rejected it. In the months before the vote a group called “Hermitage Citizens Against Consolidation” began a campaign to defeat the referendum. Despite the fact that school districts were not scheduled to change, the organization, along with many other individual voters in Hermitage, opposed the measure.

The Shenango consolidation would have created a city of 44,000 out of five shrinking communities. This new city could have attracted increased monies for infrastructure projects, more grants, and increased CDBG funds. It also could have better addressed the repurposing of brown fields and abandoned industrial property, not to mention tackling larger projects like the creation of a Downtown Sharon campus for the Penn State Shenango branch. The consolidation also would have lowered the area’s composite poverty rate.

As it stands now after the 2010 Census, the area’s future looks to be one of continued shrinkage. Sharon’s population loss more than doubled from the previous ten years. Farrell lost 16 percent of its population, and its poverty rate is over 20 percent greater than the national average. As for Hermitage, the city’s growth rate has declined to almost nothing. The median age in Hermitage is five years older than the state average. The city’s share of the coveted 25-to 34-year-old demographic is among the lowest in the county. Since 2007, the poverty rate has increased to 17 percent in the county as a whole; thirty percent of those living below the poverty line are children. Mercer County also has the fastest growing poverty rate in the state.

The failure of the Shenango Valley City initiative is a lesson in the difficulties of overcoming regional Balkanization, especially here in the Rust Belt. Despite a plethora of good ideas, the process reflected a real inability to address critical issues at the regional level in any way. Sprawl is a pernicious problem, especially in areas of declining population. Rust Belt metros facing decentralization and dwindling populations will have difficult futures. Indianapolis, Nashville, and Jacksonville completed successful consolidations that lead to renewed economic opportunities for their respective regions. The same could be said for areas similar in size and demographics to the Shenango Valley that consolidated through annexations or other means: Battle Creek, Michigan; Muncie, Indiana; Elkhart, Indiana; and Kokomo, Indiana. Regional consolidation is not a cure-all for declining post-industrial areas; however, available evidence points to this strategy as preferable to continuing down a path of “spatial suicide,” one that is slowly killing Rust Belt regions like the Shenango Valley.

–Sean Posey

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