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​NEWS & PAST EVENTS

Argall: Cooper building a Shen Valley solution

Posted October 17, 2009

 

Nick Meyer/staff photo State Sen. David Argall, R-29, left, talks with Kent Steinmetz, owner of the former J.W. Cooper building, Shenandoah, while standing next to the old pool in the building Monday

Free Concert

Posted May 16, 2010

 

The first of a series of 12 concerts was attended by more than 100 individuals as Fieldhouse took the stage. Members of this local band continued their musical education at Berklee College in Boston, Massachusetts. 

 

 

WYLN TV: January 2012

Yotam Dror

 

 

 

The J.W. Cooper Community Center

 

 

 

 

 

Journalism Research Final Paper - 5/7/2012

 

Kent Steinmetz motions behind him. “These were stained glass windows at one point,” he explains. “They’re gone. Spiral staircase in the gym is gone…electrical system pretty much ripped out.”

 

A menacing five stories and forty-five thousand square foot building, the J.W. Cooper High School is among many structures in the town to sit in desolation. Once boasting over twenty thousand residents, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania’s population has dwindled down to fewer than four thousand. Built as a home for coal-miners, the town of Shenandoah is squeezed into 1½ square miles. The mining factories have always owned the land surrounding the town, so as the population rose in the early 20th century, the residents built inwards. Alleyways soon transformed into prime location for construction of new housing, and buildings began to grow skywards to accommodate new residents.

 

“This is the first community I’ve ever been in besides New York that had those sections of different ethnic groups,” says Steinmetz. “I’m not used to the big city. I know this is not a big city…but from my relativity it is.”

 

Built in 1917, the J.W. Cooper sat abandoned for two decades, until Steinmetz decided to buy the property in 2009. The borough had planned to tear the school down, but with costs being around $400,000 to do so, the decision was made to sell the building.

 

Although the building is almost in ruin, Steinmetz plans to turn J.W. Cooper into a community center. With bright eyes he describes his plans for the building such as fixing the auditorium for the Upper Schuylkill High School band and other performances. After acquiring the building, Steinmetz removed 20 tons of trash. Garbage flooded the gymnasium up to the basketball hoops, which he hopes to transform to a ballroom. The school’s dirt-caked swimming pool (the largest high school swimming pool of its time – Steinmetz notes) is envisioned to one day be filled with soil and become an atrium; complete with a fish pond and foot bridge.

 

However, Steinmetz dreams go beyond these communal settings. In an aspiration to help the dying town, he has set up several programs to help the residents. Several dozen stand in line outside the school waiting for its weekly food bank to open.

 

“People don’t need to give us any application to fill out,” he explains. “You just come in and take it if you need it.”

 

Today 40 residents come to take advantage of the donations, a number which continues to grow in the past year since the food bank started.

 

In 1939 George Leighton had already written of Shenandoah as a dying town in his book, Five Cities.

 

“Years of mismanagement and the competition of other fuels have done their work; miners have lost their jobs. Mechanization and the introduction of strip mining added to the number of jobless miners…many of them will never work again,” Leighton writes. “This once-prosperous anthracite town is rusty, dingy, mournful, too melodramatic to be desolate. The Shenandoah City Colliery, its windows broken, its stacks smokeless, is a wild ruin”

 

As the mines closed the population of Shenandoah plummeted, cut in half between 1950 and 1970.

 

“If I hadn’t lost my job at the time, I probably wouldn’t be back home [in Shenandoah],” says Al Bronk. “Businesses were closing, a lot of old timers were passing on, a lot of empty homes in town…at that point in time you notice it but ‘eh, it’s going be fine. It’s going to change, it’s going to change. And then it just escalates and got worse.”

 

Born in 1946, Bronk has lived in Shenandoah most of his life, and is uncertain of the town’s future.

 

“Technical jobs are few and far in between,” he says. “So if you go to school and get an education, odds are you’re going to have to move…if you want to bust your ass loading trucks here you are.”

 

Many who choose to stay in Shenandoah must work outside the town, such as the parents of 18-year-old John Cizelak. Originally planning on attending West Virginia University next year, for financial reasons he will now be going to nearby Shippensburg University to study forensics.

 

“Shenandoah is not the only coal mining town going down,” says Cizelak. “But you can tell it’s not what it used to be.

 

“A lot more stores, a lot of different things to do, the area used to be very active, and now it’s sort of on the downhill,” Cizelak explains. “That’s mainly what I’ve heard…to me it’s pretty much been the same for as long as I can remember.”

 

Bronk and Cizelak are members of the Polish American Fire Company #4, one of the five volunteer fire companies in Shenandoah. The required minimum age to join was once 21, but Jon was one of the first to join as a “junior member” at 16. It is openly known that there is a fear such fire companies will collapse with the declining population, so policies have changed to grab new members.

 

While being Polish is not a requirement to join, the majority of the fire company have followed in their families’ footsteps as members and are of Polish decent. Although this ethnic pride in Shenandoah has brought groups together it has also created long divisions within the town.

 

“To look at Shenandoah now is like seeing a great stratified cliff, with layer upon layer of races and bloods laid down by succeeding waves of immigration,” writes George Leighton in Five Cities. “At the bottom a layer of English, Welsh, and German stocks. Next above comes a broad belt of Irish; and on the top, a huge stratum of Russians, Poles, and Lithuanians and their descendants, the bulk of the town.”

 

Although predominately Catholic, the residents of Shenandoah go to their respective ethnic churches; whether it be Polish, Irish, Lithuanian, etc.

 

“If you go to Saint Stan’s, they’re the Polish church.” says Valerie McDonald. “They kind of look at you like ‘what are you doing here?’ You’re not a member of Saint Stan’s.”

 

These historical ethnic divisions became national news in 2008, when three high school students were charged with beating Hispanic Luis Ramirez to death. For a small town never in the limelight, the publicity of this story still haunts the town.

 

“Some people want to be left well enough alone,” says Steinmetz. “They don’t seem to like change; don’t seem to like people not from the area…they’re still a little skeptical of my whole project.”

 

Steinmetz home is in Schuylkill Haven, 20 miles away. His wife has a degree in gemology, and together they own several jewelry stores in the area. Steinmetz had originally bought the J.W. Cooper to turn into a new store, yet wishing to help the town he has decided to help locally owned businesses join his building.

 

“If you have an idea to run a business or want to start a business and you’re currently unemployed, you can have one of these classrooms,” explains Steinmetz. “Once you’re ready to open up we’ll help you get permits or licenses you need. We don’t charge any rent for three months… we have yet to charge anybody more than $100 a month for rent.”

 

When completed, the J.W. Cooper plans to host a number of businesses; including a coffee shop, an antique store, and a recording studio.

 

Yet with Steinmetz ambitions he unfortunately must grasp reality. In 2009 he believed he would receive grants from the government to help the restoration of J.W. Cooper, however they have fallen through. Steinmetz explains 90 percent of the workers are volunteer and most money put into the building is his own.

 

“A lot of folks believe we actually did get grants,” he says, “because we’ve accomplished a lot so far, with really nothing at all. It’s just the backbone of the community.”

 

He laughs, “who knows, maybe the economy will improve…and the governor will say ‘hey, here’s half a million dollars. Put it towards your building.’”

 

The community of Shenandoah has been trying to revitalize both its image and the quality of the town itself. A blue band sits on Bronk’s wrist reading ‘Remember one town, one family.’

 

“After that media frenzy beat the crap out of us, it really made us look worse,” says Al, “and I know that the town is not like that.”

 

Acknowledging that the completion of the J.W. Cooper Community Center is far off, Steinmetz remains positive. “What are the chances of somebody who has really nothing, I have very little means, to have the opportunity to possibly turn a building into a community center? I just hope I can see it through. And if I can’t I hope someone else can.”

 

Sources:

 

Al Bronk 570-449-3267

 

Valerie McDonald 570-462-4643

 

Kent Steinmetz 570-617-8920

 

Jon Cizelak 570-462-4159

 

Leighton, George Ross. Five Cities; the Story of Their Youth and Old Age. New York: Harper & Bros., 1939. Print.

 

POSTED ON SCHUYLKILL COUNTY VISITORS BUREAU

 

Event: Open House Benefit Concert for the J.W. Cooper Community Center

Event Date: 07-07-2012

Time: 7:00 PM - Whole day

 

Description: Shenandoah -- An open house benefit concert for the J.W. Cooper Community Center, White and Lloyd streets, is set for 7 p.m. July 7 in the center auditorium, featuring noted vocalist Leilani Chesonis. Tickets are $6 each and will be available at the door or in advance by calling 570-617-8920.

 

The first Cooper Classic Golf Tournament is set for Sept. 30 at Mountain Valley Golf Course, Barnesville area. Anyone wanting additional information or to sponsor a hole should contact Mike Godynick at 570-985-9832. Anyone wanting to tour the Cooper center is welcome to stop by anytime the center is open, according to Kent Steinmetz, building owner, who is working to revitalize the former high school building into a regional hub for business, recreation, entertainment, arts/crafts, business incubation and even stress release via an atrium.

 

Note: The concert was canceled due to ADA issue. The golf tornament went as planned and raised money to benefit the Youth Cener. From July, 2012 until present, the center has been closed to the public and 7 businesses have been closed.

The Cooper - Movie

Posted March, 2013

 

      Two students from Temple University have been visiting Shenandoah toW create a documentary on the borough, with a particular focus on the restoration work at the former J.. Cooper High School.

December 3rd, 2013

 

Schuylkill Community Action and the volunteers of the Shenandoah Area Food Pantry are currently exploring all options for partnership in the borough in developing a new Shenandoah pantry site. With the abundance of space in the lower level of the Cooper Center there is a strong potential for a distribution site and storage area to be put in place. SCA staff and Network volunteers are grateful for this cordial welcome and eager to see renovations and approval by code enforcement for public access.

 

The Shenandoah site is one of the 3 largest Schuylkill Food Network sites in the County and has over 2400 points of service annually. The Network as a whole served more than fifteen-thousand County households last year counting repeat visits. This is the highest annual count recorded and due in part to the fact that many of the 18 sites are adding extra distributions to their schedule. In addition to carrying out more pantries, volunteers have had increasing numbers of families visiting. Those seeking help with food include seniors and many with children as well.    

 

Jason Schally

Program Operations Specialist

Schuylkill Community Action

225 North Centre Street, Pottsville, PA 17901

Telephone: (570) 622-1995

Fax: (570) 622-0429

Schuylkill County Food Distribution Network

© 2013 J.W. Cooper Community Center

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