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Age-old small town challenge: How to get people to stop

September 17, 2018

EVANS CITY, Pa. (AP) — Last September Stephany Oliver opened the only coffee shop in Evans City, and most mornings Coffee Brake is buzzing with residents and the who’s-who of town.

But Oliver, 31, does not want to cater only to locals. The Butler resident is trying to broaden her business’s appeal — and that of Evans City — to the thousands of motorists who pass through town. Coffee Brake, as its name suggests, is a call to drivers to take their foot off the gas.

“It’s something I wonder about every day: How do we stop these 17,000 cars?” Oliver said, estimating the number of vehicles that traverse the small Butler County borough daily.

Located along busy state Route 68, Evans City is a drive-through town, seen by most visitors only by looking out their car window. It has roughly 1,700 residents and is less than one square mile. It only takes 15 or 20 seconds, barring any interruption from the two traffic lights, to get from one end of town to the other.

Business and local government leaders sum up the town’s primary challenge similarly to Oliver: “How do we get people to stop?” The question goes back centuries, considering the area’s transportation role. Over time, the town pursued ways — some successful and others not — to get people to stop.

Evans City, which dates from 1832, first drew attention in the 1870s with discovery of oil beneath its surface. As a hub close to Pittsburgh for both oil and farm products, it attracted people and commerce and an impressive system of transportation for a town of its size. That included a luxury trolley connecting the town to Pittsburgh.

Rita Schoeffel, the 90-year old president of the Evans Area City Historical Society, was 2 when the last trolley came to town in 1931. Even many decades after cars took the place of trolleys, she noted the town still has struggles from that change.

Lack of parking, she observed, “is an enormous problem.”

Whether due to parking or other reasons, city officials and business owners are challenged to get passers-by to stop. There are, however, a few positive exceptions.

Deborah Collins, owner of Sports & Spirits restaurant, said word-of-mouth advertising has helped her attract customers who would otherwise plow through town. Ms. Collins cooks 50,000 pounds of wings each year and has won “Best Wings” at Butler County WingFest seven times.

Tricia Wendereusz, owner of Wendereusz’s Candy & More, said chocolate-covered bacon and handmade, decorative lollipops have helped her build a following.

But few aspects of Evans City have earned it more attention than the filming of George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie classic “Night of the Living Dead.” Many residents were cast as zombies. Fanatics from all over the world descend on Evans City each fall for The Living Dead Weekend, a festival dedicated to the Romero film.

Mayor David Zinhann noted that one zombie-loving couple came from Australia to renew their vows at the chapel in the graveyard. He expects this year will be particularly busy since it is the film’s 50th anniversary.

While many in the town have done considerable work to drum up attention for Evans City, traffic can be “a double-edged sword,” said Rick Reifenstein, a retiree who has lived in Evans City for more than 30 years. Traffic helps to sustain local businesses when people stop, but the congestion can disrupt the flow of life for residents.

Still, Evans City has retained its white-picket-fence charm, fending off megastores, cookie-cutter houses and chain restaurants. It has also been insulated from the fate of Western Pennsylvania towns suffering from industrial decline and the opioid epidemic. While Evans City’s population has dropped since its 1980 peak of nearly 2,300, the decline is more modest than in many Western Pennsylvania towns.

As signs of its constancy, a full-service gas station still operates at one end of Main Street, and Mr. Reifenstein pointed out residents can have milk delivered to their front door.

But Reifenstein questions if Evans City can continue as it has for so long.

“A community like Evans City has to survive by keeping young people,” he said over breakfast at Coffee Brake. He credited the owner, Oliver, for building a modern business in a town that has been the same for many years.

Oliver said she plans to move to Evans City from Butler, and she hopes others do likewise while she keeps giving the community a jolt with her coffee.

“I don’t think people realize (what Evans City has to offer) because they are on their way to somewhere else,” Oliver said. “I wish we could put a giant neon sign above Evans City and say: ‘We are here. We are awesome. Come see what we have.’”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2NhXSW0

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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