By Jennifer Garofalo
Perennial Project founder Joe Barantovich had a simple goal: to clean up downtown Brownsville and plant some flowers.
Less than two years after it was founded, the nonprofit formed partnerships that are allowing students at Brownsville Area High School to use cutting edge technology to reimagine the borough’s once bustling downtown to aid in revitalization efforts.
“It’s amazing. There’s no other word for it,” said Barantovich, who worked as an educator in Florida for 40 years. “You can actually see history that isn’t there anymore.”
Fifteen high school students and several teachers have used laser scanning technology to capture the downtown Union Station Building. Now in disrepair, the building was built in 1929 by the Monongahela Railway.
With the help of photographs, students are able to re-create what it looked like at any point in time – even going back to the days when Brownsville residents used to take the train to Kennywood for the borough’s yearly community day at the amusement park.
The students are now learning about reality computing and gaming technology, said Mark Dietrick, director of services at Case Technologies in Carnegie.
“The idea will be that you’ll be able to ‘walk’ into this building virtually, as it existed back in its heyday,” said Dietrick, who is a consultant with the Perennial Project.
The students will spend time with those who recall the Union Station Building as it once was, and use the models and tell stories about the building.
“They’ll take that model and really bring it to life. They’re going to learn how to really make this thing spectacular on a gaming engine,” Dietrick said.
The goal is to make the Union Station model into an immersive experience using virtual reality goggles or a smartphone – and then move on to do the same with the borough’s other historic buildings.
With the technology, “You can re-create Brownsville back in the day, like when you couldn’t walk on the sidewalk (because it was so busy),” Barantovich said.
The experience not only accomplishes a high-tech version of historical preservation, but can also be used as a tourism and marketing tool, he said.
BASD Superintendent Dr. Keith Hartbauer said the project offers students hope that they can stay in their hometown – and become the next generation to carry forward its revitalization.
“With this technology, there’s no reason someone can’t work from home and still live in the town. What we’re doing all ties into that, and they can see it,” he said.
“COVID taught us we can be anywhere and do anything,” said Barantovich, who splits his time between Florida and Brownsville. “You can stay (in Brownsville) and you can still be an engineer or a landscape architect. You don’t have to leave anymore. The possibilities are limitless.”
The project also offers students real-life applications of the district’s STEAM (science, technology, engineering and math) education programs, Hartbauer said.
“It was a no-brainer for us. We felt that would be a great learning resource for our kids and a great opportunity for our community,” he said. “What our kids are learning in school is actually able to be put to the test.”
Hartbauer and Laura Patterson, a landscape architect who owns Exquisite Designs in Brownsville, were early supporters of the Perennial Project.
Patterson, too, believes strongly in the power of engaging students to become future stewards of the community.
“They’ve never known the community to have a vibrant downtown,” said Patterson, who has worked with students on art projects to further beautify downtown.
And at its core, that’s the goal of the Perennial Project: to restore the vibrancy that once existed in Brownsville.
Those driving its efforts know that requires a multi-faceted approach.
Community cleanups, like the first one in 2019 that drew more than 100 community members will continue; so will Barantovich’s initial goal of planting flowers.
But they believe projects like the scanning will help restore pride in the borough and draw people there.
“That sense of identity is shifting, and we’re no longer hopeless because the brick and mortar is crumbling. There’s a new energy and something else is about to emerge,” Patterson said.
Hartbauer, who said more than half of the district’s high school students have participated in Perennial Project endeavors over the past two years, agreed.
“We have to keep it going,” he said.
Barantovich said anyone who would like to contribute to the Perennial Project financially, or who would like to donate time or talents to their efforts can call him at 305-608-8230.
Jennifer Garofalo is the managing editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story is being simultaneously published. Readers may email her at [email protected]