MARS — A day after welcoming dignitaries to the borough to preview plans for the Mars Discovery Center — a public Mars and NASA educational facility — Mayor Gregg Hartung received good news.
“Mars has been awarded a $1 million grant,” Hartung said.
Hartung's first thought when he got the news was, “Oh, wow.”
The borough applied for a $2.25 million Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant in April to go toward both the NASA center and the town's Downtown Destination Project. Though the full amount wasn't awarded, Hartung estimates the money covers up to a fourth of the overall project.
“This is the start,” Hartung said. “(It will) give NASA the green light.”
The money lets the borough “get serious” about purchasing property for the center.
The plan is to buy the building along Crowe Avenue that houses the Woodland Valley Church. The details haven't been discussed, but Hartung indicated plans have been in the works. A key part of buying the building is finding a new place that suits the church.
“They're willing to consider that (move),” the mayor said. “They want to see it work, too.”
The property is valued between $400,000 and $450,000. It may be available for less. Hartung said the grant will help the borough hire engineers to assess if the building is suitable for the center or if another must be built.
NASA will be providing resources like speakers, displays and educational materials.
Hartung hopes the grant will be a “catalyst” that draws other Mars exploration groups. He has a specific organization in mind, but doesn't want to speak too soon.
The mayor expressed gratitude for the support the borough received from residents, visitors, businesses and politicians.
Without events that showed government officials what the borough has — and could have — Hartung isn't sure the borough would have received the funding.
“We had showed our potential with what we've done with ... NASA,” he said. “(I'm) extremely thankful to everybody.”
More information will be available as plans move forward.
In the meantime, the borough is figuring out the next step in the grant process.
“We'll keep rolling the rock up the hill,” Hartung said.
The announcement of the grant came just one day after Hartung toured the borough July 31 with local and regional dignitaries to review the opportunities the grant would provide.
Rick Vilello, the state Department of Community and Economic Development's deputy secretary for community affairs and development, voiced his support of the borough's pursuit of RCAP money for the Mars Discovery Center.
“My role is to be helpful,” Vilello said. “Our role is truly to just find ways to help.”
State Sen. Scott Hutchinson, R-21st, said he was “thoroughly impressed” by the idea of the discovery center. He recalled hearing a chief NASA scientist speak at the Mars New Year's dinner this year.
“It's very unique,” Hutchinson said. “And it's something I think is a brilliant way to capitalize (on Mars Borough).”
Ben Levenger, president of Downtown Redevelopment Services, was consulted on the project. He noted that bringing a NASA STEAM center to the borough will make Mars a “destination.”
“And give kids the ability to learn,” Levenger added.
Hartung told visitors that seven new businesses have opened in town. The tour recognized two of them: the architectural salvaging company Salvaged PGH and Stick City Brewing Company.
Salvaged PGH owner Brian Cooper is preparing to open a warehouse on Grand Avenue. Cooper, who repurposes old homes or industrial products, needs plenty of space to display and design his products. He found that in Mars.
“It's a booming area,” he said. “We felt that this was going to be (of) the best benefit to us.”
Cooper noted that although municipalities say they want small businesses, most make it difficult for small businesses to succeed. Applications, permits and ordinances get in the way.
Nick Salkeld and his family opened Stick City Brewing Company on Irvine Street in 2018. The location is equidistant from Salkeld's siblings in northern Butler County and near Pittsburgh. It also has good drainage, which is good for the bed of Cascade hops in front of the building. Salkeld noted that because the area is well-traveled, Stick City has been able to host food trucks and events that draw large crowds.
“Mars is just a great town,” Salkeld said.