Santa in Uniontown

Joe Hardy ran for county office to revive his community--even if he had to pay for it himself.

Two years ago, the streets of downtown Uniontown, Pennsylvania, were lined with boarded-up buildings and vacant lots. Once booming with millionaires from the coal and steel industries, the town--along with surrounding Fayette County and much of western Pennsylvania's rust belt--was barely surviving. As Mayor Jim Sileo describes Uniontown then, "Oh my God, what a dump."

Then Joe Hardy stormed onto the Fayette County Board of Commissioners at the age of 80. Founder of the 84 Lumber company, a $3 billion-a- year business, Hardy lives about 15 minutes from Uniontown at Nemocolin Woodlands, a four-star resort that he has spent more than $100 million on in the past two decades.

Declaring that he was "tired of bitching" and wanted to get involved, Hardy easily won election that November after pouring more than $500,000 into his campaign for a relatively obscure office. He promised to revitalize Uniontown, vowing to emulate George C. Marshall, the local son and military hero who led the effort to rebuild European cities after World War II.

Hardy started smaller, with a crusade to upgrade Uniontown's physical appearance. But he went to work right away. Rather than waiting for government grants, Hardy simply asked business and property owners to submit bids to him for funding improvements. If he liked the ideas, he paid for much of the work himself. After six months, Hardy had spent about $4 million.

The result: More than 80 percent of the businesses in Uniontown's main loop had new windows, signs, awnings or other façade changes. About 850 American flags were flying above new benches, parks and fountains. "It's unbelievable," says Sileo, who has been mayor for 10 years. "People can't believe it when they come back. They say there's no way this can be the same city."

Then Hardy launched the second phase: an effort to draw businesses into the newly attractive but still mostly empty buildings. Much of this also came out of his own wallet. He spent $2 million to buy several abandoned or troubled properties, turning one former "nuisance" bar into an upscale restaurant and drawing up plans to demolish other properties and build a public amphitheater and park. He is contemplating investing $5 million into a venture capital company designed to draw innovative start-up companies into Fayette County. Meanwhile, other businesses are moving downtown, 12 new ones in the past year.

Hardy's first two years as a county commissioner haven't been a complete fairy tale. Prior to taking office, he admitted to a lack of interest in much of the county's routine work. There are grumblings that a man who travels almost daily in his private jet isn't accessible enough to constituents. And preservationists have lamented some of the planned tear-downs.

But it's hard for Fayette County residents to dwell on the negatives when Hardy--who has said he plans to die broke--is donating so much of his fortune to his hometown. "We spent a lot of years sliding down," says Muriel Nuttall, executive director of the county Chamber of Commerce. "It's nice to sit here and say we've seen bottom."