On May 3 -5, 2016, representatives of the River Town Program joined with the chairwoman of the Canal Town Partnership to participate as a team at The Conservation Fund’s leadership program: “Balancing Nature and Commerce in Rural Communities and Landscapes.” Held at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, the conference consisted of lectures by nationally recognized economic development experts followed by workshops conducted by the Conservation Fund’s facilitators.
Three teams, in addition to the River Town/Canal Town team, were selected to attend this program and benefit from the knowledge of a wide range of experts in numerous fields related to economic development in rural communities and small towns. Other teams were from Tucker County, WV, the Northern Neck of Virginia, and the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area in Illinois.
The River Town/Canal Town team consisted of Cathy McCollom, River Town Program director; Donna Holdorf, Executive Director of the National Road Heritage Corridor; Kent Edwards, an architect and principal of McCollom Development Strategies; Dennis Martinak, a 21 year employee of Mackin Engineering and a resident and councilman of Allenport, Pennsylvania, a town which recently joined the River Town Program;. Marla Meyer Papernik with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council; Lois Turco, chair of the Canal Town Partnership; and Wendy Duchene, an attorney and writer rounded out the team.
Over an intensive three days of lectures and workshops, the River Town /Canal Town team applied what was gleaned from the speakers to the particular needs of the towns in the Monongahela River Valley region. In workshops held over the duration of the program, including an intensive four-hour session on the final day, the team developed an action strategy and timeline for a trail project to connect and benefit a number of towns bordering the Monongahela River. Community meetings will be held in the near future to get public input on the proposed project.
Martinak, who has an extensive background in community planning, explained the lessons he took away from the conference: “There are opportunities for our communities to experience revitalization but it’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to work together, promote our assets, have a plan and support it, and use the resources that are available to us.” Martinak also noted that the towns in the River Town Coalition need to strive for responsible development and “look outside of the region for assistance when there are gaps in our expertise in order to move our plans forward. Image and quality of life are important to the future success of our towns. The way residents and business owners see their own community is key.”
Papernik agreed, stating: “Economic development, particularly as it relates to tourism, must embrace what is organically part of the community. There is nothing that can replace authenticity to engage the local population as well as provide for a rewarding visitor experience.”
A recurring theme of the conference was the need to focus on improving the lives of residents of small towns in a rapidly changing world. All team members noted this theme reinforced the goal of the River Town Program to work to enhance both the natural and community assets which already exist in the Monongahela River Valley towns and to rekindle regional pride in those towns. The River Town Program’s focus on outdoor recreation exists to enhance the lives of the town residents first, while also using those outdoor recreational opportunities to drive economic development.