At the end of the 19th century, Belgian immigrants settled along the banks of the Monongahela River in the town that would become Charleroi, Pennsylvania. Among them were quite a few glassmakers, and glassmaking became one of the primary businesses in town. It remains so today.
The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (today PPG Industries), had one of its major factories located at Charleroi’s Chamber Plaza; at one time it was one of the largest glass factories in the world. For the last 50 years, Charleroi has also been home to the makers of Pyrex cookware. The company, which just celebrated its 100th anniversary, remains the second largest employer in town.
Charleroi was also known as a thriving retail hub. Shoppers came from all around — even from Pittsburgh, 21 miles to the north — to shop in the busy downtown commercial district.
“Going downtown on a Saturday when the stores stayed open until 9 p.m. at night was a big deal when I was a kid,” recalls John Jeffries, 63, who grew up in Charleroi, as did his mother before him; his aunt owned the Colonial Floral & Gift Shoppe. “There was not a single thing you couldn’t buy in that town. The streets were packed on a weekend night. People came into Charleroi and spent their money.”
But as happened in many small western Pennsylvania town, “the malls came and the mills went,” as Jeffries puts it. Visits home to see his parents became disheartening as he saw the empty store fronts proliferate. “I’ve always been a river guy, a water guy. Here was Charleroi, and nothing was left alive but the river — and the town had its back to the Mon.”
Not anymore. Charleroi is an active member of the Mon River Valley Coalition, and has embraced the organization’s Business Attraction agenda. The Coalition is a consortium of 13 communities bordering the Monongahela River working together to promote river recreation and other outdoor activities while connecting to the rich heritage of the towns. The goal is to increase recognition of the Valley as a great place to live, work and play.
Led by Borough Manager Donn Henderson, Charleroi is using its location and its most valuable assets — the Mon River and the historic buildings in its downtown district — to attract new businesses.
Henderson credits the River Town Program, an initiative that predates and complements the Coalition, with bringing a lot of players to the table: state and county officials, the community and private funders.
“Because of participation in the River Town Program, Charleroi is learning how to effectively use the river toward its economic revitalization,” she says. “The Mon River Valley Coalition encourages communities to look at the river in new ways. In Charleroi we have a tremendous opportunity to open our riverfront to new development and connect it to the historic commercial district.”
The borough helps business owners locate a building right for their needs, and offers guidance on the purchase and rehab, or with leasing.
“Charleroi is not going to become a booming retail sector again anytime soon,” adds Henderson. “But we can attract other businesses to our available office space downtown. We are appealing to and getting a lot of interest from a wide variety of artists and artisans, outdoor recreation and heritage tourism businesses, and service-related businesses that don’t rely so much on traditional foot traffic.”
Henderson and Charleroi are serious about helping the town’s small businesses grow, and they’re using a diverse slate of tools and incentives. Tax credits are offered for locating in undervalued downtown properties (information can be found at the borough’s website).
In addition, Henderson, River Town Program Director Cathy McCollom and Donna Holdorff, executive director of the National Road Heritage Corridor, recently announced an initiative to encourage new and existing business to expand in the Mon Valley: the Sustainable Marketplace for Arts and Artisans, Recreation and Trending Businesses or SMAART.
The program provides educational workshops, professional technical assistance and hands-on services to entrepreneurs. SMAART is also holding a Business Plan contest starting on August 1, open to all River Towns; three prizes of $10,000 in cash and services will be awarded. Because Charleroi took the lead in this exciting economic venture, two of the three prizes will go to businesses located there. (Click here for details and requirements to enter.)
SMAART is supported, in part, by a $65,000 grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). An additional $35,000 was provided by the Mon River Valley Coalition.
Charleroi is also hosting “UpTo Mainstreet,” a pop-up education program and resource center for small businesses from July 20 through July 31 at an empty storefront downtown. UpTo will provide a free one-on-one marketing strategy session to all participants. Entrepreneurs can also choose from a menu of low cost assistance in design, social media and public relations, including logo design, press release assistance and social media consulting. (Online appointments are encouraged; visit whatareyouupto.org.)
“Charleroi is a perfect location for this pop-up” says Jennifer Highfield, a partner in UpTo. “Because of the SMAART program, folks in Charleroi are ideal candidates for our services. They are already in the business creation and expansion mindset. It’s really unique.”
UpTo is also offering a professional “head shot” photo session with photographer Joshua Tarquinio at a greatly reduced price on Wednesday, July 22 and Wednesday, July 29 between 4 and 7 p.m. (Schedule your photo shoot here).
The Resource Center and the SMAART Business Contest are financed in part by a grant from DCED’s “Discovered in PA, Developed in PA” program. Additional support came from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation through the National Road Heritage Corridor, the fiscal agent and lead partner for the Mon River Valley Coalition.
Once businesses locate in town, Charleroi wants them to thrive. The borough acts as a liaison between landlords and commercial tenants when necessary, and helps business owners procure interns through institutions such as California University of Pennsylvania. Charleroi used funds from oil and gas revenues to install surveillance cameras and protect downtown businesses from vandalism. Business owners joined together and chipped in for the installation of more cameras.
Startups and existing businesses don’t have to go it alone. The Manager’s Office operates a website that provides entrepreneurs with information on grants, loans, workshops and planning. It highlights local businesses and provides links to valuable resources. The Mon Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce is located in Charleroi. In 2012, a group of business owners and the Greater Charleroi Community Development Corporation joined forces to form TEAM Charleroi, promoting community and business development.
When those first Belgian immigrants saw the Mon River Valley and built the town of Charleroi, they knew they had found a great place to ply their trade. The manufacturing engine that once drove the community’s commerce may have moved on, but the Mon is still there, along with the opportunity to grow a successful business in this town on its banks.
WENDY DUCHENE is an attorney with offices in Allegheny and Somerset Counties. She is also an avid user of the many hiking and biking trails in western PA, where she can often be found on her recumbent bike or walking her dog Sander.
This story was created in partnership with the Keystone Edge.