American Recreation Coalition Offers 2018 Outlook

American Recreation Coalition has offered the Outdoor Recreation Outlook 2018 which offers specific economic impacts of the growing outdoor recreational market.  The report states:  “ the $36 Billion U.S. boating industry is seeing some of its highest sales in nearly a decade.” According to the report this is results from “Economic factors, including an improving housing market, higher employment, strong consumer confidence, and growing disposable income, are creating a golden age for the country’s recreational boating industry.”

Click here to download the piece.

Lessons from the “Pickle People”

Reviving an 1870 general store and so much more

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mark Olenik of Venango, PA (population 242) and talk about his family’s approach to business and community. Mark, his wife Tracey, and their children are affectionately known as the “Pickle People” because they got their start in business by selling artisanal pickles. They’ve since worked to open a general store, a bakery, and even start a Saturday market.

Their location in Venango, Crawford County along French Creek puts them in a “Creek Town.” We thought that some of what they’ve done in business may be of interest to those of you located in the Mon River Towns. We’ll consider it a Creek Town / River Town idea exchange (and do hope that some of you may offer some ideas back their way).

Before we get to the “lessons,” first some background:

The Oleniks decided to convert a family tradition of curing pickles into a home-based business, the Lititz Pickle Company. By their fifth year of business, their products were carried by more than 20 stores and specialty markets throughout the Mid-Atlantic. The family made the decision to seek a commercial property in 2012, and that’s when they found Venango, 300 miles from Lititz. Mark said that the vacant Oddfellows building kept showing up in real estate searches and they decided to take a look. Of the building and community, he said, “We came up and we fell in love with it.” (More on this later.) The family has been busy ever since renovating the property and taking on other community improvement projects. The store is not yet open for business. The building, he said, was in “utter disrepair” and they’ve been working on renovations since 2012. By the looks of the “before” and “after” images here, they are nearly there.

Lesson #1: See a Community for its Strengths

Make no mistake. Venango is a small town without any defined business district. There’s a public library and now the Sweet Treats Candy House, operated by the Oleniks’ daughter Brittany. There’s a family-run farm stand and also a couple of golf courses and Sprague Farm & Brew Works on the outskirts of town. That’s it. And yet the Oleniks saw all that was wonderful about Venango. They saw the golf courses, the brew works, and canoers and kayakers floating French Creek, and to them, that added up to opportunity. They’re not only seizing opportunity; they are creating it, which leads us to Lesson #2.

Lesson #2: Embrace and Create Community

A quick perusal of the Venango General Store Facebook page reveals that the Olenik family is committed to the community. They occasionally offer a “shout out to locals,” like this one: “Doug Sanner will be in town doing some rototilling. If you’d like your garden tilled let him know – $25.” Or the one about a spaghetti dinner raising funds for a youth program. It’s these kind of things that back up the Venango General Store’s stated mission. Of this, Mark said, “We view this as much more than a general store. We put our business case together to revive the town. By restoring an anchor building, our hope is that others will want to invest.” And it seems that they have. Mark shared stories about property improvements being made around town.
While it’s clear that the family has embraced (and been embraced by) the local community, they have also taken steps to create a sense of community. In May, they started the Venango Saturday Market. Located next to the general store, the market gives artisans, crafters, and growers who may not otherwise have an outlet the opportunity to set up in a high-traffic area. (Although the community is small in size and population, the busy two-lane state route 6/19 passes through town.)

Lesson #3: Seize Business Opportunity Where it Exists

You may have noticed that the Oleniks have gone from running an artisan pickle company to also opening a bakery and (soon) a general store. The bakery is a no-brainer. Brittany Olenik’s banana doughnut with a chocolate ganache was about the best doughnut we’ve ever had. One must go with their strengths. About the general store, Mark and Tracey saw the need for more than barrel-aged pickles when visiting Venango. There was (and remains) a need for groceries, and their business plan morphed as a result. Sweet Treats will eventually be moved into the general store, reducing the family’s overhead costs and also making another property available for business. This is a family with a business plan.

About the Area

We were curious about how Mark viewed the area in general, so we asked him where he would take any visiting friends and relatives. Without hesitation, he said that he’d take them on a canoe or kayak trip on French Creek. “The scenery is absolutely beautiful, it’s an easy float, and you don’t have to be an expert to do it. And there are a lot of migratory birds in the area that can be spotted from the creek.” He went on to talk about the area’s rich history and other nearby towns (Cambridge Springs among them).
We all travel differently. The hook that brought us to visit Venango last month was the nearby Erie National Wildlife Refuge and the prospect of a beer on the porch of Sprague Farm & Brew Works. Too cold for a paddle, that day’s trip consisted of the wildlife refuge (hook), a beer (reward), and a doughnut (reward). Mon River Town friends – what are your area’s “hooks” and rewards?

Balancing Nature and Commerce

Conference in West Virginia
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.

Bald Eagles Along The Mon

With more and more work going into the care of the Monongahela River and the creeks and waterways throughout western Pennsylvania, more and more wildlife is making its way into our area. You’re sure to spot a multitude of birds and fish during your Mon River journeys – and if you’re really lucky, you may just spot a bald eagle!

Once an endangered species, this beautiful national symbol has bounced back since 1963, when only 417 mating pairs of bald eagles remained. As recently as the 1980s, only three bald eagle nests existed in Pennsylvania.

Today this fish-eating raptor is no longer considered endangered, and it’s estimated that 7,066 nesting pairs live in the U.S., primarily in sections of Alaska, Canada, and the northern U.S. As for Pennsylvania? The eagle population has bounced back tremendously, to the point that tracking the eagles can be quite difficult.

About The Bald Eagle

Bald eagles are well recognized for their brown body and white head and tail. If you spot an eagle with this plumage, that means that eagle is over 5 years old. Prior to reaching full adulthood, bald eagles are speckled brown-and-white. As with all raptors, female eagles are larger than their male counterparts.
Bald eagles love fish, which is why they are most commonly spotted near bodies of water. These eagles are opportunistic hunters, however, and will also catch birds, rabbits, and squirrels if they aren’t having any luck fishing.
Bald eagles mate for life and pairs are very territorial during their breeding season. Incredibly, the breeding season of eagles can occur any time between October and May, depending on the exact location of the eagles and the climate in that area; the local Hays neighborhood bald eagles were seen laying eggs in the month of February last year.
During the month (or even three months) before their mating season, bald eagles build a nest in a tall tree or on a cliff that’s near a body of water. The eagles use the same nest year after year, adding twigs and grasses to the nest to strengthen it each season. As a result of this repeated use, nests may become very large, up to 13 feet tall and ten feet across.
Once the nest is ready, bald eagles will then lay two or three eggs. After an incubation period that is just over a month long, the eaglets hatch, and spend the next ten to 12 weeks growing in their nest. After 6 weeks the eaglets are old enough to fly, although they do not reach full adulthood for several years. Incredibly, these eagles can live up to 50 years, assuming they avoid severe sickness or injury.
While some bald eagles migrate great distances seasonally, local Western Pennsylvania pairs are not very migratory, as they can find plenty of food throughout the year. Nearby eagle pairs likely will not migrate unless food becomes scarce, and even then, it would just be for a short time and distance. They may only go as far as Maryland, where there is a small winter colony of birds.

Sights Near Us!

It’s one thing to read about bald eagles and another to see them during local nature hikes. Fortunately, as bald eagles continue to recover, visitors to our Mon River communities have reported more and more eagle sightings. For example:

Visitors and staff have reported seeing up to four bald eagles at a time soaring above the Youghiogheny River, particularly between the Yough bike and pedestrian bridge and the point where the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers and Laurel Hill Creek merge. Locals report that visitors are likely to spot ospreys, red-tailed hawk and turkey buzzards during visits as well.
The owners of the Yough Tree House were lucky enough to snap a photo of two bald eagles – one perched about eight feet above the other one – in a tree near the Yough Tree House.
Locals report that bald eagle sightings are a common occurrence in Confluence because there is a variety of food sources, especially since the fish commission stocks the Yough, Casselman and Laurel Hill Creek.

More Sightings Coming Soon?

The National Aviary in Pittsburgh was recently consulted about the possibility of eagles in the Mon River Valley. According to experts, the Mid Mon Valley could definitely be the next location for an eagle couple to select for a territory and nest.

An eagle matures around the 4th or 5th year. The Hays pair (which nests near the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail around Pittsburgh) has been mating in the area for five years. There is also a pair of eagles in Harmar and by Canonsburg Lake. With new birds growing in the surrounding areas, it is the Aviary staff’s opinion that in the next few years, there will likely be at least one pair in the mid Mon.

Interestingly, eagles tend to select areas that do not have hiking trails. They avoid human interaction and do not like ATVs. However, things like trains and other industrial equipment do not bother them. They seem to be able to distinguish from a non-threat and a potential human threat.

Sighting Eagles Safely

If you plan on looking for eagles during your next trip along the Mon, we ask that you consider the land and animals you will be interacting with and plan accordingly. Since eagles do not tend to nest near trails that are used by humans, you will need to prepare to view any nests from a distance. Attempting to leave an approved trail for a closer look could put yourself in danger and drive away these beautiful birds. And it’s especially important to not try to climb into an eagle’s nest, both for your own safety and to avoid disrupting the eagle’s habitat and family. Having binoculars on hand is the best way to see these beautiful birds without getting too close (i.e. within 1,000 feet). Respecting the land they live in and not straying far from local trails is also very important, as is respecting all local property laws.

A Special Announcement

Have you come across any of these majestic animals on your hikes? Snap a picture and enter our Instagram Photo Contest! Post your Bald Eagle photos using the hashtag #RTPEagleSearch2017 for a chance to win a weekly $25 gift card. More information on the contest and rules can be found here. If you unable to get a photo, we would still love to hear where you are seeing the eagles. Please direct message the Mon River Towns Facebook page, @RiverTownProgram, with the location, date, and time of day with your sightings.

Ready to plan your trip? Skip the “nature hikes near me” Google search – you can visit our website any time to find a list of towns and trip planning resources!

Business is rollin’ on the river in Charleroi

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.

Bringing Back Brownsville

There is a lot going on in the once sleepy towns along the Monongahela River. Visitors and residents are discovering the myriad opportunities for outdoor recreation and heritage tourism. Boat launches and docks, biking and hiking trails are being built and historic sites restored. And Brownsville, one of those historic River Towns, is leading the pack.

Just 35 miles south of Pittsburgh, Brownsville — founded in 1814 — was once a major player in the nation’s steel industry. And much like Pittsburgh, as the steel and related industries waned, so did the town. Its population, close to 10,000 in 1940, is less than 2,500 today. As citizens moved away, many of Brownsville’s lovely buildings fell into disrepair and its historic downtown into ruin.

A number of local properties — Bowman’s Castle, Dunlap’s Creek Bridge, St. Peter’s Church and the Flatiron Building — are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Brownsville was also one of the first meeting places for the participants in the incendiary Whiskey Rebellion. But this charming hamlet isn’t content to only have a remarkable past — it has a burning desire for an equally remarkable future.

And the fuel that lit that fire came from some of this old town’s youngest citizens.

Kids These Days

In 2011, a group of six Brownsville High School students approached chemistry teacher Kelli Dellarose with concern about the low morale of their community. Dellarose helped the students form a “Students In Action” club, launching what she thought would amount to little more than a standard class civics project. Now, close to five years later, Brownsville’s “Students in Action,” a youth leadership program sponsored by the National Jefferson Awards of Public Service, is much more.

The original students and those who have since joined did so to help bring their town back from the brink. The challenge put to them — “How do you want to make yourcommunity better?” — turned the high school civics project into a community-wide, nationally recognized catalyst for the resurgence of Brownsville.

Andrew French, head of the Redevelopment Authority of Fayette County, worked with the students as a fiscal agent and attended many planning sessions as they formulated their ideas.

“The downtown area of Brownsville has been blighted for decades, essentially for these students’ whole lives,” explains French. “Yet they still felt real pride in their community and did not want to see their downtown remain a desolate place.”

The students settled on an ambitious project: build a downtown park with benches, walking trails and a stage for outdoor performances. The planned location is directly across from a 24-unit housing development with first floor retail to be constructed by TREK Development Group. Named for their school mascot, the students called their effort “Operation Falcon Revitalization” and crafted a mission statement — “Revitalize Brownsville by increasing morale and tourism, and by bridging the generation gap of our once flourishing community.”

“Money is usually attracted, not pursued.” – Jim Rohn

For their plan to come to fruition, they needed money, and these students did more than just sell hoagies and hold bake sales. They partnered with local and county government; worked with McMillen Engineering and LaQuatra Bonci Associates, a landscape architectural firm from Pittsburgh, on the design of the stage; and created relationships with major philanthropic agents.

Brownsville Mayor Lester Ward credits the enthusiasm of the students for “putting Brownsville back on the map.”
And they weren’t the only ones working towards that goal.

“The student project coincided with the Redevelopment Authority’s acquisition of more than 20 downtown buildings through eminent domain,” explains French.

The park project fit with the plan to demolish some of those buildings to open up the town center and unveil Dunlap’s Creek Bridge, the first all cast iron bridge in the United States. The desire to revitalize Brownsville’s historic downtown got the attention of large funders in Pittsburgh — most notably The Heinz Endowments and UPMC Health Plan. Both contributed generously to the initial planning stages for TREK’s downtown housing project and the student park project.

The Redevelopment Authority of Fayette County received a $175,000 state grant for the students’ project. According to French, Brownsville Borough contributed $3,000; $20,000 came from the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau‘s Fayette County Tourism Grant. By approaching local businesses and holding fundraisers, the students raised an additional $23,000.

It all comes together at “The Neck”

Henry Ford said, “Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.”

In Brownsville, they’re definitely pulling for success.

A Brownsville resident herself, Muriel Nuttall, executive director of the Fayette Chamber of Commerce and vice-chair of Brownsville’s Planning Commission, has a real stake in the success of the current projects. She is most excited about how the student work dovetails with other projects in development.

Major funders from outside Brownsville saw the combination of housing, retail and outdoor space as exactly what the town needed to sustain itself with new tax revenue. Nuttall agrees.

“Additionally, the involvement of the students helps bolster the needed community support, which is very much in favor of the current projects,” adds Nuttall. “The community is very excited.”

Redevelopment does not come without tough choices. There was debate around preserving historic but dilapidated buildings or demolishing them and starting from scratch. For the area where the National Road passes through town as Market Street — known as “The Neck” — the Planning Commission worked with outside consultants to reach a hybrid decision: save what could be restored and remove less architecturally viable buildings.

Though TREK will construct one structure to fill the space on Market Street formerly occupied by a long shuttered G.C. Murphy, the façade will appear as three tall, narrow buildings, mirroring the look of its historical neighbors. Across the street will be the students’ park, providing a gathering place for the new residents, shoppers and visitors.

“Seeing how committed the students are, how they have kept at it, demonstrates to us, as a private investor in the community, that, if the students care that much, there is a future here,” says Trey Barbour, senior project manager at TREK Development Group. “The students are inspiring; they make us want to be better, to do better, to be more motivated ourselves. They have motivated the whole town.”

Joe Hackett, principal of LaQuatra Bonci, agrees. The landscape architectural firm was brought in by the Heinz Endowment to work with the students on the design of the park stage. The new design incorporates salvaged trusses from a nearby train station slated for demolition.

“The design is now more iconic,” enthuses Hackett. “Part of Brownsville’s past is being repurposed for Brownsville’s future. The students had the dream. We just helped them dream bigger.”

In the summer of 2013, Hackett was there when the students presented their vision to a group of philanthropic foundations, including Heinz.

“It’s hard to get one foundation in a room, let alone five or six,” he says. “These kids raised the excitement level. Everyone wanted to contribute. It was really incredible.”

And that has been noticed way beyond the town’s borders. This year, the Brownsville Students in Action team earned the Jefferson Awards Foundation ranking as the top ambassador team in the nation out of 325 schools in contention. Their Jefferson Award video shows why these incredible students were so successful.

More to Come

Other revitalization and preservation projects in Brownsville are in the planning stages or already approved for funding and implementation. PennDOT has committed to the renovation of Dunlap’s Creek Bridge. A capital campaign is underway to renovate and expand Brownsville’s library, and resources are being sought to restore Central Park and to design a walking trail bordering Dunlap Creek. Outside consultants and agencies — The River Town Program and The National Road Heritage Corridor (NRHC) — are also working within the community to continue the progress.

“We are pleased to have played a role in bringing TREK to town,” enthuses Donna Holdorff of the NRHC; the organization has been engaged in Brownsville since its formation in 1994. “The students’ vision, along with other investments being made here, truly are bringing Brownsville into a new era. Hopefully, this is only the beginning of great things to come!”

As in Pittsburgh, there is talk of a renaissance afoot. Residents, including its youngest, believe in their community, take pride in their town, and want to make sure there is a reason to stay there.

“These kids truly are Students in Action,” says French, “They rolled up their sleeves and made something happen.”

 


 

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.

Rebirth on the Monongahela River

For those who love the mighty Monongahela River — affectionately known as “The Mon” — it being named “Pennsylvania River of the Year” in 2013 was just the beginning. The 130-mile-long waterway, the historic small towns along its banks and the Mon River Valley as a whole are fast becoming a hub for recreation and tourism.

Once a bustling commercial passage, The Mon is coming back to life. Along with the occasional coal barge, a visitor to the water’s edge is likely to see canoes, paddle rafts, kayaks and fishing boats as more people discover the fun to be had on this beautiful waterway.

And along the banks of the river, from the town of Monongahela all the way south into West Virginia, sit towns rich with historic significance — some buildings even date back to the Revolutionary War. In the second half of the 20th century, as the industries that helped build these towns faltered, jobs and populations were lost, leaving only the history behind. Those towns became places to drive by, not destinations to drive to. Now that is changing as these charming hamlets cultivate economies linked to the region’s growing sustainable tourism industry.

That burgeoning outdoor recreation sector — comprised of paddlers, fisherman, hikers and bikers — draws on the unique natural assets of the region. Each community on the banks of The Mon is unique, but they all share a historical connection to the water that runs through them, and they’ve decided to band together.

“Everybody gets it,” explains Elizabeth Menhart, tourism director of the Greene County Tourist Promotion Agency. “They all see the value in collaboration to market the region. It is opening doors to what is possible.”

A historic foundry at Rice’s Landing

Towns throughout Washington, Greene and Fayette Counties are all working towards revitalization.

“The towns are seeing more interest in access to the river,” adds Menhart. “We haven’t made a big splash yet, but we are getting our feet wet.”

Strength in Numbers

Thirteen towns along the Mon joined together in 2013 to form the Mon River Valley Coalition. The organization’s tagline — “Come Down to the River and Play” — says it all. By acting as a region, civic leaders can leverage funds and gain public support for the infrastructure improvements and amenities needed to attract recreational tourism. The coalition is led by Cathy McCollom, principal of McCollom Development Strategies, LLC, and Donna Holdorf, executive director of The National Road Heritage Corridor.

“The Coalition was formed to bring attention to the Mon River as a destination for recreational tourism,” explains McCollom. “That use brings a new, growing and sustainable economy to the region. We are spreading the word that the river is no longer just an industrial highway. It is a magnificent resource.”

“The settlers of this area came via the National Road and The Mon was the first river those folks had to cross.” adds Holdorf. “That history makes our involvement a natural one. Our mission is to assist these communities in achieving their own renaissance, similar to Pittsburgh after the decline of the steel industry.”

 

Of the 13 towns in the Mon River Valley Coalition, many — such as Point Marion, Greensboro, Rices Landing, Fredericktown, Brownsville, California, Charleroi and Monongahela — also participated in the River Town Program. That initiative, created by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) and directed by McCollom, worked to foster respect for the important role rivers play in our quality of life in Pennsylvania.

Through participation in the River Town program and membership in the Coalition, the individual towns can join forces to develop a regional identity. The communities share expertise and resources with each other, and post their event calendars and sample tourist itineraries for the public at a central website: www.monrivertowns.com.

With guidance from local and state legislators, McCollom and Holdorf helped the Coalition design a Master Plan. That framework will enable the region to raise the dedicated funds needed to develop both heritage tourism and outdoor recreation. The Coalition has already secured over $270,000 from public and private philanthropic sources.

Of the funds raised, $27,000 is earmarked for signage — that way tourists can locate these out-of-the-way towns. Other funds are being used for infrastructure such as accessible riverside docks and parks, as well as marketing the region to its new target market: the outdoor recreation enthusiast.

If You Build It, They Will Come

The small town of Rices Landing in Greene County is easy to miss. It has a population of 460 and no businesses to speak of. But the town has a particularly lovely green space with river access that puts it on any paddler’s map.

“We don’t have business, but we have the river and always have,” explains Rices Landing Mayor Ryan Belski. “We participate in the Coalition for the quality of life for our residents, and for the region and neighboring town’s businesses. And now we have kayakers — we never had them before.”

And it’s not just those paddlers.

“Since the coalition got underway, many more bikers and hikers are using the Greene River Trail, which has a trailhead in Rices Landing,” he adds. “We don’t keep hard numbers, but it used to be pretty quiet out there on the trail. Now it is often busy; the county runs 5K races. There are definitely more tourists here.”

In 2013, with encouragement from the River Town Program and the Coalition, Rices Landing’s Riverfest was resurrected. In 2014, the tiny town hosted 6,000 people and over 100 boats for a two day celebration of life on the river. This year’s Riverfest — set for June 12 and 13 — will feature food vendors, children’s games, six live bands and fireworks at the dock.

A few miles north in Washington County, Fredericktown now has a popular dedicated riverfront park. Many local businesses, including a variety of restaurants, are thriving due to their proximity to the water, and participate in the hamlet’s own Riverfest. Ten Mile Creek, a popular paddling spot, is accessible from Fredericktown as is the Greene River Trail. The town also has boat launch access and public docks for fishing.

Dennis Slagle, head of Fredericktown’s Chamber of Commerce, is excited about the growing popularity of The Mon as a tourist destination.

“This region has lived through the ups and down of the coal industry and the steel industry,” he recalls. “Now ripples of a downturn in the natural gas industry are being felt. But the river is a constant.”

A few miles south of Rices Landing sits Greensboro, a historic town founded in 1781 and renowned for its pottery. In addition to river access, Greensboro has its own walking trail along The Mon and a trailhead for the 67-mile Warrior Trail which runs south to Moundsville, West Virginia.

“The river is just like an additional interstate that boaters can use to travel between Fredericktown, Rices Landing and Greensboro,” explains Menhart.

Improvements are also being seen in the town of Monongahela, home to The Aquatorium, a 3,700 seat amphitheater on the banks of The Mon. Eight bands are already scheduled for the upcoming “Rockin’ on the Mon” summer concert series. Coalition funds are being used to improve the venue, including making it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At the March 2015 meeting of the Coalition, Donn Henderson, borough manager of Charleroi, enthusiastically outlined an initiative being launched in his town: a riverfront project aimed at attracting live/work development, luring recreational and creative business owners to fill vacancies in Charleroi’s historic buildings.

And much more is underway: Accessible docks have been funded by a grant from the Commonwealth Finance Authority and will be installed along with the directional signs in Fredericktown, Charleroi and Monongahela. Grants are also in the works to improve the central park and wharf docks in Brownsville; West Brownsville recently joined the Coalition and is developing a Master Plan.

Come and See For Yourself

Still not convinced to add the Mon to your travel itinerary? Well, May 2015 is a special month: It has five weekends and the last one occurs after Memorial Day. The Mon River Coalition will launch its summer season on that fifth weekend. It’s a great time to get acquainted with the region: A three-mile paddle is planned, and the valley’s towns will be offering up local food, live music and general fun.

Come down to the River and Play!

 


 

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.