Reviving Small, Appalachian Towns with Local Assets

Walking down the streets of Greensboro, Pennsylvania, it feels a bit like a ghost town. There are houses, business signs, a post office, but only two cars drive by in 10 minutes and no one is walking the streets.

The small town in southern Pennsylvania is just across the West Virginia border. It sits on the banks of the Monongahela River, surrounded by small hills and patches of trees. In years past, the town has weathered the boom and bust of a pottery industry, river trade and coal. Lately, it has been more bust than boom.

But now, some artists are trying to stimulate the local economy using what they know best: creativity. They are all part of the Greensboro Art Cooperative – a non-profit art collective.

The Co-Op

Shane McManus, a West Virginia native, is the founder of the co-op. He’s spent his life immersed in music and arts. Now at 31 years old, McManus is trying to use his love of the arts to revive the town.

“Our goal is to preserve the past, but promote the future. Through using what the past has given us, we can create really beautiful art in our small Appalachian towns, which in my opinion is diminishing,” he says.

One of the buildings of the Greensboro Art Cooperative. This building features finished pottery, as well as a pottery room, bike room and wood-working room.

Three buildings on the main street of Greensboro make up the art co-op. The quiet atmosphere of the town abruptly changes when one walks into the former ice cream parlor turned ‘Music Shop,’ where McManus and his friends play music.

The entire room is filled with artwork and antiques. There’s a stone chair shaped like a hand, porcelain dolls lining the bookcases and a boar’s head hanging near the ceiling.

Live old-time Appalachian music fills the room. McManus and his friends Niko Kreider and Evan Collins are playing the tune called “Water Bound.”

McManus playing guitar in an impromptu jam. He is well-known in the region as a musician.

The co-op not only provides a space for artists to sell their work, but it’s also a space for artists to create. There is a woodshop, a bike shop, pottery room, music room, painting area – anything an artist wants to do there is likely a tool for it.

Members pay a $200 lifetime membership or the equivalent in labor, and profits from wares made at the co-op are split 50/50 with the artist.

McManus says the goal is for the co-op to be a centerpiece for Greensboro, where the population is down to 249 people. He wants the co-op to be a reason for people to come visit, and a reason for people to stay.

“Getting them to see hope, where there was none. That’s why people leave, to find greener pastures,” McManus says.

History of Greensboro

Greensboro was once a thriving town with a rich artisan history. It was originally settled by German glass blowers in the 1700s.

Evan Collins (left) playing music with Niko Kreider (right.) The ‘Music Shop’ was formerly an ice cream parlor.

It is also right on the Monongahela River, so it was part of a major river trading route.

Greensboro’s mayor Katie Sill says she’s heard stories of the early days when a hotel stood right by the river.

“At one point a circus came down the river and they had an elephant in the lobby. It was a booming and bustling town,” Sill says.

In the 1800s, the first large-scale pottery operation opened in Greensboro. The wet, muddy soil near the river creates rich clay — perfect for pottery.

“A lot of these New Geneva or Greensboro pots you see on Antiques Roadshow that go for $30,000 to $40,000 were made right here,” McManus says.

In fact, it is not rare to find 200-year-old pottery today. The co-op has preserved an original kiln used by settlers.

Finished pottery from members of the co-op. Profits from wares are split 50/50 with the artist and the co-op.

But, as artisans moved away and trade moved away from rivers, Greensboro became less relevant. It made a slight comeback in the coal industry in the mid-1900s, but Sill says that too has disappeared.

“Some buildings have fallen into disrepair or [have] been torn down,” Sill says. “There are not really many businesses left in the town.”

The Economics

In some ways, Greensboro is not that different than many small Appalachian towns, where the coal industry, which was once a driving economic force, is now declining.

This leaves many towns without a sustainable economy, much like Greensboro.

Tim Ezzell is a research scientist at the University of Kentucky, and he focuses on asset-based development, which, as he explains it, means “using the assets you have at hand or at your disposal, basically what your community already has in place. Your local talents, resources, skills, art, heritage and using those to create economic opportunities for people in your community.”

Ezzell says concepts like the co-op can grow a town, but it has to be done realistically. As in, it is not cheap, it can take many years, it needs momentum and, most importantly, the local community must be accepting of change.

“Change is hard and you have to be willing to accept change in order to move forward,” he says.

And Greensboro Mayor Katie Sill says the town is ready for that change.

“We’re all really hopeful that we’ll get that next wave of whatever that wave will be,” she says. “Something new to bring a little bit of bustle into the town. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be quite the same, but every phase is different.

Co-op merchandise for sale. On cold days McManus uses a space heater to keep rooms warm.

And the co-op is relying on local assets to try to bring about that next wave. Members are fixing up old store fronts to use as studios. They’re also using local clay to create art.

“Everything is donation, all of our resources have been found, donated, upcycled and recycled,” McManus says. “It’s really amazing what you can put together just with what you find around.”

As for operational costs, McManus says he’s been quite fortunate. His father, Keith McManus, has funded most of the co-op. A former mayor of the town, Keith is something of a musical legend in the region because of his involvement in the old-time music community over the years.

Looking Forward

People can be assets too, and in many ways Keith himself is one of the town’s greatest resources.

Because of the financial cushion, and Keith’s arts and music connections, McManus says there is not a push for co-op artists to mass produce and or even sell their work. Rather, they can focus on creating art.

A bust of Keith McManus in the former ice cream parlor. Keith has helped fund much of the co-op.

“Our goal is to stay within a tri-county, if not a tri-state area. We don’t want to branch out as far as what we sell on the internet. We’ve purposely held out to keep our wares locally,” McManus says.

During the past eight years the co-op has renovated Greensboro’s old, abandoned theatre into a studio space. And it has 65 members — some from the Appalachian region, and others from across the world. Many are people McManus has met through work in the music and arts industry.

McManus says the co-op has given some of these artists a reason to either stay, or come back to create in Appalachia.

“So many of my peers and friends have had to go and move out of the state, out of Appalachia where they are from just to find a studio,” he says.

So artists come and go throughout the year — whether it is for an impromptu jam, to fix their bicycle or to make their next piece of pottery. Sill says this is important for the town.

“They breathe that extra bit of life when they are there,” she says.

The next goal for the co-op is for artists to work and live in Greensboro, but right now it is not fully developed.

The studio spaces are a little rough around the edges, and the storefront is still more of a working space. McManus hopes to renovate two buildings into a coffee shop and restaurant, but he says it takes time.

It takes time to create change, to bring Greensboro’s artisan history forward into the modern day. And it also takes a vision, like the ability to find strengths and assets in unlikely places.

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.

Are small towns the next best place for artists? Greensboro is betting on it

In November 2015, Non-Profit Quarterly asked the question, “Are Small Towns the Next Art Districts?” One rural town in western Pennsylvania hopes the answer to that question is a definitive, “Yes.”

Artists and musicians are often a neighborhood’s “early adapters.” Drawn by low rents, they move into neglected urban areas and open galleries and cafes. Patrons, tourists and affluent new residents follow. Previously empty streets bustle with commerce; overlooked areas become “cool.” Great for everyone, except of course the artists and other longtime residents who can no longer afford the rents. What’s an artist to do?

Well, they’re adapting again. Some creatives are even turning to rural towns. These municipalities often have historic spaces ready to be repurposed as studios, apartments, galleries and musical venues at costs lower than in metropolitan areas. There is also an incentive for these communities to lure artists: The towns get an infusion of energy and a more dynamic economy. The ideal result is a “brain gain” of new ideas and optimism, counteracting the “brain drain” these towns have suffered for decades as younger people move away. Once the artists arrive, they also help a region attract residents and visitors who value cultural amenities.

The historic Davis Theatre in Greensboro, PA is being transformed into an artist collective.

One such town is Greensboro, Pennsylvania, located on 124 acres along the Monongahela River in southern Greene County. Dubbed “Delight” by the Mingo Indians because of its rich soil, Greensboro once boasted a thriving pottery industry. These days, the town has only a smattering of businesses, most notably the popular Captain’s Watch Inn. But it also has beautiful natural landscapes, a preserved historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Properties, a boat launch providing access to the river, lovely hiking trails, and a weekly summer Farmers’ Market. In addition, it’s home to some visionary residents, including Mayor Keith McManus, himself an accomplished artist and musician.

“In Greensboro, there is a real sense of community. The artists and musicians teach each other and are really generous with their craft.” – Mitch Hall, sculptor & musician

After working for 10 years as a professor at nearby West Virginia University, McManus was disheartened to learn that only two percent of his art students were making a living in the field after graduation.

“They lose the space to create and the contact with other artists,” he explains.

His goal is to give that spirit of connection back to young people here in Greensboro so they can work together and support themselves through art and music.

Historic Greensboro

Six years ago, McManus bought the old Davis Theatre on Greensboro’s main street along with a deserted restaurant and recently closed book store. As a member of the River Town Program, Greensboro was able to obtain a grant to restore the theater’s facade.

Meanwhile, work continues on the interior. The building has stood empty since the 1950s, and during renovations McManus uncovered a stamped tin ceiling and a hidden loft in the soon-to-be artist cooperative. Apartments are under construction on the second floor. Other plans include a woodworking shop and bike shop on the first floor, a pottery studio in the back, artist studios in the loft, and room for a gallery in the front.

McManus currently lives in the old restaurant which he also uses as a studio. He hopes to find someone to run it as a viable eatery and venue showcasing local musicians like his own bands Stewed Mulligan — with whom he has played for 40 years — and the Red Turtle String Snappers. He envisions the bookstore as a coffee and smoothie shop; the space currently houses his eclectic collection of instruments and antiques. Most are for sale. McManus and other local musicians offer guitar, fiddle, banjo and voice lessons there.

Keith McManus, mayor of Greensboro, and Dan Levenson, award-winning musician from Pittsburgh.

Through the nonprofit Greensboro Arts Cooperative, McManus is on the lookout for other artists, craftspeople and musicians to assist with the rehabilitation. Thanks to his son Shane and a few young recruits, progress is steady but slow. McManus is not deterred.

“There is an old Asian proverb,” he says. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

“How do you enhance the quality of life in your community? That is really the question every artist asks.” – Mayor Keith McManus

To help lure future tenants, Cathy McCollom of the River Town Program has begun working with Shauna Soom, Executive Director of Touchstone Center for Crafts in Fayette County. Soom took young artists on tours of the communities along the Monongahela River and distributed a survey to gauge their interest in particular areas. Partnering with the River Town Program to find locations for artists to live and work in rural communities fits with Touchstone’s mission of boosting working artists.

Greensboro may be just the place for some of these up-and-coming creatives. It certainly is for Mitch Hall, a wood sculptor and musician who currently splits his time between Greensboro and Pittsburgh.

The erstwhile book store in Greensboro

“Greensboro gives artists and musicians a place to escape and unblock the creativity of their minds,” he says. “In Greensboro, there is a real sense of community. The artists and musicians teach each other and are really generous with their craft.”

For example, Hall learned a lot about doing inlay work from local resident Wyatt Fawley, a sought-after banjo maker.

“How do you enhance the quality of life in your community? That is really the question every artist asks,” adds McManus. “All art is looking for the right palate and figuring out what to do with it. Right now, my palate is fixing up these buildings and bringing positive energy through art and music to my community.”

It’s working. On a recent afternoon, Dan Levenson, an award-winning player of old time music from Pittsburgh, stopped by for a quick impromptu banjo and fiddle concert. A regional sculptor was commissioned to create a visual homage to Greensboro’s past at the town’s entrance. The annual “Art Blast on the Mon” — going into its second decade– is scheduled for September 3 and 4, 2016. Sponsored by Nathanael Greene Community Development Corporation, the two-day festival features art in all mediums, alongside musical entertainment and food.

Pablo Picasso said that art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. As artists and musicians come to Greensboro, a town built on craftsmanship, they are renewing Greensboro’s soul and washing dust from the heart of the town.



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.