Picture the Monongahela River. Now picture the towns nestled alongside it. Now ask yourself – are you picturing the towns as they are today? Or as they once were?
Change is constant, especially in this part of the state. If you haven’t visited the towns sitting along the Mon in the last two or three years, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you see the next time you pass through one. Many changes have taken place in these towns, thanks in part to the work by the River Towns Program.
The Mon River Towns Program works with communities bordering the Monongahela River to highlight Pennsylvania’s growing outdoor recreational market, and to make it easy to help residents and visitors connect with the beautiful river. The Program is presently an initiative of the National Road Heritage Corridor and was launched by the statewide Pennsylvania Environmental Council in 2011.
“These are towns looking at new opportunities,” Cathy McCollom, director of the River Towns Program, says about this region and communities within it. “They were once industrial towns. The Mon was and remains an industrial highway but it is now also a recreational river. With the changing economy, we help communities look at the river in a different way.”
The River Towns Program is dedicated to improving the visitor infrastructure in these towns. The first step in doing so is for community leaders and River Town Program staff to consider how the towns appear to travelers. For example, is there public access to the Mon River for visitors? Are there community parks next to the river or view corridors open to the river? Are there signs to direct traffic, and restaurants for families to enjoy? Are there historic buildings and cultural spots of significance and are they highlighted and accessible to visitors?
Since 2011, questions like these have driven improvements on infrastructure such as launches and docks, public access, signage, and added amenities such as public restrooms, public art and riverfront parks. Most importantly, communities have worked with Program staff to raise over $3 million, not only for these projects but also to market the region.
According to Cathy, “The projects have included canoe and kayak launches, riverfront parks, directional and gateway signage, improved public launches, riverfront landscaping and clearings, and multiple events such as summer riverfront concerts, festivals, and paddling events. With community leadership and organizational partners, we have led riverfront master planning, public art projects, and business attraction workshops – and have offered entrepreneurial business grants to encourage new businesses.”
And these efforts are paying off. Nature lovers – taking advantage of new boat launches and trails – are helping to bring outdoor recreational traffic through these Mon River towns. New businesses have opened in several of the communities. Gateway and directional signage is now more prevalent. Over two dozen pieces of public art have added a layer of beauty to towns and riverfronts. And River Festivals have literally sprung up across the map. At River Town Program’s founding, there were three such festivals in operation – currently, there are twelve!
But while our team can talk about this work all day every day, we truly think it has to be experienced. A visit to a river town during an event or a peaceful weekend of local travel is the best way to highlight local changes, and to experience the history. From green spaces to new businesses to local history spots, there is so much to experience in the Mon River Towns.