On our last visit to Connellsville, PA, the team encountered several community assets, ranging from glass producers to tourism encouragers. Rather than put the businesses in any old pecking order, I’ll array the assets in the order I encountered them. Other groups visited varied locations, so, hopefully, in the end, each person’s list will appear a little differently.
The first business to consider as a community asset is the Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass Company. Local to Connellsville and situated downtown, it serves as a large employer for the area, totaling about 14 employees. They provide a niche product that brings people to the town from all over the country. During our visit, the current owner boasted their international presence, indicating that they have customers from Russia to South Africa and other places worldwide.
The second community asset we visited was the Connellsville Canteen. While here, Daniel Cocks and Michael Edwards of the Fayette County Cultural Trust presented us with their collections of historical documents and objects that spanned most of the interior walls. This location seems cherished by the people who are invested in it. During our visit, I didn’t get a chance to speak with people voluntarily eating at the restaurant; however, I expect they would have good things to say. I think more communal opinions on what the Trust is doing with the Canteen would be interesting to hear. Also, Daniel and Michael introduced the team to the Mayor, Greg Lincoln, and the Chief of Police, Chief William Hammerle. These people seem to be community assets based on what they provide for the community. As a note, it was mentioned that the town was hiring new officers, expanding the department. This expansion seems like something they’re proud of—and they should be. It’s better than shrinking.
The following community asset was the newly built Comfort Inn. This year, the hotel is under new management, and they’re focusing on providing more niche needs to the bicycling/hiking community they serve. This business offers a landing zone for funeral-goers and bikers/hikers on the Great Allegheny Passage trail. The Comfort Inn’s tie to the trail seems to be its largest drawl. It’s located on a street that appears to have plans for 2 (?) restaurants to open, indicating an eventual draw of higher foot traffic to this sect of the neighborhood.
The fourth community asset we visited was the Community Ministries Thrift Store. We spent less time here asking questions; however, the man in charge was happy to give information. Currently, the thrift store serves as a necessary business in the community—it provides support to all who need it. For being in a community within an economically distressed county, people who live here are fortunate to have such giving people nearby. They provide goods (such as food/clothing/money) to families through their food pantry, thrift store, and bill support service. They turn incredible profits for only being a thrift store. As a non-profit that aids explicitly local families, It’s a great asset to the community.
Next, my group broke off from the larger assembly and visited Pat’s Bridal Boutique. Compared to the other businesses, Pat’s seemed more independent. She provides a tangible good of dresses, and people come specifically for that. She’s been in business for many years, so I would define her business as an asset to the community. Her business brings spenders into the community. She provides the town with more than just bridal work—she also works with proms and other dances.
Additionally, Pat didn’t seem highly tied to other businesses in Fayette County. Her connections were with other bridal/dress shops in other parts of the country. At present, I can’t see a way to embed her more into the community. Lastly, she noted that although nearby storefronts were filled with goods and appeared open, their owners had only been present a few times out of the past couple of months, indicating a lack of utilization of the spaces.
The final asset my group visited was the Appalachian Creativity Center. Here, the management seemed very tied to the community. They hold programs for adults and children throughout the community. They prepare hands-on projects that encourage engagement within the community. When thinking about preventing brain drain from a young age, this type of community outreach and tie-building seems effective. Here, they’re doing more than putting together crafts—they’re building relationships and strengthening bonds. Inside, speaking with the various people, it felt like a family of artisanal friends. They effectively use social media for advertising their programs. A woman we spoke with here heavily emphasized that the businesses in Connellsville that stuck together during the pandemic were the ones to see the other side. I’m not sure what other businesses the Appalachian Creativity Center was linked to or how they would mutually benefit each other. Still, it would be interesting to follow up on this.
The most surprising part of the site visit was how friendly and generous most people were in Connellsville. People here wanted to talk, share their stories, and answer questions. Once the people and business owners realized how engaged our team was, they opened up more and searched for ways to aid our cause. For example, at the Appalachian Creativity Center, one of the owners, Anne Nicholson, contacted her daughter, who works with at-risk youth in the community and represents a young voice. Her daughter, whose name has since slipped from my memory, drove over and stayed to answer questions and offer input on what she thought the community needed. In short, she told our group that the thing Connellsville lacked was healthy eating options; however, I suppose a lack of healthy eating comes alongside economic distress. With a well-used food pantry up the street, it doesn’t seem like many people would be able to afford to keep a fresh market or juice bar open.
Most of the businesses we visited that would be considered assets don’t seem to aid the county’s “brain drain” issue directly. Like Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass Company and the Appalachian Creativity Center, businesses don’t necessarily engage or rely on STEM graduates—they’re artisanal & crafty. Apart from making the world a visually more appealing place, they contribute to tourism and building community ties (in some way or another). Other assets, like the Comfort Inn and Connellsville Canteen, directly work with tourism—and specifically not with STEM. They encourage the retainment of history and encourage people to pass through. These locations allow people to quickly enter and leave Connellsville, leaving only a taste of the town in visitors’ mouths. In short, the community’s assets aren’t ones in the scientific or technical fields, indicating the town’s participation in “brain drain.”
Although the Appalachian Creativity Center isn’t part of a technical or scientific field, it’s still strengthening community ties with the younger generations. Building crafts and working on art projects might seem trivial; however, they must play some role when the alternative is nothing. Additionally, Ann told us that the Center has beautified and fixed interior spaces and offices for free. They could expand this to allow younger generations, perhaps middle school students, to take part. Allowing the young adults to earn volunteer hours by investing in their community would encourage them to build stronger community ties.
Based on this limited experience in the community, my initial thoughts towards spurring economic development in Fayette County is to find some way to encourage significant technology and science-based companies to move into Connellsville. Of course, this is much, much easier said than done. During our initial conversation with them, Daniel and Michael mentioned that Fayette County does offer various incentives to businesses starting and those wanting to transfer; however, these don’t seem like enough. Where there’s an entire country of small towns waiting for large businesses to invest, why should they pick Connellsville? Tough question. There will be no immediate changes; however, Connellsville seems to be heading in the right direction—though, the town’s heads do seem to focus a little too heavily on the arts and tourism, which are not industries that will sustain a city alone. The community has reasons for outsiders to visit for a short while, like the trail and restaurants; however, it doesn’t have large businesses that encourage young people to move there for their entire lives.
Based on the information gathered during the site visit, I think we should begin compiling data and storing it systematically for the next steps regarding the project. From this data, we can start composing a written, sheet-form asset map, and we can make a visual asset map. Both of which could aid in our presentations to Connellsville and Washington, D.C. If we’re looking for more data points to assist in creating the asset map, I think talking to more (or the same) community members via telephone or Zoom could help us. It is, of course, the residents’ opinions that matter regarding what they see as most important. As I suggested a couple of class meetings ago, a survey for the townspeople would further benefit the creation of our asset map.