While in Connellsville, we visited many sights recommended to us by our community partners at the Fayette County Cultural Trust. The most obvious community asset we identified on the site was the Youghiogheny Glass Factory. While not a large employer (the owners told us they had about 14 employees at the moment), the glass factory shines as a community asset because of its international business ties and the way it brings Connellsville onto the global scene. The stained glass sheets and glass products are distributed all over the world, including Japan, Australia, and a plethora of European countries. Another key community asset that may not be as obvious is the Appalachian Creativity Center. As mentioned on their website, the ACC is much more than an art gallery. Artists come to the center to work, sell their art, and inspire each other. By doing so, community ties are strengthened. The ACC provides a casual forum for community members to convene, and inevitably have critical discussions along the lines of the community, what problems they have, what needs to be done. Study upon study has cemented the importance of social groups in political thinking and collective action. Furthermore, artists of the ACC have partnered with other groups and businesses in the community, undertaking beautification efforts such as painting murals and offering group art classes for all ages. To further our identification of county-wide assets, the team should try to have a more complete understanding of the scope of the Community Ministries. While at the clothing store site, we learned that the Community Ministries is able to give back to the community only with the help of the community itself, and provides a network of support for struggling community members in any number of difficult situations. I believe it would be beneficial to explore the total reach of the Community Ministries because they have the most direct contact with those lacking in the county, as well as a vast network that they interact with and rely on for relief.
We know that Fayette county and neighboring counties struggle with the brain drain – skilled, educated young people are leaving the area because they are struggling to find jobs in their field. However, I was surprised to learn that other businesses in the area are struggling to find employees as well. Daniel told us about the frozen yogurt shop that is popular in the summer but forced to close come back to school season, because it is predominantly staffed by high schoolers. Potential new businesses that could open and persuade young people to stay by modernizing the variety and appealing to their interests (night clubs, healthy lifestyle industry) would struggle to take off because of the simple lack of manpower.
Our first goal for the very first semester of this research team is to create a deliverable asset map for Fayette county. The reading by Jake et al, Engaging community change: the critical role of values in asset mapping, is extremely beneficial for our purposes in that it acts as a sort of guide line for our actual work. Whereas some of the other studies we have looked at highlight the downfalls and limitations faced by Appalachian communities, this piece advises us on how to harness the resources that already exist within the community to spur economic development and foster change. We are not university students sitting on our high horse, riding into Fayette county to save their community. On the contrary; because we are focused on strengthening our relationship with the community members, we can see how they are using their assets and what they are most proud of within their home town. When we visited Connellsville earlier this October, it seemed that the first goal of asset mapping was already accomplished: “when communities create a narrative or identity based on what they can do and what they are doing right, community members become more engaged in the process, increasing their sense of ownership and willingness to take on leadership roles” (S. Jakes et al, 1). I personally thought that the Connellsville identity was very clear, because it was expressed to us by each community member we interacted with through their passion and pride. The glass factory, the Canteen, and the ACC were all impressive locales with equally impressive personnel who took pride in their creation and shared that special feeling with each guest they had. In addition to creating and running these establishments, each community member we connected with had a more in-depth role in the community, in fact taking on several roles instead of just one.
Based on our visit to the community and conversation with a community member our age named Samanta who recently graduated college, I initially believed that it would be necessary to attract young workers to the area to spur economic development. The issue of specialized jobs aside, Sam pointed out that there simply aren’t enough things keeping the younger generation interested in the community. In the ACC, we spoke to an artist who explained to us that the sense of belonging in the community is why people stay. However, there is too much of a generational gap right now and young people do not feel like they are part of the community, so it is easier for them to leave. Appealing to the interests of young people will provide more incentive for keeping and even attracting a younger workforce to the area.
At the moment, our top priorities remain building a strong relationship between the community in Fayette county and the University of Pittsburgh. It is interesting to think about what the next steps will be however, especially because we hope to be there for the next 10 or so years. I think it would be inefficient to only focus on the economic development of the community if we are ignoring the other issues. The opioid epidemic has hit rural areas hard, and if upon further research we find that is a problem in the area, we should adjust our efforts to provide support to the community.