Getting to know Connellsville

On October 8th, the Pitt Appalachian Teaching Project team took a trip to Connellsville, where we acquainted ourselves with some of the city’s most prominent assets. Starting the day at the Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass factory, we were able to witness parts of the process for creating sheets of colored glass that end up everywhere from church windows in Utah to art glass distributors in Osaka. As one of very few colored sheet glass manufacturers in the world, the Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass Company fills a global niche and is supported by the natural resources that are endemic to Southwestern Pennsylvania, including silica sand and coal to fuel furnaces.

Sheets of colored glass exiting the cooler at the Youghiogheny Glass Factory

Tristan Triggs, the second generation of this family business, noted that the onset of the pandemic opened an unexpected door for Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass—he posited that more and more people began picking up glass art as an indoor hobby in a time when even grocery shopping could pose a major health risk. Consequently, the factory greatly expanded its workforce and has seen unprecedented amounts of domestic and international business. The company does well to highlight the fascinating process of sheet glass manufacturing in offering factory tours while honoring Southwestern Pennsylvania’s historically entrenched position as a glassmaking capital of the world. One of the possible next steps for Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass in its renaissance may be to offer workshops or classes in order to engage with the community and cultivate meaningful connections that will anchor Connellsville residents to the area.

Glass manufacturing is a complex and rather particular process—finding a renewable source of energy to power the factory’s furnaces while still stimulating the local economy and honoring the region’s assets would prove to be a much more complicated next step for Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass. This echoes a dilemma that much of Appalachia and its historically industrial cities face: how to move forward with businesses that complement the city’s legacy while preserving the integrity of the region’s beautiful natural resources.

Our second stop was the Connellsville Canteen, a combination lunch café and history museum in the heart of the downtown area. The Canteen is a project of the Fayette County Cultural Trust, the organization with which the ATP team is working. This establishment has been the cornerstone of the Connellsville community for generations, keeping the city’s dearest traditions alive through an extensive collection of wall-to-wall WWII-era artifacts and photographs. In some ways, the Canteen is to Connellsville as cafés are to Paris—it serves not only as the perfect stopover for hungry travelers of the Great Allegheny Passage, but also as a convivial meeting place that symbolizes all things Connellsville.

A mural beside the Connellsville Canteen displaying some of the most noteworthy facets of the city—perhaps most apparently, its public artworks

            During our time at the Canteen, we were able to sit and chat with some of Connellsville’s most notable figures, including Mayor Greg Lincoln. If there is one thing that was made certain to us as visitors in Connellsville, it was the tight-knit community and shared pride that each resident feels toward their city. After some time enjoying lunch at the Canteen, Michael Edwards, president of the Fayette County Cultural Trust, presented the ATP team with information about some of Connellsville’s most significant redevelopment projects. This helped us to understand what the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority, in addition to the community at large finds to be most crucial in defining the city’s trajectory. As was made evident by Edwards’ presentation to the ATP team and other conversations we engaged in with the community, one of the most pressing needs in fostering economic growth in the city is not only attracting new businesses, but also retaining or drawing in young working populations that will help sustain these redevelopment efforts through their contributions to the local economy. The sentiments we heard from those at the Fayette County Cultural Trust, as well as from individual community members certainly concur with the ideas presented by our class readings that a sense of bottom-up ownership and efficacy throughout the process of redevelopment is invaluable in both providing the community with what it needs and wants most, but also in ensuring that it remains connected to the city amid an ever-changing landscape.

             Visits to other local businesses like the Connellsville Community Ministries thrift store and food pantry, a brand-new Comfort Inn, Pat’s Bridal Boutique, and the Appalachian Creativity Center further enlightened the ATP team with their perspective on the role they play in the community, as well as the possibilities they see for Connellsville’s future. The Connellsville Community Ministries—unmistakable evidence to the community-oriented nature of the city—serves their neighbors not only in providing material goods to those experiencing financial insecurity, but also in increasing accessibility and visibility to local educational and career-training programs.

            My team spoke to Patricia Wilders, the owner of a bridal boutique in downtown Connellsville that, by all accounts, seems to be a long-standing institution in the area. Her insight lay not only in what local business owners see as the city’s main assets, but also in her personal anecdotes as a longtime resident of Connellsville. In an almost strikingly serendipitous reflection of what the ATP team read in our assigned articles about Appalachian “brain drain,” Mrs. Wilders detailed the story of her son’s experience moving out of Connellsville and into a city where he perceived there was exponentially more opportunity along his career path. With her recognition of the positive and productive developments being made in beautifying the city and capitalizing on its recreational assets, Mrs. Wilders feels there is more yet to be done with improvements to business infrastructure and bringing corporate jobs to the city.

            The Comfort Inn demonstrated the degree to which bikes and Great Allegheny Passage users influence the identity and consciousness of modern Connellsville. A sculpture which predates the hotel’s construction stands distinctly in front of the new Comfort Inn in an unspoken testament to who (and what) may truly reign over the city’s character. The trail, in addition to the Youghiogheny River, appear to provide a sizable proportion of Connellsville’s revenue, as well as a decided majority of the hotel’s guests. At first, I was relatively surprised to see the degree to which bikers and outdoor hobbyists are at the helm of the city’s economic prosperity, but as we made our way through the city and witnessed its many natural beauties and assets, it wasn’t difficult to understand why this may be. The difficulty presented by this, however, is how to sustain this type of economic prosperity during the off-season for these outdoor hobbies.

The brushed steel sculpture that stands just in front of the new Comfort Inn

As an enthusiastic supporter of all things arts, I was both surprised and delighted to see just how much of an impact public artwork has on Connellsville. One of the businesses that was most representative of this was the Appalachian Creativity Center. This establishment, as it notes on its webpage, is “more than just an art gallery.” Works by artisans from across the Appalachian region are displayed with pride both in-store and online—co-owner (and manager of the Connellsville Canteen) Ann Nicholson mentioned that high school students collaborate with her to run the business’s Instagram page. This type of community participation is fundamental in forging the groundwork that will encourage the retention of the youth population. The robust partnerships it holds with area schools like the Career and Technical Center and resources it provides to youth from the Highlands Hospital Autism Center place it at the forefront of beautifying the city in a meaningful way while engaging with the community.

Connellsville is a palimpsest of all the different roles post-industrial Appalachian communities play along the path to revitalization. With roots in a booming coal and coke industry that are visible today mostly through skeletons of factories and historical artifacts, the city is growing into a more service-oriented economy that is undergoing constant transformation. Burgeoning efforts to redevelop Connellsville rely on nourishment from the recreational assets that the city’s position on the Great Allegheny Passage and the Youghiogheny River provide it. The question now is whether recreation is an asset extensive and productive enough to function as the foundation for economic development, or if there are other pieces needed to reinforce sustainable and endogenous growth. One way to facilitate this growth is continued exchanges with community members about the types of developments they would like to see most, in addition to what they see as the city’s most valuable assets. This is especially important with the district’s schools—Connellsville’s future lies in the younger generations, and if the city’s leadership is able to use their tight-knit community feel to engender positive experiences and opportunities for young people at the source, surely economic growth and development will be soon to follow.

With the continued prevalence of the digital age, it is more and more pertinent that cities and their assets are internet-equipped and accessible to strengthen their ties to the younger generations. The important work that Sharon Jones, Downtown Connellsville Liaison from the Fayette County Cultural Trust, does in keeping businesses connected to their potential markets is just one part in affirming Connellsville’s relevance in the region. Focusing on expanding social media presences, promoting partnerships between local high school students and businesses, and invigorating the available online resources provided by the city will not only benefit prospective residents of Connellsville, but also reiterate the importance of local youth in their community and encourage them to stay and continue their contributions to the city. Connellsville is a font of many diverse assets—giving both high-achieving and “at-risk” students opportunities to thrive and stake the claim to their hometown will prove beneficial to everyone in the city.

As for the ATP team, the next steps are almost equally as clear-cut as they are complex. Building and maintaining trust with community stakeholders remains paramount, as does open and constant communication. Surveys and conversations that are more focused on specific topics that were illuminated by our trip certainly await us, along with inquiries to talk with community figures we were not able to meet during our first trip. A working list of Connellsville’s most central assets will be rather easy to draft, but we must also consider how these assets currently work together, and the capacity for new collaborations to form. Additionally, we must use Connellsville as the template with which to create a larger-scale list of assets for the entire county. The importance of Connellsville’s history is apparent at every level of the city’s structure. Now, our primary objective is to assist in finding ways to not only honor the history of Connellsville and Fayette County as a whole, but build upon it to ensure that their future will be bright.

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