Hi everyone! Today’s post is about our site visit to Fayette County, specifically to the town of Connellsville. This was such an insightful and fun day and I was able to learn so much from the community.
We began our day by visiting one of the town’s largest assets and employers- the Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass Factory. We learned that this glass manufacturer has been in Connellsville for two generations and ships its products across the country and the world. They make glass sheets and products for artists and for the stained-glass industry. The factory employs 14 individuals from the local area and is one of Connellsville’s largest employers. They obtain their raw materials from the area and utilize heavy machinery in the production of the product. This visit was followed by lunch at the Connellsville Canteen which is home to their prized railroad display that fills up a massive room. The Canteen also showcases their World War II memorial pieces and different artifacts from Fayette County veterans. It seemed to be a popular attraction for older residents and those who need a quick bite for lunch during the workday. Following this stop, we went to see the Comfort Inn that sits right on the Youghiogheny River. This 54-room hotel has become a popular stop for bikers that need a night of rest during their travels down the Great Allegheny Passage. The manager, Cheryl Babbit, explained that she was working on providing all the amenities that bikers would likely prefer during their stay- breakfast, showers, laundry, comfortable beds, bike storage, tire maintenance, etc. She stated that it was a popular destination for travelers and hoped that the summer months would provide enough cushion for the upcoming winter decline. With this area being catered to the biking trail and nature-focused, there is not much to attract individuals to this hotel in the wintertime. Right along the road of the hotel, we saw the G.A.P. Visitor’s Center which was a little kiosk right by the entrance to the trail. Then, we made our way to downtown Connellsville to see the shops and community ministry. The community ministry is a store that sells affordable second-hand clothing to those in need, and it is also where the local food pantry is. The store director expressed to us that food insecurity was quite significant in the town for some time but has since decreased with the help of the ministry and food pantry. Our group then broke up into groups to visit some small shops along the downtown strip. We went to Pat’s Bridal Shop, the Appalachian Creativity Center, Kiesel & Associates Accounting firm, and Atkin’s Music store. These store owners spoke with us about their businesses and how they were stable, but not thriving. They also expressed concerns about the lack of other types of businesses and how places kept opening and closing around them. Among these well-established places were a few more store fronts, several had been closed for months, some had irregular business hours, and some were also vacant buildings. Every single individual that we met was incredibly kind and willing to speak with us. It was a pleasure getting to know the community itself and all the people that lived there.
For finding the county-wide assets, we must look at the bigger picture of Fayette County. We can delve into different town websites and social media pages to look for what they have in their areas. We were able to do a brief introductory search for Connellsville so I believe that this research method can work for the rest of the county as well. There are quite a few assets in Fayette County such as the Ohiopyle State Park, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, different historic sites, and more.
The main thing that surprised me was the size and scale of the businesses around Connellsville. I found it very interesting that the owner of the glass factory was shocked at having 14 employees. He did not realize how many people he had working for him and how big the business had grown, even though it was less than 20 individuals. Each of the downtown stores had one or two people working, and they were the store owners themselves. I anticipated Connellsville being a small town, but I had never experienced one where there were so few people working at each establishment. This was also one of the main points of concern, being understaffed and not having enough people working to keep the businesses open for regular store hours. Cheryl from the Comfort Inn, as well as Frank from the Visitor’s Center, told us that sometimes they are not sure where to recommend tourists to go because the hours of the restaurants and shops were completely unknown. This is one of the main points that I would like to address in our research and figuring out how to get more people and more shops up and running in the county.
One of the course readings, “Explaining the “Brain Drain” From Older Industrial Cities: The Pittsburgh Region”, by Hansen, Ban, and Huggins linked very well to one interview that we did while on our site visit. The owner of the Appalachia Creativity Center and manager of the Connellsville Canteen, Ann, was one of the individuals we spoke to. She had a 22-year-old daughter who came to the creativity center to help and visit her mom. Samantha was born and raised in Connellsville, attended Waynesburg University, and then came back to work in the Fayette and Westmoreland counties. She works for a private consulting company where she does work with the city councils and attends the Chamber of Commerce meetings. She works with at-risk kids and teenagers in the area, teaches children in S.T.E.M. during the evenings, and helps her mom in the store when she can. Our group asked her about why she decided to come back to her hometown and what her thoughts were on the “brain drain” that we’ve been studying. Samantha told us that she was passionate about helping the kids in this area and that she found her work incredibly rewarding. She wanted to stay close to her family and continue the work that she had been doing in college, so she decided to stay in the region. She also told us that she moved with her friends just outside of Fayette County to Westmoreland County which had a few more amenities and attractions for younger people. A lot of what she told us was what we had read from the Hansen, et. al. reading. We saw that a portion of western Pennsylvania natives stayed in the area for the same reasons as Sam.
I also found major links to the Petrin reading as well. The Petrin reading talked about individuals having attachments to their rural communities and lifestyles. The findings showed that “… females also exhibited the strongest attachment to immediate community of all five interpersonal competence configurations… high competence youth appear to feel strong connections with their community and value the rural lifestyle and may have plans to stay or return to rural areas as adults” (Petrin, 2011, pg. 1102). I found that this related a lot to my conversation with Sam and her attachment to her work with the community and the kids. She graduated from Waynesburg in the spring and decided to stay in Appalachia because she feels a strong need to help the communities grow and get better. She had a few great ideas that I think Connellsville could really benefit from. I found this very inspiring and a story that I would like to continue looking at. I plan to interview Sam sometime next week to get more insight!
My initial thoughts on how to increase economic development would be to figure out how to increase employment opportunities by finding what businesses the community would like to see in town, how to increase profits and sales, and most importantly, how to keep businesses open. Pat from the bridal shop expressed her concerns about the lack of businesses in the area. She told us about how years ago there were many shops, things to do, and even competitors with her store, but now it is bleak and boring. She would like to see different shops and businesses that stay open and that would benefit the town. I think that asking the community members what they would like to see in Connellsville would really help the community and bring in some revenue for the county. We could also investigate what the tourists’ needs are and if those are being properly met. Cheryl told us that sometimes the bike shop is closed during the day and when repairs are needed, no one is there to do them. This is majorly important in Connellsville because of how big tourism is in its economy. There was also a lack of communication between the businesses, restaurants, hotel, visitor’s center, and guests of Connellsville. If we can bridge the gap, I feel like it can greatly improve the quality of business and opportunities there are for growth.
I think that the next steps would be to gather more information from community members and to see what the rest of the counties are doing in the area that we could improve on. Speaking with the community was so valuable in learning about what they want and need and how they feel like their town can be improved. Also, from what I heard, I think that Westmoreland County has a larger business sector and maybe getting ideas from them could help us improve Fayette County.
I am really looking forward to working on more of this project because the community was so kind and they just want to grow. They just need ideas and more tools of how to do so.