Last weekend was the ACRI cohort’s first trip to Fayette County, where we explored Connellsville, Uniontown, and Brownsville while interviewing community stakeholders to push the research project forward. A primary objective was to identify assets that could be leveraged to drive economic development. Erin and I, the political science students, had the opportunity to interview State Senator Pat Stefano, who emphasized that outdoor recreation is the key to recent and future development in the area; Fayette County may have no asset more valuable than its stunning natural beauty. The Senator explained that hunting, fishing, camping, and biking opportunities draw tourists to the county, and also that these activities are popular with locals. Tourism has been important to support local businesses, which are opening fast and succeeding, according to the Senator. Fayette County is home to Ohiopyle State Park, a National Historic Landmark in Fallingwater, and bisected by the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail, which connects Pittsburgh with Washington, D.C. over 300 miles away. From what we witnessed, this trail is integral to development in Connellsville. Other trails exist too; according to the Fayette County Cultural Trust, thousands of dollars have been raised to fund the area’s trail projects. Local businesses have enjoyed the activity that trails generate.
Another asset we identified was the Carnegie Free Library in Connellsville. A conversation and tour with its director keyed us into some important things that it has going for it: a state-of-the-art media room, computer lab, local history museum, the county record room, an ornate president’s room, a stage and small auditorium, and a conference room. The library is able to rent out its auditorium and conference room but struggles to secure enough funding to employ workers. Furthermore, the building is very old and in need of renovations. Addressing these issues will be important for the success of the library, and should be prioritized since the library offers a lot to the Connellsville community. It is home to children’s after school programs; notably the Mountain Watershed Association that educates young children about the environment and shows them fun, sustainable ways to interact with it. This program is especially relevant in Fayette County, where generating interest in the outdoors drives a large part of the economy. New programs can find a home at Carnegie Free Library, too. The director is keen to host a computer literacy class for elderly people utilizing the media room and computer lab. She says that elderly people frequently come to the library to use these resources, but are often frustrated by the technology that they have never been properly introduced to. Creating programming for small businesses is a goal of our cohort’s business team, but it sounds like there is also a demand from other programs. If the University could use its resources to assist programs like computer literacy for the elderly, then it would respond to other community needs, as well.
This was the just the first year that our group visited Brownsville to search for assets and challenges there. Since the scope of our research is the whole of Fayette County, teams in the next few years will need to continue expanding their reach. That will be the only way to identify all of the factors at play in Fayette County; continuing all of our efforts in the County’s most populated areas ignores equally important people living outside of them. I’m interested in whether people living outside of these populated cities will see returns from the efforts that we’re making. Our strategies for revitalizing Uniontown, population 10,000, probably won’t work for boroughs with a few hundred people. We can’t forget about them.
Fayette County felt mostly familiar to me as a student from a small town, but I was surprised by the dramatic wealth gap that we witnessed. On Thursday night, we ate dinner at the upscale Summit restaurant; it was one of the nicest, most expensive meals I’ve ever enjoyed, and the facility was beautiful. There are wealthy residents and tourists that allow this place to succeed. A conversation with waitresses at Marilyn’s on Main, another restaurant in Uniontown, was encouraging because they spoke very highly of local philanthropists. It sounds like they are generally invested in their communities as regulars at the restaurants and donors to community projects. Still, there are plenty of blighted areas in Fayette County, and we heard from many stakeholders saying that poverty is a big problem. The Carnegie Free Library, for example, qualifies for partial assistance because it is located in an area somewhat impoverished. Some residents complained about others collecting welfare and not contributing to the local economy.
An assigned reading from Hansen et al., “Explaining the ‘Brain Drain’ From Older Industrial Cities: The Pittsburgh Region,” explained the phenomenon of “brain drain,” where college graduates leave their hometowns to work elsewhere, draining the pool of college-educated workers. According to the article, this is happening at a very high rate in the Pittsburgh area, and our interactions with local people confirmed that it is an issue. Two security guards we interviewed have daughters in college and complained about their eagerness to leave home; they wanted to go to California. A concession stand worker said that his son plans to leave the area after he graduates college, too. Senator Stefano claimed that Fayette County’s schools and hospitals are having a very difficult time maintaining a staff. Despite the area’s proximity to Pittsburgh and the presence of a university in Penn State Fayette, the pool of qualified workers is too small to meet the demand. In fact, he told us that the demand is so large, it cannot even be filled by local graduates alone. The area is already forced to recruit workers from elsewhere, so the effects of “brain drain” should be fully minimized to lessen that recruiting pressure.
For now, I’ve mostly been thinking about ways to increase outdoor recreation opportunities in the winter. This is my favorite idea: Fayette County already has popular, well-funded trail systems, so to increase the value of these trails during the winter, I’d like to see them improved and marketed for cross country skiers. This activity can be enjoyed by people of all ages and offers a very different experience with the same graded bike trails that people use for the rest of the year. If they were getting the same traffic that they do in summer months, local businesses would see a bump. Seven Springs Mountain Resort is a popular downhill skiing destination just across the border in Somerset County, so the area already supports a culture of skiing. Also in Somerset County, just across the border, there is a Laurel Ridge Cross Country Ski Area that offers ski trails and rentals. I haven’t been able to find a rental agency in Fayette County; adding that service would make cross country skiing more accessible and generate interest. The wintertime is also prime for trout fishing, and includes hunting seasons for deer and many species of small game. Increasing participation in these activities would draw more people to the county and make room for local businesses to outfit them.
Aside from outdoor recreation, it sounds like many local organizations are in positions to apply for grants. The Cultural Trust applies for lots of them, and the library said that it would like to apply for more. This is an area that the University could absolutely offer some assistance in the form of programming or proofreading services. It could also advertise grants that community organizations might not be aware of otherwise.
I think the most important step for the project moving forward is expanding reach; this trip made that very clear to me. Brownsville, our last stop of the weekend, is home to assets and perspectives that made me think differently than our time in Connellsville and Uniontown. Working at the county level is more complicated than I had thought. We need to hear input from more places in Fayette and I hope that we’re moving fast enough to make that happen. I’m wondering if an online survey would be a workable way to speed up our expansion, but also worried that doing so would risk the community-engaged strategy that has characterized our work so far. Regardless, completing the asset map and developing programming for the entrepreneurship center in Connellsville will be important. Just as important, though, is strengthening the relationship between the University and stakeholders in Fayette County. That’s what will make our work successful into the future – past the ten-year term of the project – so we can be involved, invested members of our greater community. I’m excited to hear more of my classmates’ ideas as we move forward to prepare presentations for Fayette County and the ARC in Washington. I was also very happy to hear that there might be an opportunity to visit the area when our ten years are over for a reunion and recap. I’m sure that we will be impressed by the work of future students, and so will the people of Fayette County.