Connellsville Trip Recap

In case the reader is not aware, last weekend we packed into a few cars and went to Fayette County for the weekend as part of our ACRI Regional Resilience project. We visited the three towns of Connellsville, Uniontown, and Brownsville in particular, each of it had its own unique traits. Throughout the action-packed, albeit brief stint in the region, we got a tour of Connellsville and its history, talked to small business owners, bankers, high school concession stand owners, and many others and listened to their stories, dined in the local Connellsville Canteen, went to a high school football game in Uniontown, and talked about everything around a bonfire.

Besides being a fun experience, it was also informative and eye-opening. Thanks to this visit, everyone in the group now possesses a clearer understanding of the overall political and economic landscape of Fayette County, the actual residents’ hopes, qualms, and expectations, and how this could tie into the goals of their cohort. From the perspective of the business cohort, which Ava, Franny, and I are in, there is a lot to take away from what we did in Fayette County, a large portion of which I believe will prove to be crucial in the building and execution of our end-of-semester deliverables, as outlined in our scope of work.

During our tour of Connellsville, three community assets stood out as exemplifying the area’s strengths and growth potential. One of the key community assets that we identified was the Connellsville thrift store. Well, it is not just a thrift store, but rather a key pillar of the Connellsville community, a prolific force for good that feeds the underprivileged at scale. When we happened to meet the owner of the store, Dana, and were given a tour of the behind-the-scenes operations it really put into perspective how much effort goes into running something this large and influential. She also mentioned that just the food that they provide at a discount for people saves as much as hundreds of dollars per month. The thrift store helped demonstrate how social enterprises can address economic and social problems simultaneously. Another asset, which we finally got to see in person after it was alluded to by Michael and Brian, was the Connellsville Canteen, a historic diner opened in 1944 that continues thriving today. The vintage restaurant symbolizes the region’s rich history and culture that persists amidst economic changes. The newly constructed Entrepreneurship Center, in contrast, represents the community’s aspirations for the future. This modern hub aims to foster local business creation and innovation. Parts of it were still under development, so it will be quite a treat to see it in its full glory later on in a few years.

Besides just the community assets, let’s talk about the actual community. A few things surprised me, most notably the people’s openness and the region’s natural beauty. While driving into Touchstone Lodge, where we were staying, the striking natural beauty we saw surrounding the town helps explain why tourism thrives in the area. Touchstone did a great job integrating us in with the natural environment. Something about the air quality was just different! Additionally, for people who were just meeting us for the first time on a Friday, they seemed very open to discuss things candidly, which was a plus. It helps that Pitt has been and will continue to build rapport with Fayette County as they execute their 10-year plan. However, there of course is that initial bit of confusion or awkwardness when a group from out of town comes in and starts asking questions – I probably would have felt the same way. And since people were busy, of course not everyone would be able to talk. But some of our best moments and takeaways from our trip came by simply just asking questions and hoping that they would respond. Was the visit and tour of the thrift store planned? Of course not! Chad and I also randomly walked into a bar and had a conversation with a bartender and some of the patrons there. It gave a great sense of community togetherness that was present in the towns.

Some links to the trip can be made from the course readings. Zito’s article about water woes reinforces how socioeconomic challenges cross geographic boundaries, emphasizing the need for inclusive solutions. Of course, this is largely about environmental sustainability, but it plays a significant factor in building a small business support system. It also is telling that people in places like this do not have that much influence in the corridors of power and government in Washington DC, but I believe that empowering people to start something that they want to do and make money will help them gain more influence at least in the local community. Dostilio et al.’s paper on reciprocity provides guidance on building equitable university-community partnerships, cautioning against paternalistic dynamics and urging collaborative development driven by mutual benefits and shared goals. Together, these readings reinforce that our recommendations should leverage Fayette County’s endogenous strengths while heeding local voices and ensuring mutually beneficial collaborative processes. This is something we always had to keep in mind as we asked our questions: not probing or interrogating but instead thinking with long-term collaboration in mind. The documents and reflection posts from previous cohorts helped put into perspective the context in which we are approaching this project. However, since we are technically the first cohort that is made up of business students, it still has a relative novelty to it. I still could glean things from the posts by previous students, who were mainly Poli Sci, Urban Studies, and Sustainability students, and it gave a better view of the problems that we were trying to solve across various disciplines. The site visit emphasized how taking inventory of existing assets and perspectives provides the strongest foundation for proposing interventions, aligning with scholarship on asset-based community development.

Now that we are back and have met again debriefing and talking next steps, what paths are there to take? What ideas do we have for sustainable, long-term economic development in the Fayetter County community? I mean “sustainable” not exactly in the environmental sense but in the sense of the notion that once Pitt leaves the region, people will have the ability to continue what was started in the county. Dr Glass likened this to the engineers and wells problem: developing countries are given water wells built by engineers in the name of helping the community or building economic growth or whatever, but were not given the tools, know-how, or replacement parts in case the well wore down. There are a few things to consider based on our trip. With that being said, several strategic initiatives could harness the area’s assets to catalyze grassroots entrepreneurship and spur economic growth, as well as having a whole host of positive externalities. First, Pitt’s innovation ecosystem, including resources like the Big Idea Center and Innovation Institute, could provide invaluable mentoring, networking, and funding to high-potential local entrepreneurs. Connecting students who are interested, as well as alumni, with aspiring Fayette County entrepreneurs will facilitate skill-sharing and inspiration. They would be easy to find, as many of them are likely pursuing an innovation and entrepreneurship certificate. This is also where I can see the Entrepreneurship Center becoming a valuable place for Connellsville residents to learn, network, and bounce ideas off one another. Speaking of small businesses, we considered the idea of forming a Connellsville small business collective where resources would be united and more aligned. This corroborated with what some of the small business owners said about needing more support for small businesses. We are aware firsthand of the great small businesses in Fayette County; when we briefly stopped in at Brownsville on our way home, we randomly stumbled across the most delicious acai bowl place I had ever been to. Mainly, the focus is on building relationships: those between Pitt and Fayette county’s entrepreneurial resources and of small businesses becoming stronger by uniting and garnering more support.

After this trip, our plan of attack for the last few weeks until we return to Connellsville to present looks like the following:

  • Preparing and sending out a survey to contacts we got from our trip to Fayette County. The goal of the survey is to get feedback on our ideas and to gauge overall sentiment about the initiative. Ideally, we cold use the data provided from respondents to find insights about what we should do going forward. It is a good thing that we took notes and got so many contacts, as we would like it to be sent out to as many people as possible.
  • Reach out in Pitt’s resources, mainly their entrepreneurial network, and build on ideas that we had for training modules to be presented in the Entrepreneurial Center. For example, we received some ideas about small-scale digital ecommerce sites or helping apply for jobs on Indeed or other tech-related avenues. The end goal for our students, most of whom will be on the older side, is not just lecturing, but building confidence in using whatever they can get out of the course.

We will continue to work with our end goal in mind: Describing the process of conceptualizing and developing educational and entrepreneurial modules to be presented in the Connellsville Entrepreneurship center. I humbly thank everyone who was involved in making this trip happen, as it was a great experience.

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