During the weekend of October 12th, our research group went on a two-night trip to visit local areas in Fayette County– specifically Connellsville, Uniontown, and Brownsville. During this trip, we toured the towns and spoke to small business owners, politicians, school faculty members, members of the Fayette County Cultural Trust, and more. Through our conversations, we collected valuable information about living in Fayette County and history of the area, and started developing ideas to enhance their economic development.
I am one of three students in the College of Business Administration cohort, and our key focus is to figure out what types of training and seminars (business and non-business focused) that the people of Fayette County would want to attend. A new Entrepreneurship Center is opening in Connellsville and the locals seem extremely interested in the potential this new community asset has, as well as how they could utilize its resources. But they won’t show up unless we structure and market its potential in the right way. Through speaking with small business owners and employees, we have learned that workshops tailored to financing, non-profit grant writing, professional development, functional literacy, technology, social media, marketing/advertising, and e-commerce (specifically Etsy) would be greatly valued.
To identify additional county-wide assets, our general team and individual smaller cohorts should continue to communicate with members of the community. This is definitely something that has helped us understand the community needs more and allows us to use our resources and knowledge to implement our community initiatives. While we have only visited the county once so far, making sure to continuously engage with community members through email and phone calls, and utilizing those connections to make new ones. There is so much we can learn, but we can’t uncover this information without communication.
Something that surprised me from our visit was the differences in town-wide community initiatives. For example, people in Connellsville spoke highly about what the town does to engage all members of the community. Things such as festivals, markets, competitions, town-wide public art display creation activities, and more take place all throughout the year. Thrift stores have food pantries, people speak at church, and locals volunteer at events and stores. Surpsingly, there were not many community-building initiatives in Uniontown or Brownsville. Uniontown has a lot of small businesses and relevant stores in the area, as well as many bars and restaurants, but we did not hear about festivals, flea markets, and town-painting community-engagement initiatives in that area as we did in Connellsville.
Unlike Uniontown and Connellsville, Brownsville does not have many bars, restaurants, or small businesses. In fact, the entire town is quiet on Saturdays and Sundays since most businesses are closed on weekends. But even in the middle of the week, a large percentage of buildings in the area are completely abandoned, so there is not much going on. Children who live in Brownsville go to school in other towns, and no one has invested in re-building and opening the abandoned buildings in years.
The differences in these three towns was incredibly surprising to experience and learn about. I wonder why one town (Connellsville) was so much more established and connected than the other towns (Uniontown and mostly Brownsville. This shows that students in the Appalachian Collegiate Resarch Initiative of this year’s cohort and in the future should make sure to also spend a lot of time on the under-developed towns, not just the ones that are already some-what established.
One of the readings we have done before class is called “Explaining the ‘Brain Drain’ from Older Industrial Cities: The Pittsburgh Region.” This article explains how graduates of higher education have been continuously leaving the area where they are from to go pursue their big dreams elsewhere. This is where the term “brain drain” comes from. This is a big problem for Fayette County and is happening at a fast rate. I experienced this first hand while speaking to people in Connellsville during our visit. People I spoke to talked about how there is no connection/initiative that funnels members of the community into local hotels, ski mountain, or restaurant jobs. This leads new young professionals to search elsewhere for employment and places to apply their newly acquired skills and degrees, adding to the lethal cycle of “brain drain” in the region.
From this reading, as well as my experience during our site visit, is it apparent that there need to be more community-wide initiatives and opportunities to allow residents of the region to fulfill their own versions of “success” without having to search elsewhere. Fayette County is a region with strong potential, but no one has given these towns the opportunity to show the assets they have and what their towns could one day be.
Each of the smaller cohorts (business, political science, urban studies, sustainability) have their own ideas to spur economic development in Fayette County based on their research. After interviewing many community members alongside my business cohort, we have gathered a lot of valuable information that has been helping us implement ideas for the Connellsville Entrepreneurial Center, which is our key focus for this semester.
After speaking with small business owners specifically, we learned that training for non-profit grant writing, financing and accounting for businesses, technology and social media, marketing and advertising, functional literacy, professional development, and e-commerce (specifically how and why to use Etsy) would be valued by small business owners in the community. Small businesses in Connellsville have been mostly successful, but we are happy to offer them these resources to become stronger, more well known, and more entreprenurial-savvy, which are things that they agree would make a difference in their economy.
Another idea we had is to create a mentorship program through the Entrepreneurial Center. We feel that it would be a great opportunity for young members of the community to have an established individual from Fayette county to inspire them and “show them the ropes” of how to be successful in their desired field. There is only so much you can learn inside the classroom, especially if you are growing up in an area where most people who graduate from higher education do not stay in your town. We suppose this can be achieved through connections with the surrounding schools and businesses, as well as making sure to build a brand for the town as a place where dreams can very well come true.
During our visit, we also spoke to locals that are not small business owners. These conversations sparked ideas for us to develop non-business related sessions/classes at the Entreprenurial Center. Learning about the history of Connellsville and Fayette County through the Entreprenurial Center would be a great way to enhance economic development for people who do not consider themselves entrepreneurs. We believe that having community members, veterans, school faculty, and/or students at the surrounding high schools/colleges teach these classes is another great way to engage the community and give the members a chance to learn about interesting topics. This initiative would teach people about the rich history of their town, and hopefully lead them to appreciate and feel more connected to where they live.
Our next steps for the project based on our site visit are plentiful. Out of all the areas in Fayette County, we only visited three (Connellsville, Uniontown, and Brownsville). It is important to make sure to see as many locations and speak to as many people as we can to make sure we understand the area in full. Through our site visit, we experienced the many differences– socially, economically, and aesthetically– between the three towns. While Connellsville seems established and needs our help to build on what they already have, Brownsville seems like untouched potential where we would not yet have a baseline as strong. We should explore and speak to all the areas of Fayette County directly involved in this initiative and give them an equal and well-deserved opportunity to tell us what they need for their individual and community success.
Since we have seven years left to complete this Research Initiative at Pitt, there is a lot of time to implement these community initiatives. Things like this take time, and that is one thing that I have to keep reminding myself about. I would love to snap my fingers and be able to give these communities everything they need to thrive, but it will take a lot of brains and years to get all of these actions in place. Even with the Entrepreneurial Center initiative, it will most likely take a while to start seeing more than 10 people at our training sessions. All we need to know is that one day, we will get 100 people in the room interested in learning more about businesses, the history of their town, confidence, and more.