Looking Back and Moving Forward: Reflections after Visiting Fayette County

From Thursday, October 12th to Saturday, October 14th, our research cohort with the Appalachian Collegiate Research Initiative visited Fayette County in Pennsylvania. The overarching goals amongst all sub-cohorts were to identify key assets in the county, target barriers for economic development, and provide a forum for residents to express genuine thoughts on their communities. Our deliverables for the community will be developed in accordance to these findings. The Political Science cohort sought to identify how the University could best support the developmental goals of the community, including how the University is currently perceived and which resources could be supplemented by our institution. We also spoke with State Senator Pat Stefano on his understanding of county strengths, assets, and challenges. To broaden our scope of work in Fayette County beyond Connellsville and Uniontown, we established connections with community stakeholders in Brownsville. We gathered preliminary data on assets and needs in Brownsville, granting insight on how we may modify development efforts to uplift Brownsville’s unique identity.

Two county-wide community assets we observed are outdoor spaces and locally-owned businesses. Utilizing outdoor recreation to spur economic activity is a priority for Fayette County stakeholders; at the community lunch we hosted in Connellsville, Fayette County Cultural Trust president Michael Edwards presented developments in projects like Yough River Park, public art commissions, and high school involvement with conservation efforts. Our cohort was able to visit the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail in Connellsville as well. This trail is a major revenue asset for the Comfort Inn hotel and small businesses who service bikers during their travels. Just during our brief stop at the trail, I noticed many bikers passing through the town. However, the Cultural Trust and other stakeholders have expressed a need for more off-season outdoor recreation. During colder months, a shortage of incoming bikers and tourists limits the customer base of many local businesses. Some off-season outdoor activities we identified were hunting during deer season and fishing. The other primary asset, locally-owned businesses, is the backbone of the county’s economic structure. In Connellsville, Uniontown, and Brownsville, I spoke with business owners who expressed deep ties with the community. Parents at the Albert Gallatin High School football game explained how crucial these businesses were to supporting the school systems and extracurricular activities. Instead of replacing this business structure with large corporations, there is potential for development by giving these business more tools to expand.

Something that surprised me while speaking to local business owners were the expressed negative sentiments about young employees. A prom boutique business owner in Uniontown, for example, explained how one of the greatest challenges in operating her business came down to inconsistent employees. Given the unpredictable schedules of many high school students, having employees call out of work last-minute or show up late is common. We also learned that a desire for a entrepreneurial center program is a “basic life skill” class that teaches how to write a check, send mail, and similar skills. I believe this surprised me because I expected business owners to express more “large-scale” economic concerns for business development. The prom boutique owners, on the other hand, said their business was rarely impacted by national and/or local economy changes. I find it slightly more difficult to address employee irresponsibility, but our cohort’s work with high school students and faculty with Celebrate Uniontown could serve as a future pathway to introduce “life skill” and professionalism courses to youth. Another conversation that surprised me was with a small business owner in Brownsville. Upon arriving to Brownsville Saturday morning, I was convinced no stores in the area would be open or willing to speak with us. The area looked nearly abandoned, with vines sprawling out of old building windows and practically no foot traffic in sight. However, conversing with the owner of Fresh Fuel Cafe changed my perspective entirely. She explained that there is a thriving community of business owners in historic Brownsville who work together to prevent inter-community customer competition. She also expressed development challenges I expected, such as limited time to research market trends and an inconsistent employee base. Still, this final conversation during my Fayette County visit made me reevaluate how my biases may impact how quickly I jump to conclusions. Businesses in Fayette County are united and thriving; what will spur development is providing accessible tools for busy business owners to maximize organization efficiency, increase their advertising capacities, and attract reliable employees.

In preparation for this visit, our cohort read several pieces relating to regional development in Appalachia and ethical means of encouraging development. Research conducted by Hansen et al. (2003) observed influences for individuals to either stay in or leave the Pittsburgh region for their careers in “Explaining the ‘Brain Drain’ From Older Industrial Cities: The Pittsburgh Region.” In terms of University institution choice, students attending three Pittsburgh universities overall ranked “Advantages of Pittsburgh region” as over one Likert scale marking less important than the highest ranking, “Specific programs, courses” (Hansen et al., 2003). I noticed this trend which speaking to Fayette County residents; a business owner and mother in Brownsville expressed how her child did not feel inclined to stay in Pittsburgh for a competitive academic institution in California. However, she also mentioned that the University of Pittsburgh did not engage with students her child’s high school. She believed an increased University presence would introduce students to the good programs offered by this local University and encourage them to stay in the area. Another interesting finding by Hansen et al. (2003) relates to job-related priority differences between those who stayed or left the Pittsburgh area. Whereas “Physical setting: geography, climate” was the 9th most important factor for those who left the area, it was tied for rank 15.5 for those who stayed (Hansen et al., 2003). Given the rich geographical assets in Fayette County, I am interested by this finding. While there are benefits to a more urbanized setting for transportation and accessibility purposes, the beauty and recreational opportunities in Fayette County should serve as a great reason to stay. Through our cohort’s work, we should focus on ways to highlight the potential of rural geographical assets for all ages. Creating programming designed for high school students that applies individual academic interests, such as business, engineering, etc., towards innovation of natural assets could inspire less out-migration of talented individuals.

How can we effectively implement suggestions based on this research? Dostilio et al. (2012) in “Reciprocity: Saying What We Mean and Meaning What We Say” suggest how research and the procurement of knowledge can be conducted ethically through reciprocity. They introduce the concept of “making space,” meaning the act of intentionally seeking commonalities between a service provider (researcher) and a recipient (residents) beyond the immediate interaction of providing the service (Dostilio et al., 2012). For our work, “making space” means engaging in conversations by prioritizing active listening skills over probing for specific types information that help us know what we want to know. At the end of the day, or work had everything to do with assisting the community in their journey toward self-actualization and nothing to do with our own personal gain.

The natural resources and small businesses that give character to Fayette County have great potential to be utilized for economic development. One idea that could spur this development is introducing more community-wide “off-season” recreational activities. Given the prior success of the bike trail for economic invigoration during warmer months, encouraging similar engagement during the winter could yield similar results. My cohort partner, Chad, identified cross-country skiing as a potential form of recreation that could be supported with existing trail structures. I am personally inspired by the Mountain Watershed Association, a program that offers fall/winter nature conservation classes to children at the Carnegie Free Library in Connellsville. The library director at this branch expressed that these programs garnered a lot of community engagement from youth. Investing in marketing expansion and program development of similar events for all ages with Mountain Watershed could boost community moral and encourage tourism. One program idea could combine a winter fishing day with educational elements about native water life species in Fayette County. Another idea to spur development is to introduce technology seminars. Various community members in Fayette County, including library personnel, business owners, and high school parents, have expressed a desire for platforms like Microsoft and Apple to have more of a presence in the community. While an exogenous development route would suggest adding a new Apple manufacturing branch in the county, for example, I believe development will be spurred by teaching residents how to use this tech to support existing business endeavors. Providing accessible classes on how to use name-recognizable technology will give agency for entrepreneurs to expand their projects while protecting their autonomy and community identity.

Moving forward, our research cohort must focus on two main steps: synthesize and deliver. Our first task is to work within our individual study cohorts to explain what we learned and why it is important. By sharing these findings with other groups, we can begin to find common themes in how we envision development interventions. We must also look for overlapping “values” expressed by the community that have influenced our intervention strategies. The definition of values is flexible in the context of community development, but for our purposes they describe the characteristics of Fayette County that residents are most proud of. Using these recurring themes, our cohort can present a unified presentation to the community despite the different foci of each sub-cohort. My vision of a successful presentation to the community will include key assets, current economic strengths, and how we intend to expand upon last year’s work. We can achieve this by showing the expansion of the asset map, program ideas for the entrepreneurial center, developments in Celebrate Uniontown, ideas for winter tourism/recreation expansion, and new findings from our Brownsville research. Overarching these projects, we must report our findings on current University presence in Fayette County and suggest proposals for increased University assistance efforts.

While synthesizing and delivering our research to the community is challenging, I am immensely excited to tackle this challenge head-on. I experienced an authentic connection with each and every community member I spoke with. I am proud of my cohort’s ability to expand the breadth of our connections across the county and the depth of pre-existing projects, and I cannot wait to visit Connellsville again on November 17th for our community presentation!

I look forward to updating you all soon!


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