Fayette County ACRI Trip Oct. 12-14

From Oct. 12-14, our ACRI group visited Fayette County as part of our commitment to community-engaged research. Some of the key community assets are the canteen, an antique shop on the GAP trail, the East End Community Center, Uniontown Lion’s Club, and some local pubs. We defined assets by how the interviewees spoke about the organizations. Part of our goal in the Appalachian Special Topics class is to look for a way to map human assets. I think my group has begun to realize that the largest assets in a rural community may be the place that unites everyone under the best and worst circumstances. In particular, the funeral home is a place that almost every family in Fayette County has to utilize, and the high school Friday night football games are the standard activity. To identify additional community-wide assets, I’ll need to interview the people our initial interviewees told me to reach out to. I think our focus is also identifying new assets in Brownsville. When my group toured Brownsville we saw truly how historic but abandoned the buildings were. The town has the bones of a once-thriving community and has a lot of good assets that a local redeveloper who is connected to the community could revamp.

I think what surprised me about this trip was the optimism I encountered. the optimism from the community members themselves about what the future could look like and how highly they spoke in the past. Many of the people of Fayette County that I talked to had stayed because of family. When talking to Aaron Lantz of the Lantz Funeral Home he said that the things that unite the Uniontown community are death and family. An overwhelming story that we had heard from Fayette County residents is of parents who had maintained a steady job and were now sending their kids off to college. Many parents shared that their kids were not going to come back to Fayette County because there were no jobs for them there. The residents who are lucky enough to be able to move to where their children are said they’ll leave Fayette County to be closer to their children.
One course reading that stuck out to me was Chen’s piece “What Can Rural Communities Do to be Satisfied?”. This piece talks about how counties do better when adjacent to urban areas, own transportation corridors, and have more supplies of natural resources. Upon interviewing a coal miner at the Albert Gallatin football game, he told us that Washington County which is adjacent to metropolitan Allegheny County used to look like Fayette in terms of at-riskness. After the extractive industries in Fayette and Washington counties died out, Washington was able to bounce back while Fayette County wasn’t. This was the exact concept that Chen had outlined, as Fayette County not being close to an urbanized center has a harder time with economic development than Washington which is right next to Pittsburgh. I think another piece that stood out to me was the Gansuer & Haggerty piece which talked about water pipeline development in rural Montana. A large part of the federal infrastructure bill was given to Montana to fix infrastructure, so the CMRWA created this pipeline plan. The pipeline is supposed to connect water to a large amount of otherwise secluded rural towns that have terrible water quality. The problem with this pipeline is that the government is building it fast and isn’t thinking about the skills needed to maintain the pipeline 50 years down the road, and some rural communities opted out of the pipeline. This will create interregional competition which is exactly what I witnessed in Fayette County. The towns within Fayette County operate within their ecosystems and rarely connect even when they share similar problems. A lot of this has to do with community pride and independence. I think the CMRWA pipeline also highlights a lack of capacity within rural regions. Within Montana many of these rural areas have very low debt-bearing capacity, meaning they are going to struggle with paying back the investment they made in safe drinking water. Fayette County has very low capacity in terms of transportation and broadband access, making it difficult for businesses to prosper. Federal funding can only go so far for these communities if they don’t have the workforce training for new industries or the population for larger development.
My initial idea to spur economic development in Fayette County is to provide training for business owners. I think a lot of disconnect within the community at least in Connellsville is surrounding the GAP trail and the businesses on the GAP trail. A local business owner herself, Emily, who runs a mind and body massage store, says that business owners have the drive in Connellsville. Business owners want to pursue their passion but have limited resources and know how to do so. One of the key points she brought up is many businesses will go to the town hall to get a business permit and the town hall hands you a pamphlet in return. The pamphlet outlines nothing on how to attract customers or how to run an online business, both essential strategies in today’s world.
There is also a lack of knowledge on how businesses should receive funding. Delving into the nonprofit world of Fayette County, my group and I saw a lack of training in grant writing. Much of the funding for nonprofits such as East End Community Center in Uniontown relies on grants. Whether these are state or private grants, East End applies for whatever they can get. I took a nonprofit grant writing class last semester, and many of the principles we had learned about showed up for East End. Steven Strange was one of the executive directors at East End and was also responsible for grant writing. A lot of times in small nonprofits, grant writing gets put on to the task of another position. Considering how much work goes into applying for a single grant, not having a separate position for grant writing causes a problem. There’s a lack of training on grant writing in a lot of the industry and this is even seen in Pittsburgh. The grant writers that I interviewed in Pittsburgh told me that grant writing hadn’t become a priority until a few years ago. It’d be interesting to see the implementation of a non-profit grant writing course within the Entrepreneurship Center in Fayette County. I think that giving the tools to the community members to utilize when they already have the drive will go a long way. If you give community members access to write effective grants then they’ll receive a funding amount that focuses on that organization’s capacity. An organization knows how much funding to ask for in a grant because it needs to show proof of how the funding will be used within its organization. I think this tackles the ARC’s whole initiative of focusing on community-controlled spending and not flooding a community with an overabundance of federal funding.
The next steps for the projects are reaching out to more community members and creating that connection between the University of Pittsburgh and Fayette County. In rural communities, it takes a good amount of trust to create change. In an urban setting, an organization takes an idea and runs with it, but in a rural community, people talk to their trusted neighbors about their thoughts on development. Trust lies in the foundation of change and if a community thinks that an investor is not capturing the true essence of a community then they won’t be able to develop there. I think historic preservation is very prevalent within Fayette County. The pride these people held for their industries, their families, and their buildings was apparent. When we had talked to a local bartender who had run for office in a prior Fayette County election, he confided in us about Uniontown’s hesitation toward change. Our interview with Jenny from Fallingwater exemplifies this hesitation to change, as she took pride in her hundred acres that she was unwilling to give up. I think this mindset speaks a lot to Fayette County folk about the relationship the University of Pittsburgh can have with the county in the future. Students should never impose their own beliefs on the residents. Who are we to say as students that someone should give up the values that they’ve held in their family for generations because some dead writer says that’s the best thing to do. At the end of the day, these are people’s lives and Fayette County has the right to reject the University’s involvement.

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