It’s been just shy of two weeks since we did our site visit (is that what we call field trips these days?), and the longer I sit on that experience, the more its significance grows. The disconnect between what I assumed I would see and what I actually ended up taking away from the experience was somewhat jarring, if I’m being honest. The literature so far has painted what can only be described as an apocalyptic picture of these kinds of de-industrialized places. With only that input to guide my understanding of these places, I was rather taken aback to find that I was essentially wrong. Fayette County is a not a uniform entity, and much of it does not fit into the narrative assigned to it by the outside observers.
Key assets, at least that we visited, were community-based organizations, with the express goal of bringing people together. This may be a function of confirmation bias- we were looking for those kinds of organizations, but there is also very likely some truth to their significance. Often in more functional communities, the key assets are driven by economic or social/cultural factors. An example of this would be the closest bar to the mine in a historic coal town, which would serve as a natural gathering place for the coal miners who drove the economy of the town. In the absence of these driving factors, however, the community has no “natural” gathering places, and so this essential space is filled by community organizations who intentionally try and foster that environment. The success to which they achieve this is mixed. Because of the natural limitations of the rural environment, often the physical spaces meant for community gatherings were multi-purpose rooms. The atmosphere can often feel ad-hoc, and from what I could tell attendance at community events is low and skews older.
In the future, there should perhaps be a focus on more informal community assets, if they exist. It may be that they just aren’t there, but more likely in my mind is that we in the ARC just haven’t reached them yet. I suspect that we need to shift away from community leaders and try and pull information on key assets in a more grassroots way. There still has to be some bar somewhere that serves as an internal locus of the community.
There were numerous surprises (at least to me) on our visit. The level of optimism was shocking- I was suspecting a continuation of the doom and gloom narrative that tends to pervade the academic depictions of the area, but I couldn’t have been further from the truth. In actuality, there were areas of Fayette County that seemed almost thriving. Much of Connellsville, although aging, seemed relatively happy with their town. Downtown Uniontown seems like a thriving commercial area for a city of its size.
That’s not to say there wasn’t variance, and in fact there was quite a bit of it, to a frankly shocking degree. My perception of rural areas as someone from an urban core area is that they tend to be relatively uniform; this county is rich, this county is poor, this county is Republican, etc. Instead, there was a massive variance between different towns within Fayette County, comparable to anything seen in cities like New York. Contrasting to downtown Uniontown, the downtown of Brownsville is almost completely abandoned. The few businesses that remain seem to be either dying or oddly out of place, like an acai bowl shop right next door to a huge, abandoned building. The idiosyncratic nature of the county, and the towns within it, was consistently surprising to me.
Connections to the Literature
In terms of what the academics are saying versus what actually happening on the ground, there are definitely interesting tie-ins. There was a definite connection to the concepts of reciprocity (Dostilio et al) and a strength-based approach (Jakes et al) to development. The more time we spent in Fayette County, the more we realized they have a lot going for them down there. There is significant potential, albeit tragically underutilized. Why? It seems to stem from a lack of trust in the community. First, the community is distrustful of outside help- they have been burned too many times. Second, the community is distrustful of itself- since the departure of the driving economic force in Fayette- the coal industry, there has been a certain defeatism about the future of the town. This is where a reciprocal and strength-based approach becomes key. By forming an equitable relationship based on a level of mutualism- there is a benefit for both parties- the community becomes more able to accept outside help. And framing development as based on existing strengths, as opposed to gambling on a new variable, helps the community to see that their home does in fact have a value of its own. This is key for establishing a true widespread buy in for new developments, especially in a region where people are wary of change by instinct.
The Economic Future of Fayette County
The economy is the center of it all. Without a thriving economy, development is hard to come by, and of lower quality. If you want to see the success of Fayette County, you must first and foremost tend to it’s economy. Obviously, the elephant in the room when it comes to the future of economic development in Fayette County is tourism. Between Falling Water, Ohiopyle, Nemacolin, and the GAP Trail, there is a notable tourist draw in the county, which has room for better utilization. A key identified issue here is transportation, which is almost nonexistent outside of individual private vehicles. Given that many of these tourist destinations are rather far from one another, tourism is currently limited to individuals with the means and confidence to navigate themselves in cars to various locations. There is only one taxi service in the county, in Connellsville, which is often at capacity. On an extremely practical level, getting more taxis running in the county would be both profitable and necessary for the economic health of the county-wide tourism ecosystem.
Tourism is only one aspect of the economic health of the county, however, and the trickle down of the benefits towards the community is just that- a trickle. More important is the health of the businesses that cater more to residents and are not dependent on seasonal visitors. These businesses are often owned by people who also have a separate full-time job out of necessity. And if they don’t, chances are that they used to and have retired. Such is the nature of low-capacity areas, and it would be a herculean task to try and change this dynamic. There could be more resources available to support these business owners who are by no means experts in business maintenance and growth. There is a definite need for more guidance in how to approach government bureaucracy (health inspector, permits, etc) that is not being met, or at least not to the extent that it should be.
Next Steps for the ARC?
I feel very strongly about this- the asset map needs to be cleaned significantly. I am not saying that we delete data point- a master file should and would be kept for future reference. But if the goal of the asset map is to help the residents of Fayette realize the strength of their communities, this current iteration of the map has far too many data points to be of any use. To me it looks messy and poorly done, and I’m trained to read maps. To someone not trained, the map could be seen as overwhelming and even, I fear, condescending. For people used to being talked down to, this kind of deluge of visualized data could be taken as a way make them feel stupid for not understanding that kind of technicality. We must create easily readable maps, which is a goal that it is easy to lose sight of within the labyrinth of academia. Currently, I do not believe we are attuned enough to our audience in the way we are presenting this information.
Practically, the answer to this problem is to create multiple versions of the same map, pulling specific data from the master map to tailor to specific audiences. Think of a master resume, multiple pages long, from which multiple different one-page resumes are drawn up to cater to different jobs. Remember that the datapoints in the asset map are categorized by type of asset, which makes this much easier to do. For the purpose of accuracy, however, it might be worth adding a layer of subcategories, specifically in relation to how the different overarching categories interact with each other. For example, there are certain assets listed as “Natural and Cemetery” assets that have key businesses that are vitally intertwined with the asset. Wilderness Voyageurs is a business asset that utilizes Ohiopyle, a natural asset, as the source of its revenue. In turn, Wilderness Voyageurs ensure consistent visitation to the park. There needs to be a way to emphasize these types of connections, and intersecting subcategories feel like the way to do it.