For more than 25 years, Main Street programs have been a successful model of community development in the U.S. This model has been adjusted for use in more rural areas with long-distance trails as the focus of a visitor attraction strategy. In 2010, The Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) launched the River Town Program in communities bordering the Allegheny River.
According to Lindsay Baxter, program manager, sustainability at PEC, the River Town Program is "a community and economic development program that is based on recognizing the value that the river has for the communities along its edges. The program, she adds, focuses on working with those communities to develop riverfront access, develop recreational opportunities and attract visitors to enjoy the rivers and the communities."
After the success of the pilot program in six communities along the Allegheny River, the program was expanded in 2011 to five communities along the middle- and upper-Monongahela River in Fayette, Greene, and Washington Counties. Recently, the program was expanded to include Charleroi and Monongahela in Pennsylvania and Morgantown, Star City and Granville in West Virginia.
The River Town Program isn't about planning, but about helping communities access the resources they need to put plans into action. Baxter points out that most of the river towns they work with already have at least one comprehensive plan or economic development plan or greenway plan, but they have not been implemented.
"The primary benefit of the program is that it encourages the communities to think regionally and come together and work cooperatively," Says Baxter. "Communities are promoting one another's events and going after grants and funding sources together."
One of many examples that showcases the success of the program is Port Marion, PA in Fayette County. This small community had vacancies in its business district and had suffered some population loss over the past two decades. Working with PEC, the community identified as priorities completing the connection of the Sheepskin Trail to the Mon River Trail in WV, improving the park along that trail and improving the streetscape downtown. In addition, they brought together a diverse group of partners and funding sources to accomplish those goals. The results? A number of key projects have been accomplished ⎯ securing funding for building the trail connection, having new and exciting events in the park, expanding the existing regatta, the Rotary Club secured grant funding for bike racks in town, installing new pieces of public art, and making façade improvements downtown.
This one example illustrates the breadth of the program. As Baxter point out, "it's not just about businesses or trail development, it's about coming together in a more comprehensive way than if everyone was working in their own silo."