Years ago the Mon River Valley was dotted with bustling communities filled with the soot and fire of the coal and coke era. Today, the residents of the towns along the Monongahela River are looking at that water corridor with new eyes. River towns are offering residents and visitors access to this waterway for outdoor recreation and launching businesses that support the emerging river recreation.
Leading the effort is the Mon River Valley Coalition (MRVC), an outgrowth of the River Town Program, launched in 2011 by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) to help communities recognize the river as an asset for community and economic development.
The MRVC got started when a group of civic and municipal leaders from Mon River communities graduated from the three-year River Town Program and wanted to continue working together. The Coalition was launched in 2013 and is now led by National Road Heritage Corridor director, Donna Holdorf, and River Town Program director, Cathy McCollom. Twenty communities bordering the Monongahela River now participate.
According to Cathy McCollom, it’s the collaborative spirit of the people and organizations involved that have made the difference. “These are small towns and small communities,” she says, “but working together, they keep growing.”
By working together, the MRVC has accomplished much in its first three years of collaborative efforts, including securing close to $2 million for projects. The focus of the work has been trail development, river access, opening view corridors, improving service and amenities, and launching a broad marketing campaign to effectively raise the visibility of the Mon River as a regional recreational asset. McCollom rattles off dozens of successful projects —kayak and canoe launches, boat docks, riverfront parks, landscaping, signage, bike racks, public art and more.
McCollom explains that with so much of the initial five-year Action Agenda already completed or well underway, the Coalition has updated the agenda with an addendum that runs through 2019.
Key priorities over the next few years include attracting more businesses to the Mon River Valley, developing vacant and underutilized buildings, and developing and launching artists and artisan’s incubators.
To help grow businesses in the Mon Valley, the MRVC has been working with the Small Business Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. For the past three years, the Center has run a workshop for small business owners and entrepreneurs in the Mon Valley. Last year, the intensive workshop had 22 participants.
In another effort, MRVC is working to bring artists to the river town communities to spur economic development.
“When artists move into communities they really engage,” says McCollom. “They are early adaptors, they make use of a building that's underutilized and often showcase their art in in public spaces. We believe that art helps communities wherever it is. We lead with the idea that the river is an asset to these communities, and that these communities are going to be an interesting place to live, and artisans seem to really understand that.”
To help with this effort, MRVC has partnered with Touchstone Center for Crafts in Laurel Highlands.
The MRVC arranges tours for students at the Center to tour available, underutilized buildings along the Mon River that could be used as work space or public art spaces. McCollom says they are also working with the Mon Valley Alliance (MVA) to host open houses for realtors and developers. MVA is an advocacy organization promoting and marketing economic, community and workforce development in the mid-Mon Valley communities. The goal says McCollom is for both organizations to talk to these groups about the “assets, the momentum and the resources available for development along the Mon.”
MRVC is also getting assistance from Riverlife, a nonprofit organization that collaborates with property owners, public officials, and community groups to create new parks, trails, real estate development and economic opportunity. While the organization’s primary focus is Pittsburgh, they work with waterfront towns and cities throughout the region.
Riverlife is currently working with three communities along the Mon to share their expertise and resources in riverfront development and to educate audiences on the recently passed Waterfront Development Tax Credit. The legislation offers a tax credit to any business or organization that contributes financially to a nonprofit waterfront improvement. In addition, Riverlife has collaborated with the Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center to host workshops in Chester, Weirton, Morgantown and Fairmont.
McCollom acknowledges that it is strong partnerships – such as the Mon Alliance, Pitt and Riverlife– that are helping to build up the Mon River Valley. “We want to encourage engagement and most importantly working together.”
But she gives the most credit to the communities themselves, to the growing number of community-based programs and volunteers who are passionate about their piece of the riverfront.