How Small Towns Are Reclaiming Their Riverfronts

  • Tim's Secret Treasures, an antiques store in Charleroi, Pennsylvania. The River Town Program encourages tourism and shopping in towns like this along the Monongahela River. Photo: Kara Holsopple

August 28, 2015

In recent years, cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland have won a lot of praise for reviving their waterfronts with bike trails and parks. But many smaller towns, some along those same rivers, are struggling to find their footing after key businesses—and later, residents—left town. This is why the Pennsylvania Environmental Council started the River Town Program, which helps riverfront communities rediscover the value of their rivers as economic and community assets. Recently, Kara Holsopple spoke with Lindsay Baxter, who heads up the River Town Program, to find out just how the program is helping transform small riverfront communities in Pennsylvania. Here are some highlights from the interview.

On the transformation of small riverfront communities

“We’ve done a lot of work with opening up access to the rivers—e.g. trail development, and even just clearing the views to the rivers so that people can see them. Historically, the rivers were industrial transportation ways; they were a place for waste disposal.  And often, our cities and towns have turned their back on the rivers. The River Town Program is all about turning around and embracing the river. Now, we’ve seen businesses opening up back porches and back decks [on the river]—making that their front door for visitors and residents alike.

So often, these towns are rural or smaller in nature, and what the River Town Program tries to do is bring them together into a regional approach. A small community festival may not be a big enough deal to attract somebody from Pittsburgh or Morgantown to come in from out of town. But if you have a couple of communities—one that has a beautiful bike trail that you can ride on, one that’s having a 4th of July festival, and one that has the best ribs around—you can easily attract somebody in for a nice day trip.”

On how the River Town Program is helping communities attract tourists

"One of the biggest things we’ve learned is that all of these communities have been planned to death. The last thing they needed was an outside organization to come in and build a plan. So the program needs to be very action oriented. Fredericktown, which is in Washington County—they have a significant number of visitors from Pittsburgh, Morgantown and other areas that come for the weekend or for a week or longer in the summer to camp. And their marinas are very busy and well-used. But the town wasn’t seeing so much of that business. So that was one of their key goals—to get more of the visitors and boaters coming into town and using their businesses, coming to their events. Some of the things we did were helping them to secure a grant to improve their boat docks [for] people that come by boat and enter the town that way. And based on that project, the community was able to secure a Department of Conservation and Natural Resources grant to install public restrooms at the boat launches. And that’s a huge thing, because they have big fireworks festivals, concerts and fishing festivals in that area."

On how the River Town Program can help economies in small towns

"Many of the communities that participate in the River Town Program had that one key industry, and it left. And the program is not going to replace a large glass factory or a steel mill. That’s not really the intent. It’s to diversify the economy and to create more livable communities so that you see more young families being able to stay in towns like Charleroi or Monongahela and not feel like they have to move somewhere else. Nationwide, outdoor recreation employs more people than Walmart. And these are decent family-wage jobs, and those are real dollars that benefit communities.

Now, we’re looking at communities all across the state as what we like to call “resource towns.” So they don’t have to be on rivers or creeks. So we’re looking at all of the communities out there that have trails and outdoor recreation and natural resource assets and how we can use those as a way to grow communities in a sustainable way."