Mon River Coalition meeting

Mark Soroka

Belle Vernon Mayor Gerald Jackson, speaking, believes the Monongahela River is on the cusp of becoming a major tourism destination

Tourism is finally starting to put the Mon Valley’s river towns on the map, bringing visitors from some far away locations.

“Our annual kayak/canoe race is becoming one of the most popular events on the Monongahela River,” said Belle Vernon Mayor Gerald Jackson, one of the speakers at the Mon River Coalition’s summer meeting. “During our second annual race last Saturday, we attracted quite a few out-of-town visitors, including a three-time national kayaking champion. In fact, we’ve drawn so much interest in the race that there is some talk about turning our section of the river into a national competition area. We are sending out a message loud and clear: The Mon Valley is alive and well. Our area is a great place to visit.”

The coalition is giving key stakeholders in the area a venue for exploring new ideas, said Cathy McCollum, head of McCollum Development Strategies, who is co-director of the Mon coalition with Donna Holdorf, executive director of the National Road Heritage Corridor.

“We are an informal group of business owners, state representatives and senators, municipal leaders, tourism promotion agencies and other economic development agencies that strive to improve the Mon Valley, work together to market the area and find new investment opportunities for businesses and residents,” said McCollum. “We focus on the Mon River as an asset to help in this effort.”

McCollum said the coalition works closely with the Mon River Towns Program to spur on tourism and economic development in 24 communities that border the Monongahela River.

Since the program started in 2011, projects have included canoe and kayak launches, riverfront clearings, riverfront parks with benches and overlooks, gateways and wayfinding signage, public art to beautify and attract, accessible public docks, lighting, nearby land-based trains and business assistance.

Shane McManus, who represented the Greensboro Pennsylvania Arts Co-op, said his community has found its rebirth by creating a haven for artists from all over the world.

“We have 55 members who represent 13 different countries,” he said. “One of our members even came from Africa to do his post-doctoral work. The co-op is opening up a lot of world views that would normally be secluded in a small town such as Greensboro.”

Monongahela, the oldest settlement in the Monongahela River Valley, is also becoming a popular tourist destination.

“There are a lot of exciting things happening on Main Street in Monongahela,” city Councilman Ken Kulak said. “We are drawing visitors for our fleatique, farmer’s market, summer concert series and light-up night. And our two-day witch festival in October is bringing people in from throughout the East Coast.

During the meeting, participants also spoke about other initiatives that are driving economic growth and a higher quality of life in the Mon Valley’s river towns:

n Michael Wholihan, assistant director, Small Business Development Center, University of Pittsburgh, announced that a no-cost breakfast program will be held on Sept. 20 in Charleroi for small businesses. “Show Me the Money” will connect business owners with lenders and economic development specialists who will discuss a broad range of topics such as debit consolidation, lines-of-credit and low-interest credit and loan processes for approval. “We partnered with three local chambers of commerce to come up with a program that helps to bring capital to small businesses,” said Wholihan. “This program is geared for small businesses that need minor credit to buy things such as equipment or property.” To register for the breakfast meeting, visit www.moneysbdc.eventbrite.com.

n Suzi Bloom, director of education, Rivers of Steel, noted that the Explorer riverboat will be docking at the Monongahela Aquatorium this fall. The 94-foot floating classroom provides a broad range of educational opportunities for students. “Students will have a chance to learn more about environmental sciences,” she said. “For instance, they will be conducting tests on water chemistry and study the microorganisms that live in the Monongahela River. We have scholarship funding for up to 800 students. More than 600 seats are already filled, so any students who are interested should contact us as soon as possible.”

n Jaycee Curtis, organizer of “Rock for Recovery,” invited the public to come to Veteran’s Memorial Park in Belle Vernon on Aug. 11, to show support for people who are struggling with a drug addiction. “We will be featuring seven bands, food and vendors from 2 to 9 p.m.,” she said. “During this event, we will be celebrating the accomplishments of people who are recovering from a substance abuse addiction. And we will be there to help those who are still on the road to recovery.”

State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll Township, said she was amazed by the support shown among the participants.

“That’s the key. The river doesn’t separate us as friends, neighbors, community leaders or businesspeople. It should join us. We have a lot of irons in the fire. There are a lot of exciting things going on in this area,” she said.

State Rep. Bud Cook, R-Coal Center, urged the group to continue promoting the Mon Valley.

“We’ve made a lot of progress with marketing the Mon Valley, but more work needs to be done,” said Cook. “It’s important to get the word out about all the great attractions this area has to offer.”

McCollum reminded the group that the success of the river towns’ burgeoning tourism industry hinges on keeping the area’s waterways clean.

“Water quality is essential if we want to push forward with outdoor recreational activities and continue attracting visitors,” she said. “While water quality is improving in the Monongahela River and other waterways, we still have some questions that need to be answered. Is the Monongahela River improving to the extent that we thought? How is water quality being measured? Who is measuring it? And where is the research?”

McCollum invited water quality experts to attend a luncheon at Kara Alumni House on Sept. 21, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to address the health of the area’s rivers, streams and other waterways.

“For many years, the Monongahela River has been an effective and efficient industrial highway,” she said. “Now the river can also improve the Mon Valley by attracting others who want to visit, live, play and even work near the water. That’s why it is important to maintain high water quality.”

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