Improved Access No. 1 Goal of Monongahela River Town Program

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
5 April 2014

By Joe Napsha, Staff ReporterAbout Joe Napsha
Joe Napsha 724-836-5252

Charleroi has joined other Mon Valley towns that are hoping to boost economic development by improving access to the Monongahela River, which they anticipate will result in more people using the river to boat and fish, and possibly spend money in their towns.

“We're hoping to enhance our riverfront and use it an economic engine for downtown,” Charleroi Borough Manager Donn Henderson said.

To attract more people to Charleroi, the borough wants to improve its Second Street boat ramp that lies between a stone and gravel company and Charleroi Area High School's former football stadium. The access is not well-maintained, as the borough has dumped road gravel along one side of the road leading to the water's edge, Henderson said.

To achieve its goals of increasing recreational opportunities and boosting economic development, Charleroi is working with of the Monongahela River Town Program, a three-year initiative which promotes sustainable economic development through outdoor recreation as an economic engine in towns along the river, said Cathy McCollom, who directs the program.

Charleroi, Brownsville and Monongahela are in the midst of the program, while Point Marion in Fayette County, Rices Landing and Greensboro in Greene County and Fredericktown and California Borough have “graduated” from the three-year effort to revitalize the region's economy while conserving the river as a valuable resource, McCollom said.

Tourism promotion agencies in Westmoreland, Fayette, Washington and Greene counties and county-wide economic development agencies in Fayette, Greene and Washington counties have added their clout to the effort.

“The goal of the program is to work together as a region to attract business,” McCollom said.

The river town program has pumped more than $1 million into projects enhancing Mon Valley river towns, said Lindsay Baxter, who manages the program for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, a statewide conservation organization. The money for the projects has come from grants and support from Pittsburgh foundations, Baxter said.

The realization that the river is an economic resource, will most naturally lead to conservation efforts of that valuable resource, which fits the environmental council's mission, McCollom said.

“This (program) is another tool in your economic toolbox,” McCollom said.

The Mon Valley communities can benefit from a resurgence in the Monongahela River, which was named Pennsylvania's River of the Year in 2013, the consultant said.
“There is a growing recognition of just how extraordinary the Monongahela River is,” McCollom said.

Charleroi is like so many other Mon Valley towns, where the steel mills and other factories took up valuable riverfront property that was used to receive and transport manufactured goods by the water, or use the river as a water source or as an outlet for their waste products.

“These industries come and go, but the river is not going anywhere,” Henderson said.

Since the Monongahela River was designated last year as Pennsylvania's River of the Year by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the river town program was able to “massive marketing” about the river and the recreational opportunities it offers, McCollom said.

“Spread the word that the Monongahela is more than an industrial highway. It is a magnificent resource that is close to your backyard,” McCollom said.

Recreation along the Monongahela River is the hook that will draw people to those towns. If people don't come to these communities, how will they ever know about business opportunities in those towns, McCollom questioned. But these towns need a clean gateway with open and clean businesses along the entrance to the community and clear signage directing visitors toward the riverfront, McCollom said.

While Charleroi and other Mon Valley towns have public infrastructure that permits access to the river, some of it is in disrepair, McCollom said. The river town program will encourage improvements to the public infrastructure, McCollom said.

Improving the boat ramp, plus adding a dock and a fishing pier that is handicapped-accessible, could cost between $30,000 and $40,000, Henderson said. The borough may use money from its Community Development Block Grant and intends to seek grants from foundations in the region, Henderson said.

The borough also would like to create a walking trail that connects Charleroi with other communities along the river, Henderson said.

In California Borough, a master recreation plan has been developed for a biking-walking California Loop Trail that could connect the river to the town's seven neighborhood and community parks.

The March 2013 study recommended California create selective open corridors to view the river, without losing significant tree cover, as well as improving river access sites. The borough has only one river access site — the Union Street Wharf.

Brownsville wants to create a performance stage at a Market Street site that has been cleared of buildings, said Norma Ryan, treasurer of the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp., which is directing the borough's efforts for the river program. Plans are to landscape the site in the second phase of the project, Ryan said.

“It just fits into the river town plan for economic growth,” Ryan said.

That economic growth, Ryan said, “has so many fingers to it — the arts, tourism, residential and small business.”

Brownsville, like other Mon Valley towns, is struggling to regain the economic vitality it once had when coal mines, steel mills and barge building were thriving.

“Each community has to decide what it can do for its rebirth. Brownsville has multiple ways to survive,” Ryan said.

Even with access to the rivers, McCollom said the program has found large and looming gaps in the services offered by the riverfront towns. There is a lack of kayak and boat rentals, although it is not a stand-alone business because of the low profit margins, McCollom said. But, as added product line or combined with selling tackle, bait, fishing equipment or bikes, or even as a side business to a hardware store, it can work, McCollom said.

“That has been designated as a priority project regionally. Pull in more kayak businesses and improve the public access to our rivers,” said McCollom, noting the program has encouraged paddling trips.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or

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