How can small cities and towns reconnect with their rivers?

 The Pennsylvania Environmental Council says the Monongahela Aquatorium, an outdoor auditorium on the Monongahela River, could draw people into the city of Monongahela. (Pennsylvania Environmental Council)

The Pennsylvania Environmental Council says the Monongahela Aquatorium, an outdoor auditorium on the Monongahela River, could draw people into the city of Monongahela. (Pennsylvania Environmental Council)

As the industries along urban waterfronts have faded, big cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have come up with robust master plans — and significant funding — to connect people with their rivers.

But what can smaller municipalities with fewer resources do to revitalize their waterfronts?

One approach is to band together with other cities and towns along the river, says Patrick Starr, executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. PEC operates a “River Town Program” to help small municipalities reconnect with their rivers through recreation. The group advises these municipalities on project ideas, funding and marketing.

By working together, the municipalities have a better chance of securing grant funding and getting attention from legislators, says Starr. And a region that gets some buzz will become more attractive to small businesses, which might decide to locate along the river, he said.

Residents and city leaders can also start with low-cost interventions, picking up trash and clearing shrubs that block the river, Starr says. The next step is to expand into bigger projects like planting flowers, installing sculptures and putting up signs that direct people to the river, he says.

The River Town Program advises municipalities located alongside four waterways: the Monongahela River, the Allegheny River, French Creek and the Schuylkill River. Starr says the program has had a lot of success in towns along the Monogahela.

One of the Monongahela River towns, Fredericktown, is located 40 miles south of Pittsburgh. Through the program, Fredericktown has cleared trees, renovated and cleaned up riverfront parks, planted flowers and brought in visitors through events like a kayaking trip down the river, according to Dennis Slagle, president of the Fredericktown Chamber of Commerce. Slagle says local marinas have added boat slips, as well.

As a result of these interventions, he says, the number of campers and boaters has increased and a couple new businesses have opened, including a dollar store that caters to the visitors and a store that rents out kayaks, canoes and standup paddleboards.

Slagle says Fredericktown is in talks with a potential developer for a nearby riverfront brownfield. The community is also hoping to hold events that will bring people to the river during the colder months. (Philadelphia has tried to do the same with a low-cost seasonal park that operates during the winter.)

Fredericktown’s projects don’t create a lot of jobs but could make people consider visiting the community, Slagle says.

Fredericktown has partnered with several other municipalities that participated in PEC’s program to form a separate “River Town Program” focused on the Monongahela River.

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