Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin joined partners last week in touring projects in the Pennsylvania Wilds.
Federal Co-Chair Manchin spent Wednesday afternoon and evening at the Elk Country Visitor Center, meeting with the Local Development District Association of Pennsylvania and learning more about elk country from the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, which operates the center in partnership with the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). The following day Manchin visited another star tourism asset in the region, the Kinzua Bridge State Park in McKean County, where she met with partners and collaborators who are supporting the growth of the outdoor recreation economy, sustainable infrastructure and business growth.
In addition to receiving an update from PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship CEO Ta Enos about PA Wilds Center’s continuing work throughout the 13-county PA Wilds region, participants were able to see the PA Wilds Center’s rural value chain and regional commerce infrastructure in action at the PA Wilds Conservation Shop at Kinzua Bridge State Park, which sources locally-made and value-added products so visitors can take home a piece of the Pennsylvania Wilds while making a difference. Since products for the shop are sourced from regional businesses, purchases have a ripple effect on the local economy. This supports the PA Wilds Center’s nonprofit mission of marrying conservation and economic development, through working with partners to grow the region’s outdoor recreation, nature, and heritage tourism industry as a way to diversify local economies, inspire stewardship, attract investment, improve quality of life and help retain the region’s population.
“More than 90 percent of the products you see in the PA Wilds Conservation Shops were created by artists, makers and other small businesses who live in the PA Wilds,” Enos says. “That means that we are supporting and growing locally rooted wealth, as well as allowing these artisans to reflect our region’s natural assets by depicting and celebrating the places and experiences that can only be found in the PA Wilds. The PA Wilds Conservation Shops have a huge mission impact in how we are able to marry conservation and economic development.”
The PA Wilds Center is in the process of expanding its regional commerce infrastructure to keep improving market access for rural entrepreneurs while filling gaps in visitor services. “Market-based approaches like this that systematically drive visitor dollars and other investment towards hyper-local businesses and organizations are needed to counter the macro forces we’ve seen gut rural communities across Appalachia and America and are critical to helping rural landscapes leverage their outdoor economies,” said Enos.
Libby Bloomquist, PA Wilds Center’s Sustainable Commerce Director, says one of her favorite parts of overseeing the Conservation Shops is getting to know the artisans. “With every product that we sell, we tell the story of the PA Wilds maker that created it. You’ll see the Creative Makers photos hanging on the walls behind the cash register at the shops. When a visitor buys something, our staff members point out the face behind that product. We think it’s more meaningful for visitors to know that their souvenir was handcrafted and designed by someone who lives in our region. In addition to being meaningful for the artisans who are able to sell their wares here, we know that the money spent has a greater impact on the communities we serve and a better chance of remaining in the PA Wilds.”
From 2017 to 2021, there was $1.66 million in gross sales of local products and services at the PA Wilds Conservation Shops at Kinzua Bridge State Park and Leonard Harrison State Park, with the bulk of those funds going directly to local businesses for inventory purchases, to support local jobs created at the stores, and to support the Center’s nonprofit mission in the landscape. The stores also operate a charity checkout campaign for conservation, with 100 percent of monies raised donated to the PA Parks and Forests Foundation for reinvestment back in state parks and forests in the Pennsylvania Wilds region.
John Sider from Ben Franklin Technology Partners also provided an update to the Federal Co-Chair about an ARC POWER grant it is working on with the PA Wilds Center, PA Small Business Development Centers and PennTAP called “Igniting Innovation in the PA Wilds,” which includes three $50,000-to-win Big Idea contests and a remote work initiative being piloted in a few rural communities in the PA Wilds.
After the presentations, DCNR’s environmental education specialist at Kinzua Bridge State Park, Holly Dzemyan, gave Manchin and ARC staff a tour of the visitor center and historic Kinzua Skywalk.
“The Appalachian Regional Commission has been a critical investor in the PA Wilds effort, alongside DCNR and DCED,” says Enos. “Over the last 20 years they have invested in key recreation infrastructure, regional capacity building and planning, marketing and branding, tech upgrades, regional commerce infrastructure, and small business development. Our regional commerce infrastructure and the entrepreneurial ecosystem that enables it would not be where it is today without ARC’s support. We are grateful for the opportunity to share some of these investments in action with Federal Co-Chair Manchin and ARC Executive Director Brandon McBride.”
“It was a pleasure visiting with the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship this morning at the beautiful Kinzua Bridge State Park,” says ARC Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin. “Their work serves as a model for ways our entire region can collaborate to leverage outdoor recreation and tourism to drive economic development.”