Meadville Makeover: Public Art Drives Economic Growth
Just a few years ago, the City of Meadville-owned flood-control dam at the headwaters of Mill Run creek was a spot for kids to hang out, tag with ugly graffiti and get into trouble with the law, says City Manager Joe Chriest.
Then the students and faculty of Allegheny College's Center for Economic and Environmental Development (CEED)
got involved, led by Director Amara Geffen. They've been working closely with the city, partnering with community groups to take classroom projects -- often centered on artistic or environmental improvements -- and translate them into action in the community. Their collaboration to improve the dam, and Shadybrook Park, surrounding it, has likely been their largest and most successful to date.
With money from Crawford County and the state's Environmental Protection and Conservation and Natural Resources departments, Geffen spent two summers leading a team of Allegheny students creating a mural of Meadville's tree logo and other locally significant imagery for the spillway, dedicated in June 2011. The project also created an improved stormwater filter, trail, footbridge, access steps and retaining wall. It not only engaged area youth in constructive activities but has effectively limited further graffiti and other site damage, Chriest reports.
"Without community development," says Geffen, "economic development is very difficult to accomplish."
With Meadville in the midst of its first comprehensive planning effort in two decades
, both Geffen and Chriest know that this is a crucial time for the town's 13,400 residents -- the lowest population since 1960. The city's median income is also low -- about half the Commonwealth average of $50,289 -- which means Meadville is facing with a higher poverty level than the state or county.
"In small rural areas," Geffen says, "the arts … create a sense of place and stimulate entrepreneurship and the economy." Now that Allegheny College is reassessing CEED and its other centers -- Geffen recently stepped down as director -- she believes successful CEED/city teamwork shows the way forward.
"The city," she adds, "has a keen interest in using arts and culture as a cornerstone" of the new plan.
A Creek Runs Through It
CEED's effort to make Mill Run a focal point of the community is part of the town's current and future artistic and cultural focus, Chriest acknowledges. The creek runs under a parking deck across from city hall. The city commissioned CEED to develop roadside graphics to mark the stream's hidden path. Using discarded traffic signs from PennDOT, Allegheny College students cut flowing-water patterns to decorate the side of the parking deck, while other signs now depict aquatic life.
"Art sometimes can be divisive," Joe Chriest says. "Some people really hate the things we put up on the parking deck. But sometimes you need controversy to create a dialog."
Besides, he says, public art "creates a sense of space. It beautifies the area and gives people a place to come. And we're bringing people from around the country -- it's on [the Website] Roadside America and everywhere."
Today there is other aquatic-life art on local bridges, as well as murals depicting Crawford County life on several downtown buildings and 11 newspaper racks. The city is also incorporating many CEED-developed design features in the North Street Improvement Project, which will involve a major PennDOT construction effort in spring 2013. They include creating a "necklace" of greenery, in Geffen's words, "that will provide enhancements for stormwater management and also beautify the streetscape," as well as raising and expanding the intersections to slow traffic. She hopes that benches, banners and bus stops added in the future will also have an arts focus.
The area around Meadville's historic Market House
-- Pennsylvania’s oldest continually open market house -- has also been restored, bringing a portion of the long-buried Mill Run back into the daylight. CEED helped design a crosswalk from the alley to the Market House and students painted the "Meadville at the Crossroads" mural at the end of the alley.
Inside the Market House, patrons have been able to see CEED's aquaponics demonstration that will soon feed Allegheny County students in college dining halls, and give local high-school students the chance to benefit food charities. Inside the Market House's 250-gallon fish tank, fish are nurtured by water filtered through romaine lettuce and basil in soilless growing trays suspended above the tank.
"Aquaponics is a new concept for many people," says Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Thomas J. Eatmon, who directs CEED's Environmental Education Initiative. "When our students are there, farmers and school teachers in our local community say, 'Wow, I could use this,' or 'This will help me meet state academic requirements in my classroom.' It's a communications tool. It's almost like a Website or a business card."
More Than The Old College Try
Today, Eatmon is busy constructing a much larger system on the college campus, including a 1,000-gallon tank, for food production. He already has 15-gallon systems in half a dozen sixth-grade classrooms.
College students have also teamed with more than 1,000 local schoolkids to create a metal flower garden out of more de-commissioned PennDOT signs, growing outside the PennDOT office in Meadville where U.S. Routes 6 and 322 meet. James Hepler, PennDOT's county manager, sees it as part of Meadville's tourist draw, with 24,000 cars passing daily. "This setting here has been on national TV, so it's drawn attention to the City of Meadville," he notes. "It's become a well-known landmark" -- and one more way to keep college kids here after graduation. "Any investment back into the city to try to strike interest in these kids to stay here is worthwhile," Hepler notes.
Getting the college involved with projects, of course, is easier than getting the general public involved. City Manager Joe Chriest says the city set up two days for representatives of businesses affected by the North Street project to meet with PennDOT and other officials, but no one showed up.
Civic engagement in general in Meadville is "not as good as it should be," he says. For most public meetings, "if we get more than the newspaper reporter and two or three other people, we're lucky," he says. "It's so hard to govern in a vacuum. I talk to people all the time individually, but if you can get them all together in a room, they can play off the synergy."
Such engagement is particularly important for the comprehensive plan, says Brandi Rosselli, manager of planning services for Pittsburgh-based Mackin Engineering Company
, which is assisting Meadville's planning process. Several early plan chapters, reviewing the past and setting out the vision, are available on the city's Web site; the rest should be ready for public review in October and November, after a public meeting in September to gather final reactions via survey (which will also be clickable from the city's Website).
"We've actually had very good participation, especially compared to other projects I've worked on at other municipalities in Pennsylvania," says Rosselli. January's initial meeting drew more than 100, while a stakeholders group meeting had 50 in attendance. She has reached out to the college community and met with others at the high school, the medical center and a local retirement community, Rosselli says.
Allegheny College Associate Professor of Political Science Brian Harward
is the new director of CEED's Center for Political Participation, a 10-year-old project designed to promote political engagement. Harward says the Center will be striking out in several new directions in the hope of better engaging the local populace for the future, including using Allegheny College's political science department to facilitate local discussions on voter ID laws, President Obama's health-care law and other issues and developing a major and minor in journalism in the public interest, in the tradition of Allegheny alum Ida Tarbell and other muckrakers.
Still, the direct connection between civic engagement and the economic health of any city remains elusive, he admits. "Of course there is" a connection, he says nonetheless. "You create a place where people are engaged and you develop a kind of social capital -- a relation between people. Anything to connect us to each other is a way to make our communities healthier and our governments more efficient. It creates a place where investment can work, where workers now know each other."
"When we began working a decade ago," Amara Geffen adds, "folks scratched their heads and looked askew as if these sorts of efforts wouldn't make any difference. Now, however … the city looks and feels better than it has in years."
MARTY LEVINE is a Pittsburgh freelance writer trying to cover the waterfront from the water. Send feedback here.
All Photographs by BRIAN COHEN