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Creating the communities we deserve in PA


This story was created in partnership with PA Council on the Arts as part of our Prism series.

Public art. A community makerspace. A lively new park. These kinds of projects can have a powerful impact. The Creative Communities Initiative (CCI) is based around that idea — that when we show care and think creatively about the built environment, the benefits ripple outwards. 

According to the PA Council on the Arts, CCI grants provide much-needed multi-year funding for place-based, community-driven, arts-based projects that serve as catalysts for social cohesion, livability, and community and economic development. The four projects showcased here do just that, and the leaders behind their implementation hope this is just the start. 

Going green
Meadville, Crawford County

Located in northwest Pennsylvania on French Creek, Meadville was founded in 1788 as the first permanent settlement in this corner of the state. The seat of Crawford County, the historic town has struggled through deindustrialization and economic decline. But essential community anchors remain, including Meadville Medical Center, the area’s largest employer, and Allegheny College, a prestigious liberal arts college. And now a downtown vacant lot has been transformed into a space for showcasing public art, mitigating stormwater runoff, promoting inclusion, and hosting community events. 

A movie night at ARC Community Greenspace

The Arc of Crawford County, a non-profit that advocates for and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, owns a building adjacent to this vacant lot. The organization saw the potential, and partnered with another neighbor, the Snodgrass building, which is owned by Crawford County Coalition on Housing Needs (CCCHN), to reinvent the space. Their CCI grant funded community engagement events  — concerts, planning meetings for the adjacent murals, a family movie night under the stars — during the planning process as well as site preparation, landscaping, and artist fees. 

That community-led ethos was key to a successful placemaking project. And success begets success. For example, in December 2021, ARC Community Greenspace became home to three solar powered umbrella tables. 

“This was a game changer for us as it provided a place for people to gather and in warmer weather provided respite from direct sun,” recalls Amara Geffen, a Professor of Art (Emerita) at Allegheny College who helped lead the project. 

There was so much serendipity that emerged as our work unfolded especially in gathering community input.Amara Geffen, Allegheny College

But that was only the beginning. Once they had the tables and announced hopes to add public internet, Armstrong Cable came to the table to provide free WiFi. That added amenity raised the profile of the space and brought in new visitors. In another example, a community chalk festival inspired a new mural, Celebrating Mill Run, installed in September 2023.

“There was so much serendipity that emerged as our work unfolded especially in gathering community input,” adds Geffen. “When that happens, that’s when you know you are on the right path.”

Project partners: The ARC of Crawford County, Art & Environment, City of Meadville, Allegheny College, Meadville Council on the Arts

Space to create
Sharon, Mercer County

Like Meadville, the Shenango Valley is a region that has struggled with depopulation and retaining its young entrepreneurs. Valley Fab Lab, a creative makerspace, was conceived to tackle this problem, providing an essential shared amenity for the community. Plans included space and equipment for startups, workshops, and certification courses. Another goal is inclusivity: welcoming veterans, minorities, socioeconomically disadvantaged residents, and individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities.  

A group of kids at Valley Fab Lab

“The Valley Fab Lab began as a collaboration between several organizations to develop a space for creativity, diversity, inclusion and innovation for the community,” says Margaret Horne, director of the Gannon University Small Business Development Center, a partner in the project. “The Shenango Valley Chamber, Whole Life Services, Inc. and the City of Sharon committed to launch this initiative with each bringing something to the table.”

The CCI provided financial stability during the buildout of the project and its programming. 

Learning about the maker equipment at Valley Fab Lab

“The ability to pay the rent, purchase materials and market what The Valley Fab Lab offered was crucial,” says Horne. “Without guidance from [PCA] and communication with other Creative Communities, The Valley Fab Lab would not be where it is today.” 

Beyond its value as a space for innovation, The Lab provides a very tangible resource to the town: taking on printing and fabrication jobs for local school districts, municipalities and businesses at an affordable price. In the service of this goal, members of the community are trained to use the equipment, including 3D printers and lasercutters. There are also opportunities to learn about digital content creation. 

This spring, Valley Fab Lab will move into Kennedy Catholic High School. 

“This will provide a no-cost space and opportunity to grow programming as well as add equipment,” says Horne. “We need more businesses as well as family oriented activities in a safe environment for a balanced community. The Valley Fab Lab provides that space.”

Project partners: Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce, Whole Life Services, Gannon University Small Business Development Center, Random Acts of Artists, City of Sharon

Hit the trail
Southern York County

The 26-mile Heritage Rail Trail in York County connects five towns in this picturesque part of the state. Nearly 500,000 visitors per year travel the route. The challenge is making sure that influx of people and dollars has a positive impact on the adjacent communities, which are mostly small post-industrial railroad towns. 

Spotlighting local businesses on the York County Trail Towns Instagram page

The York County Trail Towns program takes a holistic, community-led approach. In each municipality, action teams made up of residents, business owners and officials recommend specific improvements such as infrastructure upgrades, facade improvements, creative pop-ups, clear signage, and, of course, public art.

“From the earliest days of the program, public art has been a major interest of the action teams,” says Silas Chamberlain, chief strategy officer for York County Economic Alliance. “Our stakeholders want to protect and maintain the public art already installed across their communities and come together to create new installations.”

That’s where the CCI dollars come in. The program funded a public art steering committee, providing backing for an annual art-focused event, enabled the creation of a piece of public art at Glen Rock Borough’s Ruins Hall, and supported the Storefront Catalysts program, which targets vacant retail spaces in high-potential areas. 

Trail Towns — and the work being funded by CCI — are a way for us to bring tangible benefit to these smaller communities, attract visitors to the small businesses located within them, and pave the way for future investments.Silas Chamberlain, York County Economic Alliance

“PCA’s investment is a perfect complement to the urban revitalization and civic engagement tactics already at the heart of our Trail Towns program,” says Chamberlain. “Our communities are each unique and amazing in their own ways, but they have also been left behind by most forms of economic development, which aren’t scaled to support small communities without a significant industrial base.” 

“Most of our Trail Towns aren’t even large enough to sustain a Main Street program,” he continues. “But Trail Towns — and the work being funded by CCI — are a way for us to bring tangible benefit to these smaller communities, attract visitors to the small businesses located within them, and pave the way for future investments.”

Project partners: York County Economic Alliance, York County Trail Towns, Cultural Alliance of York County, York County Parks Department, York County Rail Trail Authority, Trail Towns municipalities

A butterfly flaps its wings
Lancaster City, Lancaster County

The Spanish American Civic Association (SACA) is based in a residential neighborhood in southeast Lancaster City. Block after block of rowhomes house mostly low-income renters in addition to the organization’s headquarters, its senior center and outpatient mental health facility, and a workforce development center. The organization and its partners wanted to foster social cohesion and pride in the neighborhood, but didn’t have a huge budget to do it.

“We needed to do things that were on a smaller scale that would engage neighbors and enhance the sense of place,” says Jack Howell, Elm Street Manager at SACA. “It has grown in ways that I did not anticipate.”

A new mural in Lancaster City

The original idea was to paint a mural on the building that houses SACA’s senior center and outpatient mental health facility. There had already been a community-driven effort to add trash cans and native plantings to this area, in addition to pressuring the city to repave and repair the sidewalks and street. The mural seemed like a logical next step. 

“We had this money for a mural and that’s when I met with the group of neighbors,” recalls Howell. “Cassandra Owens, a neighbor and longtime homeowner, said something about a mural with butterflies and the consulting artists in the group bought into that.”

From that small seed of an idea, the vision for the piece grew, incorporating images from African-American history, specifically the story of General Pershing and the all-Black 10th Regiment; the mural is located on Pershing Avenue. Other embedded images include Boys Club kids at play and members of the senior center playing dominoes and bingo. 

“We accidentally discovered that the monarch butterfly has several symbolic roles,” adds Howell. “It is the symbol for migration and transformation, and it’s the international symbol for mental health, so that’s quite a coincidence.”

Additional streetscape improvements on Pershing Avenue in Lancaster City

CCI funded the mural and the community engagement process. This project is now in its fourth year and has continued to evolve, with local artists teaming up with neighborhood creatives for additional public art projects, programming, and the revitalization of a local park. 

“I wanted something that the neighbors would buy into,” says Howell of the mural that kicked things off. “They love it. They really do. Nobody’s defaced it. It’s gonna be there forever. It looks really good. The leadership of SACA is proud of it.”

Howell is also focused on the future, with plans to integrate public history into the mural via QR Codes and redo more local public spaces with arts-centric improvements.

“My vested interest is not patting myself on the back,” he says. “It is trying to get more funding for [programs] that empower our neighbors.”

Project partners: Spanish American Civic Association (SACA), Millersville University, Seed Project, The Mix at Arbor Place, The Taino Cultural Center, Lancaster Equity, School District of Lancaster, Boys and Girls Club, TCP Network, Mustafa Nuur, Thaddeus Stevens College, LGBTQ+ Coalition, Pennsylvania College of Art and Design, Communications Essentials, Church World Services, Speak to My Soul/Concrete Rose, Southeast Times, We are Casa, and Community Action Partnership

Would a Creative Communities Initiative Grant be a good fit for your community? Head here to learn more. 

LEAD IMAGE: ARC Community Greenspace in Meadville, Crawford County

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Region: South Central

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