Paul Simon said it best: “There is something romantic and mysterious about a train whistle.”
Trains are a microcosm of life. You hear them off in the distance, then they’re upon you for a few moments, then they are gone. You can’t help but wonder for a moment, where it’s been and where it’s going.
When I’m near the tracks in my Charleroi office or on my deck high above the Monongahela River, that faint wail echoing down the Valley, signaling a train’s approach, takes me back to the day. Then it grows and I’m sitting there in the moment, with noise and movement. As it fades away, the train rumbling along the river, I wonder what lies ahead.
I remember when trains rumbled through Monongahela, literally stopping traffic as they crossed Main Street at the entrance to town. In Charleroi, the beautifully ornate buildings that housed local businesses downtown literally shook. Those buildings, and the businesses within, provided the personal relationships that formed the foundation for community life. Many of those buildings are now vacant or underused, and we have a fair share of blight. But the bones of our once-mighty little towns are still there.
Railroads helped build cities, sparked economic growth and shaped our country. That’s reminiscent of the Mon Valley of the past, when we were like that train whistle. The deeds of our fathers and grandfathers let everyone know the Valley was coming and it was best to get out of our way. Whether we were inventing the components that would revolutionize oil and gas well drilling technology in the 1930s, or being one of the most prolific regions in the country in contributing to the war effort of the 1940s . . . we were together.
We have a story to tell. This county is experiencing a powerful revitalization. From our stately courthouse and bustling downtown in Washington, to the robust business community of Southpointe and the vibrant Meadows Racetrack & Casino, to our farms and quaint small towns and our beautiful river, Washington County is a place to be in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Canonsburg and Washington are doing well and growth in the townships along the Interstate 79 corridor is amazing. Washington County is bursting with opportunity, and the potential for growth is limitless. We have space to grow, and with the energy industry, a vehicle to take us wherever we choose.
But we can leave no one behind. The eastern side of the county, the Mon Valley, once powered us forward and brought everyone along. Now the roles have reversed.
The downtown districts of California, Charleroi, Donora and Monongahela have potential to grow into a regional destination for visitors and residents alike. Our river towns that incorporate natural features, historic structures, public art and innovative placemaking will distinguish themselves as destinations, attract new residents and visitors, and support vibrant communities for those who already live there. That’s because, for all our resources – natural and manmade – our most valuable resource will always be our people.
We are looking at strategically restoring those downtown buildings, using the river to our advantage by tying mixed-use riverfront development to our downtowns, creating more walkable, sociable public places. Filling gaps in our business districts and bringing these buildings back to life are priorities. Incubating new businesses to occupy our vacant and underused buildings will revitalize our towns.
Building within an existing block will attract more people to shop local and explore what our towns have to offer. Of course, these local businesses create jobs that complement and support large manufacturing operations that are popping up around the county. People who fill these jobs will need homes and apartments, and the businesses already here will benefit from new friends and neighbors.
We have a story to tell. Let’s tell it together.
Jamie Protin is founder and principal of The Protin Group in Belle Vernon.
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