It is not enough to recognize the economic challenge our businesses and communities are facing. We must step up and do something about it.

In communities of the Mon Valley, already struggling to come back from decades of decline, the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll. Small, locally owned businesses that depend on us are treading water, trying to balance compliance with state-mandated guidelines while generating some type of revenue.

We are caught in the middle, being asked to choose sides. In Charleroi, two of my favorite places, cornerstones of a central business district that is on the cusp of revitalization, continue to support the community despite these debilitating financial times. They are Perked Up Café and the River House Café, examples of the importance of local business to a community.

The small shops and restaurants that line Broad Avenue in North Belle Vernon – such as Vintage and Vines, Broad Avenue Treasures and 1933 Grill – are fighting not to just keep their doors open, but to keep serving the community they love.

Walk along Main Street in Monongahela and you will see a fraction of the activity that was evident when things were “normal.” There are no crowds at Angelo’s II or Sweets by Mrs. C. All small businesses are essential in small communities.

Of course, the Mon Valley is not alone in this crisis. Businesses and small communities all over Southwestern Pennsylvania are experiencing similar adversity. Small businesses can always be counted on to put people and their communities first.

Our local businesses provide much more than essential goods and services. They are first to sponsor community events, first to support local food banks and school districts. They are our lifeblood.

Building communities is something we do together, an effort that is ongoing. You may have rolled your eyes at what you just read about the Charleroi business district. But community and economic development start where we are today, as modest as that might be, and it proceeds incrementally over time, with each of us doing what we can to make things better.

McKean Avenue in the borough is a mixed-race, mixed-income area with a historic business district consisting of an attractive row of old buildings that line the sidewalks. Some have been uniquely repurposed, some have remained vacant, waiting for a visionary entrepreneur to bring them back to their once-proud visage.

This scene is repeated around our communities in the Mon Valley. Streets such as McKean Avenue in Donora and Main Street in Belle Vernon tell much the same story.

There are thousands of avenues across Pennsylvania, and we have seen a number of them decline and fight their way back. They have turned a corner, and in a remarkable way. Yes, they have a way to go, but they should stand as a model of what can achieve together.

Community, especially the tightly woven community of Southwestern Pennsylvania, is something we inherit and will pass on. Our local businesses are an integral piece of our puzzle, one that we will not complete, but rather hand over to others.

We will move on, but our local business community will remain, continuing to offer service and support as they continue to build. We can do our part and contribute to the future revitalization of our communities by supporting these essential local businesses now.

Jamie Protin is founder and principal of The Protin Group in Belle Vernon.

To submit business-related columns, email Rick Shrum at rshrum@observer-reporter.com.

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