Text and photos by C.R. Nelson
“They don’t see the lines we see – they just see an area they want to explore.”
I’m sitting with Greene County Tourism Director JoAnn Marshall in her office at 19 South Washington St. in Waynesburg, and the “they” she has just summed up so handily are those curious out-of-towners who find their way off Interstate 79 with a yen to explore our little corner of America.
The lines on maps separating Greene and Washington counties and Pennsylvania from West Virginia are what our country roads crisscross on their way to museums, covered bridges, festivals, parks, hunting camps, art studios and fun places to have dinner, buy local wines, go ghost hunting or sleep over for a two-day sightseeing safari. That’s what “they” come to see – and what makes those of us who live here glad to stay.
As a local reporter, I’m so used to finding Marshall in the thick of things, at her booth greeting visitors, walking around taking photos or just taking in the show, that sitting in a quiet office is making us both laugh. But this is where the real nuts and bolts of tourism happens – creating the buzz, writing the grants, designing the brochures, doing social media outreach, prepping for meetings with stakeholders or getting ready to set up outside the county to do that most important thing – bring those out-of-towners in.
She does all of that and more – and she’s the first to tell you she couldn’t do it alone.
Having a degree in photography with a minor in art from Intermont College in Bristol, Va., are great tools to have, and it shows in the savvy layout and evocative photos that fill Greene County’s 2019-20 Official Visitors Guide.
But it was working for the YMCA across the state line in sister town Bristol, Tenn., that gave Marshall the chops she needed to manage a complex organization during changing times.
“I lifeguarded at the Y during college and became their activities director,” she says.
After graduating in 2005, Marshall took a year off to work professionally in Cleveland doing photographic digital images. Then it was back to the Y to do its membership marketing, just as its nationwide rebranding campaign kicked off to “lose the sharp angles of the ’80s to the colorful rounded edges of inclusion.” What followed was a 10-year stint marketing the YMCA’s services to the families in and around those two Bristols. There, she learned the rules of profit and nonprofit organizations, of grant writing and networking, skills that would come in handy when she came home to take a job as a county employee in the tourism department in 2016.
Marshall admits that living and working in another part of small town America gave her the perspective and appreciation she needed to take a look at what Greene County has to offer.
Setting up at festivals that first year was the boot camp she needed to see first hand what she had to work with.
“I was terrified!” she says, laughing. “I’m basically a shy person, and my first event was the Hammer In. All those machines and the crowds of people – I didn’t know what to make of it. Then I saw you there and you made me feel welcome. From the moment you see the passion people have for their projects, you can’t help but connect. Now it’s my favorite event of the year. I wouldn’t miss it!”
When tourism director Liz Menhart left that November, Marshall inherited her office and a world of possibility for making this region a destination for a new generation of out-of-towners.
For those of us who live here, the uptick in fun things to see, do and nosh, right in our own backyard is a bonus I’m always happy to report.
In the lobby, Tanner McKnight from Grove City and a junior at Waynesburg University, is busy at the computer, reviewing and adding to descriptions of the trails to be walked in the county – Enlow Fork Natural Area, Greene River Trail, Greensboro Walking and Bike Trail, Ryerson Station State Park, the Warrior Trail. He’s staying on campus this summer for his credit as an intern and will be out and about on the events trail with Marshall, bringing a fresh eye for the little things that might make a good time even even better.
“Interns are really valuable, because they offer insight we may not see,” Marshall says.
Her staff of two counting McKnight includes Jane Adams, who recently left the Greene County Messenger to work in the position Marshall once held – assistant to the director. As we talk, Adams is packing up for an event in Washington County later in the evening. “Hope it doesn’t rain!”
This is how information about what’s going on in Greene gets out – along with presentations at the two nearby welcome centers on Interstate 79 during Tourism Week and keeping literature at the 14 others across the state and two turnpike plazas. Welcome Center workers can book hotel accommodations for travelers and help them orientate if they’re ready to explore. Tourism receives 3 percent funding from the state hotel occupancy tax, but the Marcellus gas and oil boom keeps many rooms occupied by industry workers, so booking ahead is a valuable courtesy to visitors. For the adventurous, there are seven campgrounds scattered around the county, including cabin rentals at four and RV hookup at Burns in Wind Ridge that includes WiFi, water, sewage and electricity.
I carry a visitors guide in my glove compartment because of its wonderful map of the county as a first page foldout and its directories that offer a wide assortment of places to go and things to do, in case I forget the date. Our historic tie to Washington County is evident in the Covered Bridge Festival that will be celebrated this year at 10 historic bridges that cross the county line from Marianna to Carmichaels and Garards Fort. The festival celebrates its 49th anniversary Sept. 21-22.
The guide takes daytrips one step further by suggesting weekend adventures in all four directions that might include the Jacktown Fair, visiting a pottery studio, taking a hike on the Warrior Trail or putting in a kayak at the Greensboro launch, then browsing this world-famous old pottery town before sleeping over at a motel, rented cabin or campground.
Back at the office, a colorful array of T-shirts, puzzles, crocks, piles of visitors guides, posters for upcoming events and out-of-town magazines promoting places for us to visit are on display. Marshall tells me the guide can be downloaded at visitgreene.org, and day-to-day updates can be found at VisitGreene on Facebook.
I leave Marshall’s office with an armload of guides to give to my friends as Adams finishes packing her car, McKnight wraps things up for the day and Marshall goes back to adding another round of updates to Facebook before heading out for a meeting. It’s spring, and another season of festivals and events are ready to roll.
I caught up with Marshall at this year’s Hammer In on April 20 to get the perfect photograph of a tourism director in action for this story. This gear driven, fire-friendly piece of history in Rices Landing has been drawing crowds for more than 30 years to the banks of the Monongahela River. They come to watch the historic Young and Son Machine Shop and Foundry come to life with blacksmith demonstrations and while reconnecting with the history of the industrial revolution, which began here in the coal rich hills and river valleys around Pittsburgh and helped build a nation.
Marshall is there to enjoy her favorite festival and be there with the commissioners to present Rivers of Steel with a grant for phase three of its machine shop restoration project, money that will help replace the old windows. That’s where 10 percent of tourism’s share of the hotel occupancy tax goes – back into the community to start new events, support longstanding ones and help cash strapped nonprofit organizers pay for advertising to bring those out-of-towners in to enjoy what they have to offer.
“We gave 28 grants in 2019 for capital development improvement,” Marshall says.
This year, the Warrior Trail received a much-needed grant to replace markers and build tables that double as beds in its shelters.
It’s great to see those hotel tax dollars at work!