Pitt group seeks answer to Appalachia ‘mind drain’ in Connellsville research

A University of Pittsburgh study is looking at how Connellsville and other distressed communities in Appalachia can use their resources to spur economic development and turn around a decades-long ‘brain drain’ — where college-educated residents leave to go elsewhere for better jobs, higher pay or a different lifestyle.

“Brain drain is a common issue in rural Appalachia. It continually comes up” as a challenge to economic development, said Bryan Schultz, director of Pitt’s global and experiential programs at Pitt’s honors college.

The common thought is that there are not enough jobs, or well-paying jobs, to keep them there,” said Schultz, who is one of the professors involved in the pilot program funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Appalachian Teaching project. The commission provided Pitt with $5,000 for transportation and miscellaneous costs.

Through the study, Gabrielle Payne of Irwin, a Pitt senior involved in the project, said they hope to “shine a light on the assets” of the community, not just the difficulties it faces. Those assets include parks such as Ohiopyle, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fallingwater and its link to history, such as George Washington and Fort Necessity.

The study is designed to evaluate the area’s natural resources, infrastructure assets and human capital, “to basically enhance our competitive position and quality of life in the post-pandemic period,” said Daniel Cocks, executive director of the Fayette County Cultural Trust, one of the partners in the study, along with the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority.

Appalachian communities such as Connellsville might become attractive places to live because of the lower cost of living at a time when working from home and flexible work schedules are becoming more popular, Schultz said.

“The younger people want to see what we can approve upon. It’s always good to have a set of fresh eyes” look at the area, Cocks said.

They toured the city, met with business owners, city officials and representatives from the Fayette County Cultural Trust, who gave students a sense of what they can build on in the future, said Michael Glass, an urban studies professor at Pitt and one of the professors involved in the study.

The challenges are daunting for any economic recovery in Fayette County. The poverty rate in Fayette County was 17.5% in 2019, about 21% of its population is over 65, the per capita income was just $27,360 and just 17% of the residents are college-educated, according to the U.S Census Bureau.

The unemployment rate in the county was 8.3% in September and there were 4,600 jobless workers, according to the state’s Department of Labor and Industry. The county’s unemployment rate is typically the highest among the seven counties in the Pittsburgh region.

“I don’t think there is a silver bullet solution,” Schultz said.

The students were impressed with how many people there were committed to helping turn around the economy and “have a vision where they want the community to go,” Glass said.

In interacting with the college students, the local residents “acted really positive,” said Payne, a 2017 Norwin graduate.

Students are scheduled to present study findings to members of the Fayette County Cultural Trust, the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority and the public on Friday during a luncheon in the Connellsville Canteen at the renovated former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad station on West Crawford Street.

Two or three students will continue to serve internships in Fayette County, with the Cultural Trust, to further this project, Glass said.

“The idea is to remain engaged with the Fayette County Cultural Trust all year round. This can’t be solved in one semester,” Schultz said.

The project will continue with a different group of students in the fall of 2022.

“We want to be here for 10 years,” on this project, Glass said.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, jnapsha@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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