Reviving Small, Appalachian Towns with Local Assets

May 23, 2019

Walking down the streets of Greensboro, Pennsylvania, it feels a bit like a ghost town. There are houses, business signs, a post office, but only two cars drive by in 10 minutes and no one is walking the streets.

The small town in southern Pennsylvania is just across the West Virginia border. It sits on the banks of the Monongahela River, surrounded by small hills and patches of trees. In years past, the town has weathered the boom and bust of a pottery industry, river trade and coal. Lately, it has been more bust than boom.

But now, some artists are trying to stimulate the local economy using what they know best: creativity. They are all part of the Greensboro Art Cooperative – a non-profit art collective.

The Co-Op

Shane McManus, a West Virginia native, is the founder of the co-op. He's spent his life immersed in music and arts. Now at 31 years old, McManus is trying to use his love of the arts to revive the town.

“Our goal is to preserve the past, but promote the future. Through using what the past has given us, we can create really beautiful art in our small Appalachian towns, which in my opinion is diminishing,” he says.

One of the buildings of the Greensboro Art Cooperative. This building features finished pottery, as well as a pottery room, bike room and wood-working room.
Credit Caitlin Tan

Three buildings on the main street of Greensboro make up the art co-op. The quiet atmosphere of the town abruptly changes when one walks into the former ice cream parlor turned ‘Music Shop,’ where McManus and his friends play music.

The entire room is filled with artwork and antiques. There's a stone chair shaped like a hand, porcelain dolls lining the bookcases and a boar’s head hanging near the ceiling.

Live old-time Appalachian music fills the room. McManus and his friends Niko Kreider and Evan Collins are playing the tune called "Water Bound."

McManus playing guitar in an impromptu jam. He is well-known in the region as a musician.
Credit Caitlin Tan / WVPB

The co-op not only provides a space for artists to sell their work, but it's also a space for artists to create. There is a woodshop, a bike shop, pottery room, music room, painting area – anything an artist wants to do there is likely a tool for it.

Members pay a $200 lifetime membership or the equivalent in labor, and profits from wares made at the co-op are split 50/50 with the artist.

McManus says the goal is for the co-op to be a centerpiece for Greensboro, where the population is down to 249 people. He wants the co-op to be a reason for people to come visit, and a reason for people to stay.

“Getting them to see hope, where there was none. That’s why people leave, to find greener pastures,” McManus says.

History of Greensboro

Greensboro was once a thriving town with a rich artisan history. It was originally settled by German glass blowers in the 1700s.

Evan Collins (left) playing music with Niko Kreider (right.) The 'Music Shop' was formerly an ice cream parlor.
Credit Caitlin Tan / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

It is also right on the Monongahela River, so it was part of a major river trading route.  

Greensboro’s mayor Katie Sill says she's heard stories of the early days when a hotel stood right by the river.

“At one point a circus came down the river and they had an elephant in the lobby. It was a booming and bustling town,” Sill says.

In the 1800s, the first large-scale pottery operation opened in Greensboro. The wet, muddy soil near the river creates rich clay -- perfect for pottery.

“A lot of these New Geneva or Greensboro pots you see on Antiques Roadshow that go for $30,000 to $40,000 were made right here,” McManus says.

In fact, it is not rare to find 200-year-old pottery today. The co-op has preserved an original kiln used by settlers.

Finished pottery from members of the co-op. Profits from wares are split 50/50 with the artist and the co-op.
Credit Caitlin Tan

But, as artisans moved away and trade moved away from rivers, Greensboro became less relevant. It made a slight comeback in the coal industry in the mid-1900s, but Sill says that too has disappeared.

“Some buildings have fallen into disrepair or [have] been torn down,” Sill says. “There are not really many businesses left in the town.”

The Economics

In some ways, Greensboro is not that different than many small Appalachian towns, where the coal industry, which was once a driving economic force, is now declining.

This leaves many towns without a sustainable economy, much like Greensboro.

Tim Ezzell is a research scientist at the University of Tennessee, and he focuses on asset-based development, which, as he explains it, means "using the assets you have at hand or at your disposal, basically what your community already has in place. Your local talents, resources, skills, art, heritage and using those to create economic opportunities for people in your community."

Ezzell says concepts like the co-op can grow a town, but it has to be done realistically. As in, it is not cheap, it can take many years, it needs momentum and, most importantly, the local community must be accepting of change.

“Change is hard and you have to be willing to accept change in order to move forward,” he says.

And Greensboro Mayor Katie Sill says the town is ready for that change.

“We’re all really hopeful that we’ll get that next wave of whatever that wave will be,” she says. “Something new to bring a little bit of bustle into the town. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be quite the same, but every phase is different.  

Co-op merchandise for sale. On cold days McManus uses a space heater to keep rooms warm.
Credit Caitlin Tan

And the co-op is relying on local assets to try to bring about that next wave. Members are fixing up old store fronts to use as studios. They're also using local clay to create art.

"Everything is donation, all of our resources have been found, donated, upcycled and recycled,” McManus says. “It’s really amazing what you can put together just with what you find around.”

As for operational costs, McManus says he's been quite fortunate. His father, Keith McManus, has funded most of the co-op. A former mayor of the town, Keith is something of a musical legend in the region because of his involvement in the old-time music community over the years.  

Looking Forward

People can be assets too, and in many ways Keith himself is one of the town’s greatest resources.

Because of the financial cushion, and Keith’s arts and music connections, McManus says there is not a push for co-op artists to mass produce and or even sell their work. Rather, they can focus on creating art.

A bust of Keith McManus in the former ice cream parlor. Keith has helped fund much of the co-op.
Credit Caitlin Tan

“Our goal is to stay within a tri-county, if not a tri-state area. We don’t want to branch out as far as what we sell on the internet. We’ve purposely held out to keep our wares locally,” McManus says.

During the past eight years the co-op has renovated Greensboro’s old, abandoned theatre into a studio space. And it has 65 members -- some from the Appalachian region, and others from across the world. Many are people McManus has met through work in the music and arts industry.

McManus says the co-op has given some of these artists a reason to either stay, or come back to create in Appalachia.

“So many of my peers and friends have had to go and move out of the state, out of Appalachia where they are from just to find a studio,” he says.

So artists come and go throughout the year -- whether it is for an impromptu jam, to fix their bicycle or to make their next piece of pottery. Sill says this is important for the town.

“They breathe that extra bit of life when they are there,” she says.

The next goal for the co-op is for artists to work and live in Greensboro, but right now it is not fully developed.

The studio spaces are a little rough around the edges, and the storefront is still more of a working space. McManus hopes to renovate two buildings into a coffee shop and restaurant, but he says it takes time.

It takes time to create change, to bring Greensboro’s artisan history forward into the modern day. And it also takes a vision, like the ability to find strengths and assets in unlikely places.

This story is part of an Inside Appalachia episode exploring folklife and material culture in Appalachia. 

**A previous version of this story identified Tim Ezzel as a research scientist at the University of Kentucky. He is a research scientist at the University of Tennessee.