It’s the last day of Presidents Day weekend, but it feels more like early spring at the Mount Pleasant of Edinboro ski resort in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania. It’s too warm to make snow, but at 45 degrees with sunny skies, it’s just right for kids to spend the holiday’s waning hours in T-shirts and hoodies flying down the slopes on inner tubes, snowboards and skis.

Andrew Halmi, the ski resort’s general manager, nods in approval as a few adults march past with snowboards tucked under their arms.

“The owners have taken it from a small learn-to-ski operation with T-bars for chair lifts to a year-round attraction,” says Linda King, a community development consultant for Northwestern Rural Electric Cooperative. “I think the initiative raised owners’ awareness of how important their community asset is to the area and the impact that can be made when we all work together.”

Electric co-ops have long been catalysts for improving communities in small-town America. But that job has been harder in recent years as rural towns have struggled with shrinking populations and demographic shifts.

Alarmed by stagnant growth on their system, Northwestern REC’s board several years ago began working to identify causes and potential solutions.

“It all comes back to our rural communities,” says King, who retired in late 2021 as Northwestern REC’s vice president of communications and energy solutions. “If they aren’t healthy and growing, we probably aren’t either. We might not be serving them, but our members frequent them or have businesses there.”

King says she had an epiphany at a Touchstone Energy® Cooperative conference in 2019, where she heard community placemaking expert Zachary Mannheimer describe local successes using a people-based approach to turn their communities around. Placemaking involves bringing partners together to identify and restore key facets of a community, like Main Street businesses and recreational areas, to help attract new residents and businesses.

“A lot of times in small communities, people say, ‘Well, we tried that before, and it didn’t work,’” King says. “It’s good to get a reality check from someone outside of the community.”

Six groups applied, and three were selected to each receive $45,000 grants. The three Rural Rocks towns—Cambridge Springs, Edinboro and Titusville—had lost some of their luster in recent decades due to business shutdowns and population loss, but their charming attributes remained. Those include abundant community spirit; natural features like French Creek, voted 2022 River of the Year by an environmental group; Edinboro Lake’s “beachfront”; outdoor music and art festivals; a craft brewery with a farm-to-table menu; and, of course, the ski resort.

The first challenge was getting their heads around the unfamiliar concept of placemaking, says Gina Mussett, an Edinboro team member.

“It was very exciting to us, because that’s where every small town struggles—the vision of what their town can be and then creating a plan on how to get there,” she says.

Each of the Rural Rocks towns formed steering committees and working groups with a broad cross-section of residents.

“From the onset we felt that whatever community we selected, the work groups had to have a mix of people to handle different viewpoints,” King says. “What’s the impact on the community if we do A?”

Hard work

Because it was begun just as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading, most of the planning and “visioning” work for Rural Rocks was done virtually, using focus groups and surveys. Atlas staff helped members organize around four central themes: public art, downtown revitalization, housing and branding/marketing.

“It speaks volumes to these communities on their dedication,” says Atlas’s Libby Crimmings. “Community development work is hard enough when you’re in person, but having to shift very rapidly and do everything on Zoom forced all of us to get a lot more creative in how we reach people and have meaningful conversations.”

Participants agreed that progress on large-scale revitalization projects comes in increments.

“We try to find projects where we can make small victories,” says Brenda Cannell, president of the Edinboro Community and Economic Development Organization, which recently sponsored the installation of seasonal lamppost banners, a redo of the town’s major Edinboro marker and distribution of tourist maps.

Another big obstacle, they say, is finding additional grant opportunities and partners to fund big-ticket projects. In Cambridge Springs, Deputy Mayor Delores Hale is looking for money to build a new playground and other amenities in a park bordering French Creek.

Still, the towns’ successes, however small, are bringing an “infectious” enthusiasm, says King. A mall in downtown Edinboro is filling up with merchants, shop owners are replacing facades, and in Cambridge Springs, homeowners are taking more pride in their curbside appearance.

“It makes my heart swell that we are coming together,” she says. “Maybe we didn’t have the same ideas in the beginning, but now we are moving forward together and making true changes as a community.”

Related videos

Linda King, a community development consultant for Northwestern REC, talks about how the Concern for Community principle sparked the co-op's involvement in the Rural Rocks campaign.

Brenda Cannell, chair of Edinboro Community and Economic Development, discusses how Rural Rocks was a catalyst for the group to focus on Edinboro’s priorities and start implementing improvements.

Gina Mussett, a member of the Rural Rocks team and vice chair of Edinboro Community and Economic Development, talks about Northwestern REC's contributions and what Edinboro might look like in five years.

Doug and Laura Sinsabaugh, owners of ski resort Mount Pleasant of Edinboro, discuss the vital link Northwestern REC has played in developing Mount Pleasant into a top tourist attraction.