ARC Area Development grant to support the expansion of PA Wilds entrepreneurial ecosystem Investment will help set up new commerce platforms and opportunities for rural entrepreneurs.
Marienville, PA – The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship (PA Wilds Center) has been awarded a $972,000 Area Development grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to support the next phase of expansion for the work it does to help rural small businesses leverage the region’s growing outdoor recreation economy. Among other things, the three-year investment will help the PA Wilds Center stand up its next two PA Wilds Conservation Shops, which are mission-driven gift shops that improve market access for rural entrepreneurs by sourcing 90 percent of their inventory from rural makers and businesses in the PA Wilds and intentionally passing foot traffic to area businesses, visitor bureaus, and attractions, while also accomplishing other mission points.
The ARC funding will also help the Center create new licensing and professional development opportunities for rural entrepreneurs, support outreach efforts, and help underwrite key regional marketing projects to continue positioning the region as a premier outdoor recreation destination and create new economic opportunities.
“The Appalachian Regional Commission is a longtime investor in the PA Wilds effort, and in similar efforts across the 13-state Appalachian Region,” said PA Wilds Center Founder and CEO Ta Enos. “We are thrilled to have their support for this next phase of development. Their funding is helping us build locally-informed regional platforms and programs to intentionally drive visitor dollars and other investment toward the most hyper local business and organizations to build long-lasting rooted local and regional wealth in our communities.”
The announcement comes on the heels of Gov. Josh Shapiro visiting the PA Wilds on Oct. 12 to announce a $300,000 award from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to the PA Wilds Center to support the Center’s role as the backbone organization for the regional PA Wilds strategy, as well as announcements for other outdoor recreation-related awards in rural communities. At that press conference, the Center also announced a $736,000 award from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, and $215,000 from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.
“We simply would not be able to attract this level of federal and philanthropic funding to advance projects in rural PA without local and state partners investing with us for the last two decades,” Enos said. “We all have skin in the game. Investors like to see that. It makes everyone’s projects more competitive.”
Under the ARC grant, the Center will transition a mobile Conservation Shop that it has operated for the last few years at Leonard Harrison State Park, at the PA Grand Canyon in Tioga County, to a permanent brick-and-mortar store. Another store will be located at an historic train depot in Marienville, on the Knox-Kane Rail Trail in Forest County.
Jenks Township, who owns the train depot, has led a years-long effort to rehab the building as part of a local revitalization effort. The township began talking to the Center in 2020 about potentially operating a Conservation Shop at the location, given how the nonprofit stores are positioned to help advance local tourism development and revitalization efforts.
The township held a dedication for the building on Tuesday, which Enos and PA Wilds Center COO Abbi Peters attended. “The community has put a lot of heart and resources into this project over many years, and we are excited to partner with them on shared goals in this next phase of development,” Enos said. “We also want to thank the Northwest Commission and the Forest County Commissioners for their leadership and investment over the years, in this project and in the broader PA Wilds effort.”
Jenks Township Supervisors Andy Spicer, Edward Stoner Jr., and Chairman Gregory Geyer said they were excited to partner with the PA Wilds Center. “Our community has experienced years of economic distress with many closed businesses and buildings like the train station falling into disrepair,” the Supervisors said in a written statement. “Outdoor enthusiasts have for a long time utilized the trails around Marienville, and this has grown in recent years as outdoor recreation in the region has grown. The community’s idea was to save the train station and help revitalize the area by making the station a trail hub for the many types of trail users that currently utilize trails around our community. To have a fully staffed visitor and retail experience at the station that is focused on promoting rural makers and helping visitors access nearby outdoor recreation amenities will provide a real economic boost for our town while supporting the vision we’ve long had for this underutilized asset.”
Peters, who co-founded the Center’s commerce platform, said each new store will create a full-time store manager and a store keyholder position, as well as part-time jobs. The Center will also be looking for a local nonprofit partner in each community to help the stores build key partnerships in the first year of operation and better understand local events and visitor trends. Those contracts will be $10,000 each and will go through a competitive selection process, Peters said. She anticipates the job and contracting opportunities being posted in January 2024. The goal is to open the two stores in late spring or early summer of 2024.
“Our stores aren’t like a Dollar General or other for-profit franchises,” Peters said. “They are locally informed, mission-driven operations, and our goal is to integrate them into the community. We look to build partnerships with area schools, with the local business community, with event coordinators and trail groups, with local artisans and makers interested in becoming vendors, and others.”
Peters said the Center invests thousands of dollars a year buying inventory and value-added products directly from local businesses for its gift shops. “This creates important market access and work opportunities in our rural landscape that help support families and communities,” she said. “In addition, our stores help augment visitor services, as well as build local and regional capacity by creating a permanent PA Wilds staff presence in the counties where they are based. Building new capacity is really important to do in a highly rural region like ours, where we are experiencing growing visitation while also trying to recover from decades of population decline.”
The ARC funding will also support key marketing projects, such as specialized marketing projects to support tourism development in Forest and Cameron counties, which are designated by ARC as “Distressed” or “At-Risk.” Matching funds from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and DCNR will support the development of a PA Wilds-branded hiking guidebook created in partnership with Keystone Trails Association and an assessment on what it would cost to map more of the region through Purple Lizard outdoor recreation maps.
The ARC grant will also help PA Wilds Center pilot a new initiative called the “Artisan Collaborative,” which is designed to help rural small businesses scale alongside the Center’s commerce platforms. The PA Council on the Arts and the Richard King Mellon Foundation are key funding partners on the project. Over the next two years, six artisans from across the region will be selected through a competitive process for the Artisan Collaborative and at least six new PA Wilds-branded products will be brought to market. Businesses selected will benefit in a variety of ways, including through professional development, industry partnerships, being paid to design their products, and having all or part of their initial product runs seeded through the program. Matching funds from the PA Department of Community and Economic Development and North Central Regional Planning and Development Commission will help with small business outreach.
“Growing local businesses is so important to rural revitalization efforts,” Enos said. “We are so grateful to have all these funders – federal, state, local and philanthropic – investing with us. A special thanks also goes to North Central for assisting us with writing the ARC grant proposal.”
Enos said the Center looks to pilot the Artisan Collaborative programming in 2024-25. “It’s going to be a busy couple of years with a lot of new opportunities being rolled out in rural communities,” she said. “We encourage businesses and organizations interested in the projects to join our rural value chain network, the Wilds Cooperative, at WildsCoPA.org, so they can stay abreast of the latest information through our newsletters. It is free to join.”
ABOUT THE PA WILDS
The Pennsylvania Wilds is a 13-county region that includes the counties of Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lycoming, McKean, Potter, Tioga, Warren, and northern Centre. The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, Inc., is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to integrate conservation and economic development in a way that inspires the communities of the Pennsylvania Wilds. The PA Wilds Center promotes the region and its 2+ million acres of public lands as a premier outdoor recreation destination as a way to diversify local economies, inspire stewardship, attract investment, retain population, and improve quality of life. The PA Wilds Center’s core programs seek to help businesses leverage the PA Wilds brand and connect with new market opportunities, including: the Wilds Cooperative of PA, a network of more than 575 place-based businesses and organizations, and the PA Wilds Conservation Shop, a retail outlet primarily featuring products sourced from the WCO. For more information on the PA Wilds Center, visit www.PAWildsCenter.org. To learn more about the WCO, visit www.WildsCoPA.org. Explore the PA Wilds at www.PAWilds.com. Find regionally made products at www.ShopThePAWilds.com.