People Who Inspire – Michael Edwards and Daniel Cocks on the Rebirth of a City

Michael Edwards and Dan Cocks cropped for blogMichael Edwards’ roots may be from Springfield, VA, but they are firmly planted in the small Pennsylvania town of Connellsville. It’s where he and Daniel Cocks laid the foundation for a renaissance to take place.

They arrived to this economically challenged city in 2001 from Washington, DC. Michael had a catering business and Dan was retired from the US Air Force with 20 years of service. Michael commented, “We had been looking for a home and the Newmyer House in Connellsville popped up on a website for historic properties.”

Newmyer houseThis wasn’t just any house. It was a 28 room mansion, built in 1893 and it had a ballroom on the top floor. “The owner, Sylvia Midcap, purchased it in 1993 and almost completely renovated it. There was talk of a bike trail coming to town and that was her impetus to save it. Her friends told her she was crazy. But, she kept going and turned it into a Bed and Breakfast.

After buying the house, we didn’t change the phone number so the calls kept coming,” he said. An entrepreneur who could prepare fine meals and whose house was filled with his antique collection of Victorian furniture, Michael answered the call. And they began accepting guests.

He commented, “It was April and people were traveling to the area to visit Fallingwater. The bike trail was on its way. We were entertaining people from places like China, Australia, and Spain.”

Opportunity Knocking

They saw the Bed and Breakfast as an opportunity to spur economic development and wanted to keep the momentum going. Michael commented, “It was 2006 and the state had a “Main Street” program for the revitalization of downtowns. To participate, you needed to have a non-profit. It seemed like a good fit.

We started the process of holding public meetings, raised money on our own and got a group of people willing to serve on the board.” The nonprofit was formed and later named the Fayette County Cultural Trust.

He said the motivation to create the Trust goes back to “opportunities”. “There were opportunities being missed in the community. The Arts weren’t recognized; people were leaving; and there were vacant buildings.”

The Rebirth of a City

Through non-profit partnerships, community support, and grant funding the Fayette County Cultural Trust is creating revitalization – and a revolution of people getting involved to improve life in and around Connellsville.

archLocal artists have created Public Art displays, depicting Connellsville’s historical past and present at both of the city’s gateways to the Great Allegheny Passage Bike Trail and at the intersection of City’s First and Third streets.

ArtWorks, a gallery and learning center, where a mural of area attractions is painted on its building and more than 100 local artisans sell their work, is housed downtown. Dan spent the past five years running ArtWorks full-time as a volunteer until recently, when he assumed the position of executive director of the Fayette County Cultural Trust and a manager was hired.

farmer's marketThe Trust’s initiatives also include a Farmers Market held on Saturdays from July through Labor Day; Art on the Yough, an arts and craft festival, featuring a Children’s Creativity Zone is made part of the Connellsville Historical Society’s summer event, “Braddock’s Crossing”; and Achievement in the Arts, a new program in partnership with Rotary, was created to recognize county-wide high school achievement in theater.

People On Board

Collaboration makes it all happen. Paula Grubach, administrative assistant at the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority, commented, “The partnering I see between all the different agencies and the people here are incredible. Michael has a way of connecting resources to each other.”

As a result of these efforts, the Trust was awarded a six year Neighborhood Partnership Program grant through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, allowing it to provide financial support to Carnegie Library, Connellsville Community Ministries Circles program, and the Wesley Health Center.

And when the Main Street program, a state funded matching grant of $120,000 was revised and Connellsville was not funded, it was the community that responded.

Michael remarked, “We called the effort “Downtown Connellsville” and asked the people who had made pledges for the Main Street program if they would still be willing to make their donations even though we would not be getting state money. Eighty of the 85 people and businesses said, ‘yes.’

Now in its sixth year, Downtown Connellsville has dozens of community members serving on steering committees and sub-committees. Their volunteer work includes the annual Mum Festival and It’s a Connellsville Christmas. Both events attract hundreds of residents and visitors.

Another sign of development is Downtown Connellsville’s Façade program that gives matching funds to business for new signage. This is being done for the promotion and marketing of business and to create a positive image. It’s all part of what the Trust calls the “Rebirth of a City”.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhoodplanter

There’s nothing like flowers to signal new life. And they play a big role in the Trust’s Beautification Project, an effort started by the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority where Michael serves as executive director.

Street benches, receptacles, and planters are placed around town and come alive with beautiful flowers each spring. Among the many volunteers planting flowers throughout the city and along the bike trail are the Connellsville Garden Club and dozens of Connellsville Area High School students.

Michael remarked, “Flowers make people feel good and they look good. It generates community pride and gives visitors a welcome sign that our community cares.

It’s not just a small group any more making a difference. This community has literally blossomed with people wanting to be involved with activities, events, and city-wide clean ups. So many people are now taking an active role in making the city a better place.”

Open for Business

New Haven Trail Side TreatsBusiness is blossoming too. “Within the first four years of establishing The Trust, 20 new businesses were either opened or relocated. Empty buildings are now occupied.

Four food establishments – Bicycle Bistro, New Haven Trail Side Treats, The Coke Oven and Grill, and Dr. McCarthy’s Kitchen – all located near the bike trail, are getting ready to open their doors. Each will offer healthy food options,” he said.

The newest businesses to open are Wavie and Jane’s Emporium offering Amish foods, T & A House of Treasures, and Lowry’s This N That.

Yes, it’s a new era for entrepreneurship in Connellsville. And through the Seton Hill e-Magnify program and Small Business Administration, Fayette County Cultural Trust offers “Lunch and Learn” sessions and classes to help people who want to start a business learn the ropes.

A Contagious Spirit

There’s no stopping the momentum Michael and Daniel started to spur economic development. People who attend Connellsville events feel the energy and are harnessing it to move the city forward.

Michael explained, “Dr. McCarthy was a vendor at the Mum Festival and was impressed with the community coming together. She’s opening her “grab and go” healthy foods business and, in the spirit of collaboration, will use St. John’s kitchen to prepare the products. After Skip Coburn attended a Downtown meeting, he decided to buy a local building and offered to design a plan for the renovation of Cameron Court.”

These are just two examples of people focusing on what they do to give something back to this community.”

But Wait, There’s More

aarons building newLocal businesses are giving back also. The Aaron’s Building, slated for demolition, was bought and is being renovated by entrepreneur, Tuffy Shallenberger. It will serve as a banquet hall and luxury apartments; The Connellsville Canteen, also built by Tuffy, houses a giant train display; features the stories and photos of local WW II veterans; and offers a stage area for programs and performances. Somerset Trust Company purchased and renovated the historic P&LE train station to open another Connellsville branch office. And a hotel is being built along the Great Allegheny Passage.

With more visitors traveling through the city, the Trust is holding a 10 week Ambassador’s Program at The Canteen to equip residents with knowledge to share about the county’s historic and natural resources. So many people want to be ambassadors, the classes are at maximum capacity.

In a small city where big things are happening, there’s a revival taking place.

The seed that Michael and Daniel planted has become a lush garden. It’s being nourished by them and all the people who work to make Connellsville and Fayette County grow – for generations to come.

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  One thought on “People Who Inspire – Michael Edwards and Daniel Cocks on the Rebirth of a City

  1. larryorlando2013
    April 21, 2015 at 6:58 pm

    You captured Cville’s spirit, Mary. The town is buzzing.

    • April 21, 2015 at 8:03 pm

      Thank you, Larry. It sure is! We have a town that a river runs through and an energy does too!

  2. Chuck Hubbell
    April 21, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    A wonderful story about two wonderful men that inspire the town of Connellsville. It is my great pleasure to work with them both.

    • April 21, 2015 at 8:08 pm

      Thank you so much, Chuck. I’m sure you inspire them too.

  3. April 22, 2015 at 7:34 am

    Congratulations Michael and Dan….Wonderful article on your hard work and passion.

  4. John Colatch
    April 22, 2015 at 9:45 am

    I grew up in Connellsville and my mom still lives there. Finally, the town has good news to share, and it would not have happened without these two remarkable men.

  5. April 22, 2015 at 10:01 am

    Good to see good people investing in Connellsville and the area, and bringing art and fun and LIFE into it. Great work guys!

  6. April 22, 2015 at 10:36 am

    Thanks to both for supporting local artists and authors.

  7. I have family in Connelsville
    April 23, 2015 at 6:02 am

    This is an inspiring store. These two men sparked the interest of the townspeople and their care and energy was contagious, and looked what happened. Connelsville is coming alive.

  8. linda frazier nicholson
    April 23, 2015 at 11:06 am

    I grew up in connellsville also, I am very proud of the way we handled the 10 commandments issue! I heard on national radio ( rush Limbaugh show) about other places caving in to the atheists demands, I tried to call in and tell him about our town and couldn’t get through! Way to go connellsville!!!

  9. Susan Coleman
    August 6, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    Love it all…the article, Mary, Michael and Dan! Thank you for all you do!

  10. Paul Ruggieri
    August 6, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    Michael and Dan have Connellsville’s best interest at heart. Who wants to stop positive improvement? Connellsville certainly needs people who care enough to invest themselves in making it a better place. Nice article about two important people in town!

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