Led by local volunteers and guided by a new toolkit PEC helped to create, the four-year-old Schuylkill River Town Program is about to enter an exciting new phase.
Launched in 2013, the program initially focused on Conshohocken, Norristown, and Phoenixville, with the goal of engaging and empowering residents to make the Schuylkill River and Trail a gateway to their communities. Since then, PEC and Eastwick Solutions have worked together to establish volunteer community Action Teams in each town. These teams have met frequently over the last four years to develop and implement projects specific to the needs of each community. They have taken on a host of projects, ranging in size and scope from river cleanups supported by local businesses to trail signage initiatives coordinated with county governments.
Much of this work has emphasized community engagement. At the suggestion of the Action Teams, for example, PEC and Eastwick hosted a series of recreational programming activities including guided kayak trips on the river and environmental education programs along the trail, attracting nearly 4,000 people to these recreational assets. Research suggests that engaging residents at this level can be a powerful tool for shaping perception: after learning about the program, respondents to a followup survey were three times as likely to view the river as “clean” and “a place to play.”
Now, four years after the program’s inception, PEC and Eastwick Solutions have begun to transition the program fully to the Action Teams. A major part of this transition was developing and printing a “Resource Kit” to provide to local organizations and community leaders information on managing the River Towns Program. Though designed specifically for towns along the Schuylkill, the Schuylkill River Town Resource Kit can serve as a template for other community-led initiatives across the state.
The booklet contains information on:
- Program history and regional trail development, inviting participants to view their work within the larger context of people advocating for protection of and recreation on the river and trail, and acquainting them with larger players that may support the work being done at the local level;
- Trailheads and public river access points – especially important because community members interested in promoting recreation on the river may not always know where it is possible to legally access the river along the corridor;
- Locations of facilities such as water fountains, bathrooms, train stations, and commercial areas;
- Economic development, creating awareness of what makes a business “trail-friendly” and providing tools to help local businesses attract trail and river users;
- Other resources including promotional tools, survey results, and programming tips.
Perhaps the most important part of any river town initiative is helping communities celebrate and promote assets that already exist in their communities. To this end, the Schuylkill River Towns Program created a website and a Facebook page to share information about events, programs, and trip-planning tips. The Resource Guide shares information on how to update the webpage and Facebook as a contributor so that new events and blog posts can be added by Action Team members and their partners. The Resource Guide describes how each page of the website functions so Action Team members can understand the tools at their disposition.
The guide also includes survey data detailing trail and river usage, giving those interested in developing programs a better sense of who their audience is, and demystifying potential challenges they may face. Readers will find valuable advice on running cleanup events, finding local organizations with which to partner, and organizing paddling events and bike rides to highlight connections among the towns. Finally, the Resource Guide offers a wealth of practical information, including where to find free trail maps for distribution in town, what websites to head to for additional guidance on developing a gateway town, and where river towns can look for grant funding.
The printed Resource Guides were distributed to municipal officials and Action Team members at Council meetings in each river town. The Schuylkill River Town team attended the meetings to discuss the accomplishments of the program, identify projects that would have the greatest impact in each town, and encourage residents to continue programming and promoting their town’s unique assets with the help of the Resource Guide.