Make the most of the AOAA
Unless you include riding all-terrain vehicles as one of your primary passions, the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) might not rank at the top of your "hurray" list. Driving on the interstates these days is plenty enough "adventure."
But even if some of us locals don't quite "get" it, apparently the rest of the world does. Even the most cursory of Internet checks provides sufficient evidence that off-roading is extremely popular and riders have been flocking to the many first-class trails throughout the Lower 48. Topping the list, of course, is the Hatfield and McCoy Trails in West Virginia, considered among the best of the best and often mentioned as a model of sorts for the AOAA.
Granted, it'd be a lot easier to wrap your arms around a new factory that creates 500 good-paying jobs or a coal-to-oil facility on county coal lands. But manufacturing, as we knew it, is now largely in the hands of cheap offshore labor, and the Marcellus shale boom has probably indefinitely delayed an anthracite resurgence.
So, whether we like it or not, the AOAA has emerged as the top economic development initiative of Northumberland County government. You don't hear much nowadays about the "new direction" the industrial development authority was supposed to take, nor have we been given any progress reports by Commissioner Steve Bridy on his campaign promise to spend two to three hours daily contacting businesses throughout the country about relocating here.
The AOAA is not a pipe dream, it's happening right before our eyes. So, if we know what's good for us, we will make the best of it.
We've heard about the economic benefits that will derive from the new park. Visitors from outside the area will want to stay at campgrounds, they will want to eat in restaurants, they will have to buy fuel, and they will need to replenish their supplies at supermarkets. And, of course, they will certainly want to visit Knoebels Amusement Resort, our area's premier fun destination.
All this is great, but it doesn't have to be all there is. It's up to us - municipal leaders and community promoters, creative thinkers, daring entrepreneurs and civic-minded citizens - to provide more opportunities for economically beneficial and socially rewarding interactions with AOAA visitors who will be traveling here from other Pennsylvania counties or other states.
Let's think outside the box:
- When people need a break from non-stop (but rather intense) fun, what do they want to do more than anything else? Shop! (Especially if there are ladies in the group.) This is an opportunity to energize the downtown. Use as a model the types of stores you would encounter at shore resorts or near other trendy tourist attractions, but add businesses with a truly "anthracite" flavor. Sell coal souvenirs, but make them unique, like you can't get anywhere else. Offer different kinds of ethnic foods and hold regular ethnic festivals. How about a gallery or two, with art for sale, featuring the work of artists from the anthracite region?
- OK, so we're not Jim Thorpe, but why can't we promote our own community's coal region history? We weren't fortunate enough to have an accused Molly Maguire leave a handprint in a jail in town, but, although these cases don't get the high-profile attention Schuylkill and Carbon County cases do, two Molly Maguire murders (Frederick Hesser in Shamokin and Alexander Rea near Centralia) did occur in our area. Of course, AOAA visitors will want to visit the Coal Miners Museum when they go to Knoebels.
- Ghost tours are a popular attraction, as anyone who has ever visited Gettysburg knows. We don't have a Civil War battlefield in Northumberland County, but we do have the bizarre - and absolutely true - case of the severed head that was found in the early part of the 20th Century in the Coal Run area, kept by a funeral director, and then was the center of a controversy more than 70 years later.
- Americans who are used to buying cheap foreign-made apparel would be fascinated to learn about this region's contribution to the domestic garment industry. If only area residents could have gotten enthusiastic about saving the Eagle Silk Mill clock; that clock could have served as a focal point for a garment industry museum.
The best thing area residents can do is demonstrate some good old-fashioned coal region friendliness to people who travel to the AOAA. We should want them to come back often.
Who knows? It's possible that among the riders will be a real-life CEO who is looking for an attractive community to relocate his corporate operations.
(Betz is assistant editor of The News-Item.)