By Rick Hiduk
A Management Action Plan for Endless Mountains Heritage Region (EMHR) gathered steam last week, as consultants from Peter J. Smith & Company met with a wide cross section of residents from Bradford, Sullivan, Susquehanna and Wyoming Counties who are concerned about balancing heritage and progress in the Endless Mountains region.
The consultants were impressed with the ideas and concerns expressed at four focus group meetings held on April 2 and 3, and participants – representing a wide array of organizations or simply their home communities – seemed genuinely excited for the opportunity to share their visions of the Endless Mountains.
Their responses to a handful of simple questions in a workbook distributed to the group by Peter J Smith and Eve Holberg meeting gave insight to the kind of place in which they want to live and how they want to portray it to the outside world.
The answers in the workbook helped Smith and Holberg, whose headquarters are in Buffalo, NY, facilitate engaging conversations about which resources the local civic leaders, elected officials and longtime residents felt were the greatest assets of the region and which ones were under-utilized or under-promoted.
As much as participants agreed on many items, each seemed to also have an attention-grabbing idea to add to the discussion or a uniquely expert opinion as to how to go about something or what challenges might be faced.
Access to agriculture and natural areas was a common theme. Some focus group members indicated a desire to see more farm stands and scenic lookouts, while representatives from DCNR and other conservation groups cautioned that many of the sites mentioned were privately owned and not easily assimilated.
There was a general consensus that the leadership role that the region has garnered in energy production should be embraced while also hoping that all development – industrial or residential – could be conducted with assurances of reasonable protection of environmental and historical sites.
Others suggested that even longtime residents need to be reminded of the treasures around them and that simple gestures like manners and welcomeness go a long way.
The consultants collected the workbooks at the end of the sessions and will use the information and ideas that they gleaned from the four meetings as part of a final draft of EMHR’s first new Management Action Plan since 1998.
A n Action Plan update meeting was held directly after the focus group meeting held in Wyoming County at the Dietrich Theater. Smith and Holberg reported to EMHR Executive Director Phil Swank and other board members in attendance that they were inspired by the passion shown by focus group participants toward helping EMHR achieve its mission and goals.
Holberg noted that many of the comments that she had heard in the first two meetings she and Smith had conducted paralleled many of the highlights of the first draft of the comprehensive plan presented to the advisory committee. The panel was impressed by the landscape layout of the document and a series of maps that provided a unique variety of perspectives of the four-county region.
Holberg related that one of the first things that the consultants realized about the area is that its primary highways take people through the region rather than delivering people to it. To literally circumvent that reality, they proposed devising an alternate driving route that would weave through all four counties an a nearly oval loop. Additional maps highlighted bicycle routes – both committed and shared – county-by-county key attractions and facilities, and a geological breakdown of the Endless Mountains that didn’t garner as much support as other ideas.
There were additional questions about some of the terminology used in the report, and changes were suggested for clarity on several topics.
Smith and Holberg handled concerns, questions, and constructive criticism with aplomb, making it clear that their visit and meeting schedule was geared toward assessing the heart and soul of the Endless Mountains, as well as its pulse. They were already pleased with what they had heard and lightheartedly expressed a growing ease at finding their way around on the area on country highways.
In addition to communicating regularly with Swank and other EMHR board members, Peter J. Smith & Company asked to meet with the group again on Tuesday, June 24. In September, they will host a regional summit and a fourth and final committee meeting. Their final report should be ready in October.