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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Summertime and my long term love affair

I miss summertime...the classic summertime of my youth, and I miss water, my first summer love.

When I was a younger teen, I spent most of my summers in the water, either at Whipple Dam, or simply in the stream behind my house. There were neighborhood kids coming and going and we spent hours each day splashing, creating engineering projects to divert or dam the water for swimming, or fish corrals, or even making our own waterfalls. I had a lot of good stuff going on!

The last summer I remember having any leisure was the summer before I entered college. I was working overnights from 11-7 at a convenience store usually 6-7 days a week, but I could make bedtime at 7:30 AM or 3:PM so I spent my mornings and afternoons at a local state park with a sandy beach area and started doing sand sculpture before the beach goers would arrive. My favorite was to do reclining sunbathers and watch all the little kids get excited about the people buried in the sand. It was only a little traumatic for them to reach out and touch a part and have it slide off.

After entering college I took summer sessions and continued to work 20-30 hours a week while in school.

After school, I go involved with selling my pottery and teaching classes and I started to realize that for me, summer vacations were a myth. Hell, weekends were a myth.

25 years later I still have no summers. Pottery has turned out to be a more than full time occupation. I look forward to warm weather and summer primarily because it is when folks in the NE go out to fairs and festivals and buy our things.

Pottery was such an obsession when I started..more of a calling than a job. I was happy to do it 15 hours a day 7 days a week, but now it's slowed to an intense love affair..I want 8 hours a day maybe 6 days a week with actual meal breaks.

 I used to think about what it would be like attending some of these events as a patron, but after a couple of attempts I realized I would have to do it at a show I have never attended as an artist merchant, because I know I would head for the folks I know and hang out in the back like the displaced merchant I am.

So I think this summer despite it being a crazy busy time for us, we're going to have to remember to take a couple days and enjoy the beauty around us. Life is short and I'm tired of forgoing the pleasures. There is always more work. I think it's time to forgo some of it and revisit my summer lover. She's waiting nearby... Tionesta Lake is only 1/4 mile up the street has pontoon boats to rent. There are two places within 1/2 mile of our house that offer canoe and kayak rental for the river that is practically in our backyard.

When I need a break from all that shimmering liquid beauty, I know just where to go! Into the woods! I just saw a mushroom walk is being offered on June 20 in Cook Forest. I want to do that!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Frenetic, Frantic and other big F words

2014 Version 1: Panoramic photo. Fabric covering the studs on the walls, raw plywood floor and draped tables

2015 Version 2: Insulated and finished!
You know, some days I wonder how we keep up with it all. There has been so much going on in the last couple weeks, all of it on a deadline and much of it seemingly out of our direct control.

The major things have been about getting our little Tionesta Market Village store ready to open for the season. Doing some final repairs on the house we have for sale in State College and making a lot of work to stock the store and also make work for our wholesale clients.

We've been back and forth to the old house a lot! Somehow we got all the construction and studio work done between trips. I think it has all started to come together.

The store is now much brighter and we got the tables off the floor and added many shelves. We actually have more work in it and it also appears to be more spacious. I had 3 people shopping comfortably at the same time on Sunday. 

 I'm looking forward to really focusing on the studio work! I've always tried to plan my life so only one major thing happens at a time and the last few years I've failed miserably. That's where that last F word shows up. Wow. Overwhelmed!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Reflections on NW PA Living: 5 ways to tap into the growing tourist market in northwestern PA.

Photo by Rowan Rose

It’s beautiful in NW PA isn't it? It's one of the reasons we moved here with our pottery business!

There is access to everything you could want to do outdoors and it’s peaceful in a way city dwellers will never know. 

Outdoors tourism is the natural industry of our area. When you live in an area that requires tourist dollars for your local economy to thrive, it is important to make sure every dollar that walks through your town has the potential to end up passing through your business and sticking to your fingers. Town leaders always talk about revitalization, to revitalize, residents in historic towns have to be willing to live in the present and look to the future while preserving the very best of local history.

All those people who made your town thrive were scrambling to make a future.

My wife and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to better market our pottery. We have both spent  years traveling all over the east coast to sell pottery.  There was a time when I was on the road 40 weekends a year, going from New Hampshire to Florida. We've been in a lot of small towns and even while selling our pottery at festivals, we are also being tourists and visitors. It gave us a good perspective for looking at towns from an outsiders point of view. We are practiced at searching for businesses to take care of our needs and have spent a huge amount of money at some businesses because they took certain steps to raise their visibility, offer hospitality and inspired us to have confidence the them.

Photographer Unknown, but what a great picture!
One of the things I have noticed about small towns is they are fierce about their independence and frugality runs in their veins like blood. You hear things like “what do you need that for?” “That’s not the way we do things here!” “It was good enough for me, good enough for my folks and their folks, why do you want to change things?” These are great tenacious characteristics but often the very thing that can keep success just out of reach. The independence and need to preserve the past in an unchanging way stifles new growth and leads to a slow disintegration of otherwise valuable assets. Our economy in the US is based on growth. Small towns are a microcosm of the nation. We must grow and change. The growth must be controlled and guided, but it must happen.

A little story from my past.

 I grew up in Lemont, a small town outside of Penn State University and State College, PA. My family wasn't affiliated with the university but they had deep roots in Lemont going back to the late 1700’s. While I was growing up, we had some of the only undeveloped land left in Lemont and my mother and grandmother had that old school, fierce, small town independence. Any new growth project the township sponsored was a waste of tax money. Any changes to the scenery was an unfortunate shame. Everything should always stay as it was.

That beautiful property had passed from generation to generation and gradually become more and more a burden as it passed from a 1790’s homestead to farm, to rental farm, and finally into disuse.

 That was the part I remember most vividly.

 My mother told me stories of active farming and big family gardens, horses, pigs and chickens. They were beautiful, wondrous stories of the past, presented with bright eyes in full glorious color and the clear beauty of happy memories. But they were only memories. The 13 acres that remained were expensive to maintain and slowly falling into disrepair because no one was actively caring for, or using the land. We didn't think too much about it, that’s just the way things looked. At the time the land finally passed to my aging mother it was too late. The only value left was in the land. The antiques stored in outbuildings had been compromised along with the integrity of the buildings.
At the time PA had a draconian death tax on the assessed value of the property, so taxes forced my mother to have to sell the property to pay the taxes. It's a neo-Victorian development now, and occasionally I look back and realize that instead of the total destruction of the our collective family memories we could have re-purposed and reinvented the land and made it useful and productive again. If only the idea of preservation of the past had been backed by new vision for the future, we would still be living there.

Since moving to the NW region of PA, I see a lot of similarities to growing up on that dying farm. There is a great reverence for the past and people don’t seem to notice the slow degradation of something that was once grand and vibrant. In their memories everything is perfect and we can’t change things because that will disturb the vision of the past they hold so dear.
Distressed buildings are cool right? Very rustic.So what if that place doesn’t actually look open, or have a sign. Everyone knows about it right? And who wants a bunch of people in town anyway? It’s quiet around here and we like it that way! Except that the services the town offers slowly degrade and soon it’s so quiet you can’t even get a coffee and a sandwich without driving 30 miles.

It is unlikely that any big manufacturing will come back to the area, most of our employment opportunities in the future will come from the service or recreation industries. People who need to escape from urban life will come to our small towns in droves if we can offer them the things they need and are used to having.  If we give them a reason hunters, hikers, fishermen, birders, campers, leaf-lookers and their families will come and spend their time and hard earned money.

Here are things you can do to increase your business's appeal to tourists and visitors.

  1. WWW:  If you do nothing else, this is the most important thing to do. If they can’t find you, they can’t give you money! Get a professional website of some sort. Here is the one my wife made for The Tionesta Market Village.  It can be simple, but it should be clean, direct and have all the important and most current contact information as well as hours of operation. Remember this is for people who don’t know you, or the area. No one stops at a gas station to look at the Yellowpages anymore. Families on the road use their smartphones, or they do research from their home computers. People use Google, Yelp. Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor to look for interesting regional activities, services and restaurants. Make sure your business is listed on all these sites! This can make your business a destination, not just a lucky find. Once you have a web presence, expand into social media to keep contact and let your customers know what the specials are, or what the latest event is.

  2. Beautification:   A welcoming, clean and tidy storefront inspires confidence for new customers. A craftsman knows the details are important. Tidy your storefront, Wash the windows, replace or repair your sign. Add a coat of fresh paint, add some landscaping, sweep your sidewalk and show that you care about the appearance of your business. If you can’t clean your front door or windows, no one is going to believe you keep a sanitary kitchen. Disrepair isn’t rustic. It’s neglect and you pay for it in consumer confidence.

  1. Hospitality: Be friendly to everyone! Don’t politicize your business. You want money from both sides of the aisle. Be welcoming! Be open, be courteous, treat all your visitors like the welcome guests they are! Not everyone who walks in your door will be an immediate customer, but eventually they might be! Make sure they are willing to come back!

  1. Be positive: Take down all those handwritten, negatively worded signs. Those who really need to read them don't and it just makes you look grumpy to everyone else. The only signs you should see are for the services you offer, exits, or directions to the restrooms. Which of course you should offer to anyone who walks in your door. These are people and people need restrooms, it doesn’t matter if they buy something or not.

  2. Take Credit Cards: Remember, today’s economy is not the economy of 30 years ago. Money flows differently and cash is not as convenient as it used to be. Many people never see an actual paycheck because they have direct deposit and many haven’t written an actual check in years. Debit and Credit cards are king. Tourists and visitors carry limited amounts of cash but may have fat bank accounts. If you are worried about that 1.75 to 3% charge, raise your prices by 5% and your costs are more than covered. Customers are willing to pay for convenience, not having to go to an ATM or bank to complete the transaction is convenience. You won’t be sorry.

     No one will ever complain that you do accept credit cards, but they will often walk away if you don’t.  Make those dollars stick to your fingers!

    These ideas are just a start. There are a lot of great resources available. Check out the PA Wilds Resources website. If you don't have a business yet, there are still plenty of consumer needs to be met! What can you bring to your town?