By Natalie Gelb
As I prepare my last column for the Northeast PA Business Journal as executive director of the Lackawanna Heritage Valley, I have been taking a walk down memory lane. I wrote my first guest column in 2007, three years into my 12 1/2-year stint. Liz Zygmunt, then editor of the Journal, offered me the opportunity to write a monthly column on the topic “Heritage Tourism.” As the deadline approached each month, I challenged myself to find something new, interesting and informative to write about. I now realize that I have written dozens of columns and, daunting though it seemed, there was no dearth of subjects that fit within the goal of “telling the region’s story.”
I learned an adage in French classes many years ago at Scranton Central High School: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (The more things change, the more they stay the same.) Although it might seem a contradiction in terms, there is great wisdom in that perspective. The story of the Lackawanna Heritage Valley is constantly changing, but there are certain aspects of the region that remain to sustain a unique “sense of place.” During a strategic planning exercise several years ago, I was asked what my vision was for the Lackawanna Heritage Valley. As I pondered the challenging question, I decided that I hoped people would know when they were there. In other words, despite the cynics and detractors, I hoped that people would recognize that there is something unique about this place; something that makes this place different.
The Lackawanna Valley, once dotted with coal breakers and still bearing some permanent scars from that era, is rich in natural resources. Surrounded by mountains, it abounds in lakes and streams and forests that host a diversity of flora and fauna, fish and wildlife, many of which have reclaimed the landscape after years of industrial degradation. The Lackawanna River is home to Trophy Trout that attract not only people who love to fish, but also bald eagles that troll regularly for fish. Nature has run its course and, with help from conservationists and environmentalists, the river and much of the land have been restored. Rare species, like our national bird, are finding their way back.
And this place has a special personality. It is infused with a sense of community that defines the ethos of Northeastern Pennsylvania. I have noted that community service is as integral a part of daily existence as the mundane activities of daily living. I have seen it first hand in the thousands of hours that volunteers have contributed to the Lackawanna Heritage Valley over the past 12 years — from organizing and sponsoring events like the Heritage Explorer Bike Tour to the Santa Train, from trail cleanups to repairing fences, from extolling the trail on social media to stuffing envelopes for mailing special publications.
Natives who have left and return recognize that, as I wrote in a July 2007 column, the grass truly is greener here. People who move here from other places think it is a great place to live. We enjoy cultural, historic and educational opportunities galore. The cost of living is low and recreational activities are accessible and affordable. We are proud of the legacy of our immigrant past, but we are welcoming to others. The recent outpouring of support for refugees in our midst is emblematic of a caring community.
There has been notable progress since 2004 when I began my career at LHV. Miles of the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail have been developed, connecting communities throughout the county and creating a culture for health, wellness and social interaction; downtown Scranton has become a 24/7 residential community; there is a new medical school; Arts on Fire and Bonfire at the Furnaces have enlivened the Scranton Iron Furnaces; the Scranton Half Marathon has become a new tradition; there are sculptures and cameras on the trail, murals under bridges, and the new Sweeney’s Beach hosts Riverfest. The popular Nay Aug Avenue Natural Play Area is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, creating a wonderful venue for creative play for children. BikeScranton loans free bikes, the county libraries offer young readers passports to historic and cultural sites, the Everhart Museum attracts new audiences with innovative exhibitions, and Joe Biden, our native son, was vice president of the United States. It is a long list that has provided plenty of material for 10 years’ worth of columns — all to the good of heritage tourism.
We celebrate the past, but we don’t live in it. Much has changed, but the character of the Lackawanna Heritage Valley remains the same. My role is changing, but the Lackawanna Heritage Valley is staying with me.
Natalie Gelb is ending her 12 1/2-year tenure as executive director of the Lackawanna Heritage Valley Authority (LHVA). This is her final column on heritage tourism.