By Bob Podurgiel
Students at the Carnegie Borough Municipal Building were busy scribbling notes while they peered intently at the photos displayed behind the teachers explaining the day’s lesson.
What separates this experience from the average classroom was that the teachers were children from the Columbiana Exempted School District, and the students were adults – key municipal officials from towns in Allegheny and Beaver County, including Carnegie, Homestead, Beaver Falls and Ambridge.
The officials gathered in April to learn some important lessons on how cooperation and creativity can help revitalize their communities drawn from the real-world experiences of what the students had achieved in Columbiana, Ohio (population 6,599) about 50 miles west of McKees Rocks.
Mara Dowdy, program director for Town Center Development, a firm that specializes in helping communities revitalize their Main Street business districts, sponsored the student presentation.
“There is a ripple effect from having young people involved in a town,” Dowdy said, emphasizing how young people can come up with creative solutions to problems.
First up were students from Columbiana Middle School. The pre-teens seemed a little nervous at first, addressing an audience of adults, but they soon warmed to the challenge of explaining their project.
They said they needed a bench for their track field, but they also wanted to help the environment through recycling.
The students partnered with a company called Green Tree Plastics in Evansville, Indiana. The company takes plastics collected by school children and other groups and then turns the plastic into useful items like benches and fencing.
Each of the students took a turn explaining the project that involved collecting 70,200 plastic bottle caps over two years to create a bottle cap bench for the track field.
“People were bringing caps in big bags to the school. The project united the school, raised awareness of recycling, taught us leadership skills, and made us more passionate about recycling,” the students said.
Students from Columbiana High School then followed with a description of two projects they worked on with the town of Columbiana as part of their Creative Entrepreneurs business class.
The first involved taking a little traveled alleyway used by only 32 cars a day and converting it into an attractive outdoor dining space for patrons from local restaurants.
The students installed outdoor seating for 32 people. Originally, the idea was to create a large aquarium in the space, but when that proved impractical, the budding leaders installed a digital TV screen in the alley that would show images of fish in an aquarium.
Students did all the planning for the alleyway and businesses pitched in with money for the bench seating and traffic barriers.
Parking lot decore
For their next project, the high schoolers redesigned a drab asphalt parking lot in town bordered by blank white walls.
“We wanted to give the lot a Hallmark-like feel,” one said.
While still a work in progress, the parking lot transformation is giving the students a chance not only to stretch their creative muscles but to help solve a real-world problem.
Students decided to decorate many of the parking spaces by painting scenes on the asphalt. Each space featured a different painted motif. One parking space, for instance, depicted a star, while other spots were painted over with images of flowers or leaves.
The idea, the students said, was to make each space unique.
They also added flower pots to the parking lot, then filled them with mums, petunias, marigolds, and parrot tulips. The students asked businesses bordering the parking lot to add hanging baskets with ferns outside their storefronts.
For the bland white wall bordering the lot, they worked with the local art firm of Bentley Photography Studios and with Lamar Advertising to create two separate murals on the square and rectangular sections of the wall.
The design for one mural included pictures of various city landmarks, postcard style. The other mural featured postage-stamp-like designs depicting landmarks in Columbiana and the surrounding county of Columbiana.
The students will sell postcards and stamps based on images from the murals to raise money for the entire project.
Students recommended switching to LED lighting for the parking lots because the lights are better for the environment, using 75% less energy than the previous lighting, and the LEDs last longer, too.
They replaced a small, drab parking plaza sign with a new sign featuring brick and a water feature.
But the students weren’t done yet. For the space on a flat rooftop bordering the parking lot, they imagined a rooftop deck to give people a panoramic view of Main Street as a whole. Their design features a safety railing and comfortable seating for people to enjoy outdoor dining in a modest, relaxed atmosphere.
Umbrellas were included in the seating plan for shade, and for colder weather, transparent igloos were added where people can sit insulated from the cold.
For his part, Columbiana City Manager Lance Willard said the city enjoyed working with the students and encouraging their creativity.
The city not only let them think outside the box but told them there was no box. Columbiana essentially gave their young people two blank canvases to come up with ways to make the alley and parking lot a part of Main Street.
The students said the projects also gave them a unique opportunity to work with local officials and establish lasting connections with the city.
Town Center, which sponsored the presentation, has worked with several local communities like Carnegie and Stowe Township to find ways to improve their Main Street business districts.
Dowdy from Town Center said the company wanted other communities to see what can happen if they engage their students.
She said Carnegie and Homestead are both exploring bottle-cap bench projects of their own.