Imagine an American Venice, but without the periodic floods, decaying buildings and gondola jams. Picture a place where a community celebrates the water that literally flows through it — building on a flowing natural feature to create an ecotourism Mecca, instead of simply building on top of it.

And then imagine that the sign at the entrance to that community says “Welcome to Meadville.”

That’s just part of the vision on display through Wednesday in Doane Hall of Art on the campus of Allegheny College.

Amara Geffen, professor of art and project director of the Allegheny-based Center for Economic and Environmental Development’s Art and Enviro-nment Initiative, has created a series of computer-enhanced vignettes of the greater Meadville community. As a participant in the college’s annual faculty and alumni exhibition, Geffen has created a section of flowing green-and-blue wallspace in the hope that it will inspire others to picture a green future for the area.

“Meadville already has a strong sense of community,” she explained during a recent visit to the gallery. “We want to build on that. If we demonstrate that we’re unique by being committed to a sustainable environment, entrepreneurs will be drawn here.”

This is not, Geffen is quick to note, a vision she has developed on her own. In fact, a coalition of partners she describes as “focusing on the environment as an economic and community development tool” has been meeting to develop to a plan that will transform Meadville’s Mill Run from the source of damp basements and mysterious “bridge ahead” signs into a highly-visible community asset. The exhibition is her personal attempt to visualize and present the plan in its present stage of development.

As Meadville developed over the years, Mill Run literally became a buried treasure, Geffen said. “As Mill Run meanders through our community, it appears and disappears under roadways and around or under buildings, yet many of our citizens remain unaware of the presence of this historically important environmental feature,” she noted in the text that accompanies one of the show’s visual images.

The goal is to provide a unifying vision for local business districts while celebrating an historically-significant natural resource and stimulating economic and community development. As Geffen sees it, alternatives run the gamut from quick fixes to long-term visions.

For example, while Mill Run is already visible in numerous, though often well-hidden locations, its health is compromised by a variety of factors, including storm-water run-off. Simply clearing invasive plant species from stream banks and nurturing native plants that help filter the water and hold soil in place can improve water quality while increasing the natural beauty of the area. Adding visual references to the waterway in places where it crosses under buildings and roadways is another possibility.

On a more long-term observation, Geffen notes that Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is considering plans that would make North Street part of the primary transportation route between Meadville and Titusville. While state upgrades to North Street are still in the planning stages, she suggests it’s time to look ahead locally, exploring possibilities for streetscape improvements that might even include reclaiming open spaces as public parks.

The plan, however, involves more than making the community look better.

“Can we envision and work toward a series of ‘green’ businesses that support the creation of a community committed to economic, environmental and social sustainability?” Geffen asks in one of the exhibit notes. “What about a community-based green construction company that would work with families to plan renovations that are energy efficient and utilize environmentally-certified products? ... Can we develop a series of business ventures that help us move towards becoming a zero-waste community?”

The exhibition includes both a historical record of the project and a notebook for community residents to add their own ideas.

In addition to Allegheny College, coalition partners include members of the Council of Governments, which includes the City of Meadville and Vernon and West Mead townships; Center for Family Services; Crawford County Commissioners; Crawford County Solid Waste Authority; Economic Progress Alliance; French Creek Environmental Advisory Council; French Creek Project; Meadville Area Local Growers; Meadville City Council; Meadville Community Energy Project; Meadville Council on the Arts; Meadville Medical Center; Meadville Pediatrics and Community Health Services; Meadville Public Library; Meadville Redevelopment Authority; and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at mspicer@meadvilletribune.com

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