Aside from the roaring big rig trucks that pass through High Street periodically, Waynesburg could be considered a quiet town, with a population of less than 4,000 and most shops closing by 8 p.m. The region has been sustained by the coal and natural gas industries for the past three decades; still, Greene County is ranked as the second-poorest in Pennsylvania.
In the midst of the mining and drilling is a small, private Christian university. With about 1,300 undergraduate students, the majority of which are residential, the region’s conditions have shaped the university’s history and relationship with its surroundings.
Waynesburg University attracts a different kind of student, said the institution’s president, Douglas Lee, due to its mantra: “Faith. Learning. Service.” Lee believes the university’s mission inspires students and the way the school interacts with its surrounding areas.
“I really think the relationship between the university and the town are complementary, that one cannot exist without the other,” Lee said. The two are both working together for the “common good of the county and for the region.”
Waynesburg isn’t so much a college town as it is a town with a college inside it. Shops and community organizations are mostly dedicated to the region’s coal and natural gas mining. The town has few of the amenities that typically thrive around college students—there are no coffee shops, one sit-down non-fast-food restaurant, and one tavern, frequented by both town residents and students.
Colleges have historically helped boost the economies of small towns with declining populations and struggling economies, like Parsons College, in Fairfield, Iowa. The Atlantic featured Parsons precisely for the way the town grew to rely on income from the school. According to the article, institutions can produce research or technology that is later turned into new businesses, attract students and their spending in local shops and boost the number of permanent residents.
The effects universities have on rural towns can take many forms, and in a remote area like southwestern Pennsylvania, small universities like Waynesburg take a different approach and face different challenges.
For Drew Johnson, operating a business in Waynesburg seemed like a promising prospect. He opened Waynesburg Coffee Company just up the street from campus in August 2017.
He wanted his shop to be unique, so in addition to classic coffee beverages, he sold lemonade, hotdogs and gelato. He wanted to stimulate the sense of community, so he used coffee beans from a local producer in nearby Washington. He wanted to attract college students, so he included tables, Wi-Fi and a prayer board.
Taking advantage of the university’s presence was always part of Johnson’s plan. He said they were the “market we were shooting for.”
“The college is definitely a big asset,” he said.
But for Johnson, the business never came easily. In Feb. 2018, he acquired another restaurant down the street, Coach’s Cafe, and ended up closing the original coffee shop due to overhead costs. He dedicated all of his time to the cafe, essentially selling the same items as before. He had regulars, but he began to notice the flux of students steadily decreasing.
Still, Johnson said he wanted to keep students coming in, so he worked with the university directly. Working with the Waynesburg Student Activities Board, he hosted an event to show attendees how his coffee was brewed and other coffee trivia, offering a free beverage with the promotion activity.
“Overall I think people enjoyed it,” he said. “ I think every single person who attended the event came to the shop at least twice during the next week.”
Events were generally successful, but Johnson said it was difficult giving people a reason to come in on a daily basis. His efforts ultimately wouldn’t be enough, and anyway, relying on students as his main customers would backfire: in summer 2018, when the vast majority of students were away from campus, Johnson’s sales plummeted.
It got to the point where he didn’t have enough regular, non-student customers, and he could no longer afford to reorder supplies. The cafe was closed permanently by August, about a year after Johnson opened his first coffee shop.
“The needs of the community and wants of the community are very diverse from what students want,” Johnson said.
Now that it’s all over, Johnson is still grappling with what went wrong. He wasn’t the most consistent shop owner, he said, as far as store hours and service quality goes; and he thinks he should have done better marketing. He was overworked and had too small a staff. But he also thinks his business, and other businesses in the tiny town, could have benefitted from a stronger relationship with the university.
Johnson said small businesses on High Street should be making more of an effort at reaching students and marketing to them directly. Likewise, the university should work with businesses like his. Only then, he believes, can the community really thrive.
“There’s a mutually beneficial relationship there, and if one of the parties isn’t participating, then both of the parties lose,” he said.
Many students and faculty describe the campus as a “bubble,” a quiet hub of learning amidst the noise of the trucks and the coal train down the street. Katie Jones, a junior forensic science student, said there is a clear absence of the typical college atmosphere in Waynesburg, which for the most part, is beneficial.
“This is both good for me and also not,” Jones said. “This lack of ‘college town’ environment forces me to focus on my homework and studying, but it also gets boring. In order to have a fun night, a student must travel at least a half hour, and that can be tough to do.”
Jones was a frequent customer of Waynesburg Coffee Company, sometimes visiting twice a week. She didn’t go as much when they merged with the cafe, though. She said the location was inconvenient and the atmosphere had changed, and she also felt the hours didn’t adequately serve college students. Now, she said, there is no pressing reason for a student to venture out into the community.
“The town and university are so separated because, I feel, there aren’t any events or gatherings to bring us together,” she said.
While Johnson tried taking advantage of the university, he had too many other failings to really make it work. Johnson is an example of how the university and the surrounding community continue to operate on separate planes.
In Waynesburg, where five small businesses have closed in the last year, Johnson said it can be like the university isn’t there at all. Businesses don’t typically seek to involve students by offering deals and promotions, and students don’t typically venture to High Street for their entertainment.
On the other hand, some other business owners, like Ben McMillan, owner of McMillan Photography, said the university does have a clear role in the community and its economy, even if it’s not plain to see. The town is rural and operating a small business is hard, he agrees—but that just comes with the territory.
“We never see any kids walking downtown,” he said. “I get that there’s nothing down here to see.”
A lifelong resident of Greene County, McMillan chose to situate his photography headquarters in Waynesburg precisely because of its location. Its proximity to I-79 made commuting to Pittsburgh or Morgantown simple, and he still enjoyed the quiet life outside of a city.
For as long as he can remember, McMillan said Waynesburg University has been a steady presence, but not one that was as widely-reaching or omnipresent as in larger college towns. In his business, he would sometimes welcome photography students as interns, one of which became one of his best full-time photographers. The university has always hosted events on campus that are open to the community, too—art exhibits, theatre performances, classes and workshops.
McMillan doesn’t think the university needs to try any harder to work with the town—the town just needs to wake up to the opportunities the university brings.
“The public just doesn’t take advantage,” McMillan said. “I don’t think Waynesburg is any different from any other small town.”
The “bubble” ends with the university’s strong emphasis on service. Students are constantly volunteering in the community; in such a poverty-stricken area, there are plenty of opportunities. Waynesburg students are currently working with nonprofits in the area including the Humane Society, the Salvation Army and the local food bank, among others.
As one of the state’s poorest counties, some organizations have grown to rely on volunteerism at Waynesburg. The university’s Bonner scholars—students who receive a scholarship in exchange for community service initiatives—provide 140 volunteer hours each semester. The university also hosts a “Day of Service” once a month, facilitated through the Waynesburg University Center for Service Leadership. On these days, students split up and work at nonprofits around Greene County for a whole day. Lee said the university provides close to 50,000 community service hours each year, with at least 43 separate entities.
Lee is always looking for ways to connect with the world just beyond campus. The university recently added a Center for Entrepreneurship, which is meant to encourage students to think innovatively to solve community problems and promote economic development in the region.
The school also partners with the company, Chevron, for a Center for Corporate Social Responsibility, which partners with corporations for the same purpose. The center builds relationships with corporations in the area, fostering discussions and creating speaker series about best practices, volunteerism, networking and more. Lee wants the university to be part of the collaboration among public servants, private industry and other factions to “become part of the solution,” to the region’s struggles.
Whether or not Waynesburg University ultimately boosts the Greene County economy, contributes to the population or stimulates income is unclear. Historically, the university is one of the lowest-costing private institutions in the state and rated as a Best Value School by U.S. News. Some argue this indicates a sensitivity to different incomes and socioeconomic standings. For Lee, the objective is simply to keep moving forward.
“We have built such a solid foundation of service and outreach,” Lee said. “Where do we go next with that?”