Published first on the Progress News, April 19, 2021

Rick Sheffer grew up in Emlenton in the 1950s and 60s.  Though he moved out of the area many years ago, Rick keeps Emlenton close to his heart, staying up to date on local news and visiting often.  “I travel back to my hometown at least three times a year to see old friends and to just drive over the beautiful Pennsylvania hills, which I do literally for hours,” he shared. 

Redevelopment is nearly as close to his heart as Emlenton.  In the 1980s, Rick was involved in the “Project Future” initiative in South Bend, Indiana, which worked toward overcoming the devastation of losing the jobs and stability of the Studebaker Automotive Company.  More recently, he worked with the small town of Dowagiac, Michigan, which started its redevelopment process some two decades ago and is still going strong. 

With a background in market research and advertising, Rick considers himself a “visual historian” more than any sort of redevelopment practitioner.  The process of exploring the history of an area, searching out future opportunities, and tying the two together is a huge part of redevelopment, though, so when Rick reached out to me about his experiences growing up in Emlenton, I was thrilled.

I’m sure many of you have read Rick’s book, Coming of Age in 1950s Rural Western Pennsylvania (and if you haven’t, copies are available at several of our local shops!).  Through his book, Rick turns back the hands of time and brings mid-century Emlenton to life, sharing not just the physical attributes and composition of the town at what many would consider its heyday, but also the sense of possibility and potential that pulsed through this area. 

Revitalizing and maintaining that sense of hope and opportunity is exactly what our redevelopment effort is all about, and as I talked with Rick over Zoom, using a modern technology to explore the past, I was struck by how much personal history and its perceived place in the modern world impacts how we feel about redevelopment, and how engaged we are with the process.

For Rick, his childhood was infused with the wonder and promise of the future.  The 1950s and 60s were, for many, a time of unbridled enthusiasm for what we could do next.  Thankfully, he was able to carry that hope and creativity through the downturns of the 70s and 80s and the uncertainty of the 90s and early 2000s into today.  He made a career of focusing on the positives, the what-if’s, and the how-can-we’s, and he still spends his free time ruminating on the past and imagining what could be – search for “Rick Sheffer” on YouTube to discover the many videos he has created about the Emlenton area.

Rick’s perspective gives all of us in redevelopment something crucial to consider – that our most vital task is not to revitalize buildings or industries, but to revitalize a deep, visceral sense of security, stability, hope, and awe in a community.  I invite all of you who grew up during this region’s brightest era to share your memories and feelings.  Whether you have photos or stories to share, get in touch to add your experiences to our collective history, and help fuel our collective potential.