Driving down Route 60 from Zanesville to McConnelsville, the Muskingum River is always to your right, snaking beside the road. And in late winter the river is swollen, churning, and a little angry: it is a presence to be reckoned with. The river is beautiful, too, and as you enter town, it takes place of honor, centered between McConnelsville and its neighbor Malta, with enough gentle hills flanking either side to make you feel snug in the river valley.
I came to McConnelsville to visit Adam Shriver, the executive director of the Twin City Opera House. Continuously operating since 1892, the Opera House sits prominently in the town square. The Opera House serves as both a community arts center for local theater and music performances such as the Ohio Valley Opry, and as a movie house, showing first run films for the people of the town. It is a sunny day, and people are walking about amid revitalized storefronts. I am here as part of the Winding Road, a network of people and businesses and organizations all dedicated to connecting with each other to build up strong local economies in Appalachian Ohio.
Shriver shows me around the Opera House. As we step between construction materials and scaffolding, he tells me about the ups and downs of current restorations taking place. “You can’t get someone to invest in fixing up the Opera House by traditional means,” Shriver says. Banks tend to shy away from small town projects, where it is often hard for them to see the value in saving old buildings. Instead, Shriver and the Opera House’s board of directors decided to reach out to the community around them. With many small donations ranging from twenty to one hundred dollars, they raised an initial $80,000. In doing so, they created the ground work to show that local residents are invested in the building and are motivated to save it. With the town rallying behind the Opera House, they were able to secure larger loans and grants to restore the building.
As Shriver shares this story, he also tells me of his ties to McConnelsville. In many ways, Shriver is the exception to the rule: many young people are forced to move away from the area in search of better jobs. After graduating from Ohio University, he was ready to move away, too. But the Opera House job became available, and he decided to come back.
This initial commitment helped foster other opportunities and connections that might not be available elsewhere. Over the past fifteen years, Shriver has continued to strengthen his ties to this place, and he is now raising his own family here, is a county commissioner, and teaches a local vocational class. His family has owned a nearby farm for several generations, and he looks forward to taking care of that place, too. When I ask about the history of the Opera House, Shriver excitedly recounts all of the different managers of the building since its opening in 1892. He is proud to be a part of a lineage that links past to preset. All of these accomplishments are reminders of the ties that can anchor you to a place, encouraging a stewardship to it and to the people that live there.
“People often don’t find things interesting until they’re gone,” Shriver says, “and when they’re gone, it’s too late.” This points to the struggles of preserving and being a steward to the Opera House: it is hard to generate interest in the past before it disappears. Shriver noted, for example, that there weren’t very many historical artifacts from the building that have been saved over the years. But rather than lament this loss, he sees it as an opportunity to create something new.
Shriver and the board for the Opera House have taken this sense of opportunity in preservation and applied it to their programming. Instead of reproducing an exact replica of the past, they are instead creating authentic experiences that also make the building come alive. Showing movies, for example, is primarily for local audiences, but it also provides an opportunity for younger generations to create their own memories, and carry them throughout their lives. At the same time, plays and performances bring in a wider audience. This two-tiered approach shows how to simultaneously preserve and grow, keeping the Opera House rooted in the community and a space everyone can enjoy.
Before I left, our conversation turned back to the Muskingum River. In the past, the river was central to the town, and there were hotels and river boats along its shores. Soon, Shriver hopes, the river can continue to recover from pollution and everyone can use it again, helping to revitalize the entire town. Even though McConnelsville does not have a main tourist attraction and is often overlooked, Shriver notes, it is exactly the kind of place that can benefit from the relationships being fostered with the Winding Road. When connected with other small towns nearby, tourists can visit several towns in a day, moving from place to place, and enjoying distinct experiences in each.
The Twin City Opera House is first and foremost a space for the local community to enjoy, but this doesn’t mean it is closed off to visitors. As McConnelsville and other regional cities along the Winding Road continue to create vital places to live and work, our hope is that it will naturally attract the interest of others. A thriving local community is an important way to build a tourist economy that reaches out to invite others in.
About the author: Brian Harnetty is an AmeriCorps volunteer whose service is with The Winding Road network and Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Area. Part of his work is to tell the stories of Appalachian Ohio, focusing on successes of small businesses, tourism, organizations, and local economies. He believes that listening to and telling these stories can help transform the region’s future.