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The personal love story behind the Portobello

Renée Suhr is the visionary leadership behind two high impact businesses, Stray Cat Studio: Pottery & Handmade Market and Mycelia Development which have worked to unite community resources and have enhanced the economic, community and creative development of the depressed small steel town in which they reside. In the coming year, Mycelia will break ground on a new construction 16,000SF building in the center of the town’s Core Business District. The “Portobello Building” will hold the current pottery studio and retail of Stray Cat, but also expand to become a local cultural life and arts center.

Her story. In her words.

One of the first questions people always ask me is “Why...??” and then the conversation begins.

So, I thought in light of this being our first of 5 phases, “Phase 1: Foundations”, I would explain about my deeper “why”. It’s maybe a story a lot of us didn’t know or have forgotten, but I think a deeper, more personal answer is important.

Thriving through heartbreak

My love affair with Beaver Falls started 15 years ago, when my first husband, Matt Swanson, Assistant Chaplain at Geneva College, was dying of cancer. The people of my church and this town so fully embraced me, and I had a safety net like none I had ever experienced. Oddly enough, in the midst of our grief and tragic loss, my then 3 & 6-year-old boys (Jacob & Simon) and I continued to thrive after he passed. When people asked where we would go afterward to start a new life, I instinctually replied, “Where else would I go?!” This place had everything we needed: a supportive community, affordable cost of living, and meaningful work. I plunged myself deeply into the rebirth of our beloved small city that had so selflessly cared for my little family, but yet had so many needs of its own.

A necessary history lesson

We all know the storyline: Beaver Falls itself had gone through a death and rebirth process, not unlike mine. It had once been the “little Pittsburgh”, the place where everyone went to do their shopping and services. After the steel mills’ crash in the 1980s, half of the town’s population moved to greener pastures (and jobs) elsewhere and Beaver Falls became a mere shell of its former glory. Abandoned buildings and boarded up shops replaced a thriving downtown core, and it seemed like drug dealers and prostitutes replaced the once prosperous and kid-friendly neighborhoods.

I had gone through grief myself and recognized the process happening in town. It seemed that many who had known Beaver Falls’ former glory were almost paralyzed by their loss (and how can we blame them?!). It was heartbreaking to move forward. But then small groups started forming - people who could envision small economic districts, how arts and culture could be a part of a town, and industries not centered on steel manufacturing. This team of residents came in all shapes and sizes, colors and economic levels. And they included residents who had been here a long time and wanted something more than grief.

They saw a path forward and together we began to climb a very tall mountain.

In that difficult economic environment, (and standing on the shoulders of many businesses who had held down the fort for a long time), I opened and started running my first business. Stray Cat Studio: Pottery Studio & Handmade Market became a conduit for my own contribution to the tax base, as well as my passion for community and economic development. The naysayers said business and arts couldn’t survive in this God-forsaken place, but that kinda sounded like a double-dog dare to me.

So what else could I do?! I took it.

Close quarters

As Stray Cat Studio started to become successful, I realized we were quickly running out of space. We

were going to be too small as our needs grew, and we were already reaching our capacity. We needed to move.

Most of the buildings in town would require major renovations and some huge compromises to our mission. None seemed like the right fit. One far-fetched option seemed to keep tugging at me...

There was a plot of land (a triple lot) in the dead center of town—right next to Oram’s, the 80-year-old iconic donut shop. I couldn’t believe it was sitting vacant for so long and began to ask around about it. All said and done, all taxes were exonerated by city, county and the school district.

I bought the land for a fraction of the cost and this crazy project was born.

Here's the thing about mushrooms...

I would need an entity that could work with this land, and thus, along came Mycelia Development. The inspiration for its name came from the root structure of mushrooms. These crazy things can be underground for 50 years, waiting for “when the conditions are right”. When all is well, they push up fruit—mushrooms, or in this case, buildings. We, the mycelia of Beaver Falls, had worked together to prepare the ground. For many years we labored over the “unsexy” policies and foundations of a business district, even creating feisty residents’ groups like “BFF” (Beaver Falls Forever) to strategize around important issues, and elected caring and thoughtful city officials. We watched with awe as the core of our city begin to be transformed.

The tipping point was in reach. We knew if we could bring centers of livability to our Core District, people could envision once again buying a home here, having a place to work locally, sending their kids to school, and rolling up their sleeves. After a lot of providential conversations, Mycelia’s building concept (now named “The Portobello Cultural Life & Arts Center”) has become a piece of that tipping scale. This tax-paying (for-profit/non-profit hybrid) venture would become a hub of community-driven programming.

It takes a community

Each of its rooms, from the Black Box Theatre/Event Space and Gallery to the Retail Shop, Cafe, Pottery Studio and community meeting spaces, will hold programs and events initiated by the city residents themselves. Soon people will have a place for “artsy industrial” weddings, AA meetings, knitting clubs, musical theatre camps, STEAM field trips for kids, and annual film festivals. Anything we can imagine!

When it is finished in the Spring of 2021, The Portobello Building will be the first commercial certified “green” building in Beaver County. It was awarded several prestigious grants and a national pilot study for a Green Globes certification. We are even in conversations with the Pittsburgh CLO (Civic Light Opera) to offer a musical theater academy on-site for middle school kids.

“Building Hope”— an organization that exposes non-college bound kids to the trades will bring newly graduated teens to be involved in construction on our site. In addition, we’ve been dreaming with a local mental health organization that wants to offer the arts to its clients for their healing, with our building being at the heart of that innovative idea.

At the heart of the Portobello is a center that will, together with other large scale projects coming soon, offer resources, hopefulness, and inspiration. I can’t wait to be a part of the incredible daily life that will happen within its walls. When I picture the building fully constructed and filled with busy people meeting up, I see myself having coffee in the cafe as we strategize for the next big thing or in the basement studio “throwing pots” and tending the plants in our rain garden. My hope is that others will begin to impart their mission and culture into its very walls and will begin to own the Portobello at very deep levels. The less it looks like me, the better. I think I may not even recognize all that springs to life.

And that would be just fine.

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