- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

CONFLUENCE, Pa. (AP) - Nestled between the high mountain ridges and the convergence of two rivers in Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Appalachians, a little town lies tucked away with a unique combination of quiet community and tourism mecca.

Confluence, once known for its lumber and coal and is situated along the train tracks, is now known for its camping, hiking, biking and trophy-trout fishing and access to a bike trail.

The year-round population is a little more than 650, but the visitors during the peak summer months average more than 10,000 in a week, according to town data. To accommodate the growing number of tourists, dozens of new businesses have opened in Confluence over the past several years.

Despite the growth in business climate, Confluence has managed to keep its Mayberry atmosphere, according to the owner of the town’s only bicycle shop.

“What stands out is the friendliness of the people and their willingness to help,” said Brad Smith, owner of the Confluence Cyclery. “It’s a community. It’s not just a place where people live. We really enjoy that, living in a community.”

The town itself, like many others in the area, is old, and the buildings are, too. One or two definitely need to be torn down, with crumbling red bricks, glassless windows and vegetation creeping along the edges. Then there are other buildings, those that have been repurposed and cared for, that add character.

The Confluence Community Center, usually the busiest building in town, second only to the bike shop in the summer, houses the borough and police offices, childcare, a food pantry and hosts several community events throughout the year, including the locally popular Pumpkin Fest in October. The huge building sits appropriately at the town’s epicenter, a natural gathering place for long- and short-term community members.

It is the place where community members bond.

“We lived in one location for more than 20 years, and within a year of being here, we knew more people in this town than where we lived for all those years,” Smith said. He and his wife Maureen moved from Washington, D.C. to Confluence to retire in 2008 and decided to open the bike shop to cater to the town’s needs.

Smith’s cycle shop is one of those businesses that occupies a decades-old building. The weathered-orange brick and green and white striped awning feels more like New England than Southwestern Pa., but that is the charm of Confluence, a mishmash of time and architecture.

During the milder seasons, those bustling down the sidewalks or resting in the shade of the gazebo at town square will hear the sweet strains of music, undoubtedly coming from the Creative Arts Center less than a block away.

Confluence residents Jay and Jody Best recognized the need for a creative outlet in the town and opened the arts center four years ago.

“The mission of the art center is to foster that sense of community,” said Jody, adding that the volunteer-operated center hosts concerts and activities for every age and ability level. Jody said they even recognized the amount of musical talent in Confluence and decided to professionally produce an album, featuring more than a dozen local artists.

“It’s been a great thing for the community,” Jody said. “There are so many people from all walks of life, people you wouldn’t normally cross paths with that come here to enjoy the class, music, activities and so on.”

“The reputation of the town is that it’s becoming known as a destination location. It’s a beautiful community that offers something for everybody,” she continued. “It’s a very charming town. It’s finally being recognized.”

Linda Boxx, past president and current secretary of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, refers to Confluence as a “shining star.”

“It’s blessed with lots of different types of visitors. It’s a very dynamic town,” Boxx said, adding that some of its popularity with the biking trail comes from its central location. Confluence is a convenient place to stop along the Great Allegheny Passage that runs from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.

The Allegheny Trail Alliance works with several groups to monitor and maintain the trail passing through Confluence. Each year that a new section of the passage was completed, many “trail towns” experienced a boom in economics, Boxx said. Two of those “booms” occurred in 2006 when the passage connected to Cumberland, Maryland’s Canal Towpath, and in 2013 when the passage from McKeesport to Pittsburgh completed the current distance.

“We see a 10 to 15 percent increase in usership every year, whether it’s people with day trips or multi-day trips, and they’re spending money,” said Boxx.

Smith and Confluence native Mary Aukerman agreed that there really isn’t any animosity between those who call Confluence home, and those who visit Confluence as tourists.

Aukerman is the owner of one of the town’s numerous lodging facilities, The Parker House. Her story with Confluence, though, began when she was born there in 1946. The youngest daughter of the town doctor, Edwin “Doc” Price, Aukerman remembers the town Confluence once was.

“As a youngster, the town seemed very busy to me. There were a variety of businesses,” she said, including a movie theater, a dress shop, a jewelry shop, a general store, an ice cream store, seven bars and seven churches. “It was a busy little town. When I look at the town now- we really are growing.”

When Aukerman opened her business 16 years ago, there were only three lodging services. Now, there are 25, with two more on the way.

“The businesses now are more focused on the trail and the tourists,” she said, adding that 16 years ago, more than 50 percent of her clientele were water enthusiasts, including kayakers, canoeists and people on the lake. Now, she said, a good 80 percent of her customers are those using the bike trail.

As for Aukerman and Smith, Confluence is the town they’ve chosen to retire in, and they’re not alone. Within four blocks of Aukerman, there are three lawyers, two engineers, a professional writer, an educator, a dentist and a physician, all retired within the last 10 to 12 years, according to Aukerman.

“People are here because they want to be here. They’re not stuck here,” Aukerman said. “They’ve either returned because they wanted to or they’ve never left because they chose not to.”

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Online:

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Information from: Herald-Standard, https://www.heraldstandard.com/

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