Center of Harmony: Passion and Purpose in Small Town PA
Anna Metzger and Kristin Pasquino sit in Wunderbar
, the five-month-old coffee shop in Harmony, on an early Friday evening. Metzger has lived for 47 years in this small town
just half an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh in Butler County, but it took Pasquino’s urging to finally draw her down here to the Center of Harmony
. The Center, housing six businesses and an event space, opened in November in the town’s 140-year-old Oddfellows hall and opera house. The place had seen its share of manufacturers and other food establishments through the years, until nearby Connoquenessing Creek flooded it out of business during Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
“I belong to the Chamber [of Commerce] and I saw how it is building up," Metzger says of the new Center. "I think it is wonderful. It's like we're back in history. I've watched [others] over the years taking certain buildings and then bring them back historically … It's great. I think people will come” – particularly after festivals and other tourist draws that this storied town of fewer than 800 residents, settled by a German religious sect in1804, has depended on for survival.
Center of Harmony owners Josh Meeder and Dana Lowers have been together for three years. Meeder credits Lowers for the Center’s focus: “Her vision is to create a community-based wellness center with businesses that support social, spiritual and community concerns," he says.
Hence the mix of businesses: Alongside Wunderbar, the Center houses SuMa Integrative Medicine and Medical Acupuncture, an eLoop electronics-recycling site, Rustic Acres Winery and Bottles and Barrels
(a gift and wine-making shop), Pearlette jeweler’s workshop, Darn Yarn Needles & Thread
and, perhaps most unusually, “Just Pam” Custom Horse Show Apparel and Consignment. Upstairs, the 172-person hall hosts seminars and classes on such things as holistic pet care, tai chi and belly dancing; this month, Tibetan monks talked about Tibetan medicine and ceremonially blessed the place. The space also hosts weddings and community events.
Starting Where It All Began
Meeder, 38, and Lowers, 27, have been together for three years. Meeder began his career in his family’s insurance office and most recently worked for a marketing company, from which he was downsized at the end of 2009.
That’s when he began investing in real estate. Butler County’s Harmony was a natural – it’s his hometown. “When I was 14 or 15, I painted the curbs outside here and worked at the water plant," he recalls.
Lowers, from Freeport, owned an organic cleaning business for several years, making her own plant-based cleaning products.
"I've always been interested in natural living,” she says. “It's just become a passion for me, and I feel like the Center embodies that." Today, she is taking classes to become a certified herbalist and yoga teacher and hopes to become a wellness consultant to offer more services here.
Tattooed below her neckline is the slogan "To Thine Own Self Be True."
Is the Center of Harmony “true” to this tiny, rural burg?
"It's a historical town with potential to be progressive," says Lowers. "We've gotten a very positive reaction from the community, especially since we held weddings and different social events here. They feel like we're building something here that the area needed."
"We've brought in a lot of people who would not have been here otherwise," says Meeder. Indeed, the Center has attracted three businesses here from elsewhere, one branch of an existing business, and three new stores. The borough, he adds, has been “extremely supportive and encouraging."
The town was happy to help expedite permits and inspections, says borough council President Jack Shanks, “It’s going to bring people to the community, and they are all good businesses,” he says. “We’re trying to build a community of artistic value – artisans, antiques and music – and this is bringing them in.”
Meeder says the enterprise is “financially sustaining itself now," with tenants cooperating to reduce costs and meeting once a month to collaborate on marketing.
Having a common theme also helps Center businesses. “It becomes a destination, a place where people can watch artisans at work, practitioners at practice,” she says.
Of course, she adds, “they all need customers. Is there enough of a base living there to give them customers?” Or are tourists enough to keep the Center thriving?
The Center of Center
Meeder and Lowers start a tour of the Center on the large, mostly empty second-floor hall, which once held the opera stage. When the pair bought the building, this room was down to studs and broken windows.
"The stage we found on the floor in a pile," says Lowers.
"It looked like a bonfire waiting to happen," adds Meeder.
They reconstructed the stage in a new spot and built a podium from the building's wooden shutters, adding high-efficiency windows, insulation, a drop ceiling, lighting with LEDs and compact fluorescents, and finally refinishing the floor with water-based chemicals. Scorch marks are still visible on a cluster of boards where a former tenant welded air turbines for a living.
All the shop owners, says Meeder, “are into the very ecologically conscious mind-frame we are,” pointing out reclaimed wood fixtures in most of the retail spots.
Inside SuMa, the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party!)" is blasting, but Practice Coordinator Teresa Linkous assures that this is the after-hours musical choice of painters at work upstairs. Here in the sedate waiting room and the office of founder Dr. Mary Davis, all is muted earth tones and white trim. Linkous greets visitors with an acupuncture needle in her left ear – her insomnia point, she says.
Davis became dissatisfied with her ability to help patients while working in an ER, according to Linkous, and founded SuMa here to offer other medical arts, including Qi Gong (a Chinese system of meditations and exercises), hypnotherapy and massage, with three other practitioners.
"Josh has done such a great job with the Center and opened up things in Harmony,” Linkous says. "There are people everywhere who hunger for” alternative medicine. “When you decide to escape the masses, it doesn't mean you want to escape forward-thinking."
Harmony resident Adrienne Grafton uses the smallest Center space for jewelry-making right on the premises, demonstrating the art she finds in recycled materials, helping customers design commissions and selling finished pieces from a small retail corner. Pearlette started as an appointment-only workshop on Pittsburgh’s South Side, but when her lease was up – and with a baby due last February -- she began looking for a place closer to home.
Next door is an unrented greenhouse storing the electronic recycling haul of eLoop, a company out of Murrysville, which has recycled more than a ton of e-waste from this spot since mid-April, Meeder reports. Once repaired, the greenhouse might nurture high-density, low-growing herbs, he says.
Next to that is the Rustic winery, supply and gift spot, still being furnished, and the Darn Yarn Needles & Thread knitting supply store that moved here after five years in Butler. It specializes in organic, fairly traded and domestically sourced materials.
Darn Yarn’s owner alerted Pam Johnson of “Just Pam” to the Center, and since March her seven-year-old, horse-show apparel business has occupied a Center space next to Wunderbar. Near her shop entrance is a white, red and violet sparkly jacket on a mannequin torso, which Johnson is reworking it into a new garment for a growing rider. Johnson had always wanted to have a one-stop shop for her own creations and consignment items, and "the location is key," she says, since Harmony saves time for customers who travel from as far away as Westmoreland County, Cumberland, Maryland and Somerset, Ohio.
Enough To Get By and Go Around
Wunderbar owner Rahmat “Roc” Dornbrook’s mother was born in nearby Rochester, and Dornbrook moved his family to Harmony from Argentina seven years ago to be near relatives.
"This was actually my favorite building in Harmony,” he says. “The brick walls, all the woodwork – it just had that old world feel to it. A lot of people in town have a connection to it. It's just always felt good."
When he and his wife decided to found the business, "we knew that it had to be a special place,” he adds. “It had to have a good vibe and not need a whole lot of work. Everything sort of just fell into place."
Wunderbar opened Jan. 14 for evenings only. He and his wife were afraid to quit their day jobs. Now they both work here.
"I've never owned a business before. I don't know what the parameters are,” he says when asked whether Wunderbar was profitable. “I know we can pay our bills and have a little bit extra to buy new stuff -- blenders, the train that goes around up there,” he says, pointing to the model circulating above patrons’ heads. “By no means are we making a ton."
In walks Barry Adams, from Evans City next door. His paintings adorn the walls, and he is trying to move his painting classes here. He helps Dornbrook sweep up at night.
"This place needed to open up again after the flood,” Adams say. “It just depressed people.” Now, he adds, “I do the tai chi upstairs and I smell the coffee and it brings me downstairs. This is my home away from home."
Center of Harmony
Dana Lowers and Josh Meeder, owners of The Center of Harmony.
Pam Johnson sews a custom made costume for an equestrian to wear at a horseshow. She is the owner and designer at Just Pam.
Equestrians appreciate the mix of custom tailored show wear and boutique accessories at Just Pam.
Specialty yarns at Darn Yarn in the Center of Harmony shops.
A place to relax at at Wunderbar.
Teas at Wunderbar.
All photographs by RENEE ROSENSTEEL