‘Bellefonte‘s changing’: Leaders hope projects spur economic renaissance

mmorgan@centredaily.comFebruary 9, 2014 

Tom Wilson has lived in Bellefonte for more than 60 years.

But the new mayor of the Victorian community has never seen as many building projects happening at the same time.

With the planned development of the Garman Theatre and Hotel Do De properties and the Cadillac Building, revitalization of the waterfront area along Spring Creek, purchase of the old National Guard Armory property and creation of the new Keystone Community Development Coordinator, the borough could soon be bursting with activity.

“Stay tuned,” Wilson said. “Bellefonte’s changing.”

And officials are happy with the new changes.

Borough Manager Ralph Stewart said this is an exciting time for the county seat that he hopes will end with more residents and prosperous, active storefronts downtown.

Just weeks after reading about two more historic Bellefonte buildings going up in flames, developer Ara Kervandjian had an idea.

The Garman Theatre and Hotel Do De were burned shells just like the Cadillac Building, Bush House and Bellefonte Academy before them.

But Kervandjian decided the time was right to redevelop, quickly closing on the Cadillac Building, and eventually reaching sales agreements on the Garman and Do De with plans to develop workforce housing sites in a plan known as “Bellefonte Mews.”

The day after he reached his third sales agreement, he said this project would be the first step toward getting Bellefonte back on track.

“Rebuilding those buildings, I think, is the beginning of a process that downtown Bellefonte sorely needs in order to take advantage of some of the opportunities that they have,” he said in 2013.

The Garman and the Do De have been razed to create one lot that would yield 32 workforce housing apartments when combined with the redevelopment of the Cadillac Building.

But the idea came with controversy.

Kervandjian’s sales agreement on the Garman property was superseded when the borough took control of the property in May under the Abandoned and Blighted Properties Conservatorship Act. It looked as if the developer still would get the property without a hitch until a challenger stepped up.

The Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association made a play to acquire the building and revitalize it into a regional arts center, playing on the vaudeville-era Garman Opera House. Kervandjian won the building but not until after months of meetings, hearings and appeals.

BHCA leadership is still taking its case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but there is no guarantee it will act on the issue. And the Do De and Garman structures have been torn down.

Stewart is still hoping this project is the start of creating a more vibrant feel to the downtown area. He said the shell of the Cadillac Building, which burned in 2009, could have deterred some economic growth in the area.

“I’m sure a lot of business people came through town and said, ‘I don’t want to put a business next to something that looks like that,’ ” Stewart said.

Simultaneous to the planned work on the Garman and Cadillac sites, the borough is looking to start a major development in its other major district.

Bellefonte purchased three lots along Spring Creek in the past couple of years, with plans to build a flood wall and package the land to a developer, who would build two new buildings with sufficient parking on the 3-acre lot.

The waterfront project is at the site of another downtown fire, the 2006 blaze that destroyed the landmark Bush House hotel, across from Talleyrand Park.

Stewart’s vision included apartments, office or retail space, a restaurant and a boutique hotel.

The borough’s Industrial Development Authority is working with an engineering firm to finalize plans for the flood wall to submit to the state Department of Environmental Protection, while trying to choose a developer.

Officials are negotiating with Kervandjian and the newly formed Waterfront Development Group and hope to make a decision in the coming months.

When the wall is built, Stewart said, the property could be a big draw to get people into the town, and could hold an impressive structure for people to see as they’re driving into Bellefonte.

“We think it’s a prime location, and we’re anxious to get to that point when the property is ready to be redeveloped,” Stewart said.

The most recent and least defined of the recent borough purchases in Bellefonte is the National Guard Armory property.

Stewart said the borough has had its eyes on the large piece of land for 10 years, and he is happy Bellefonte could finally scoop up the armory site when the state put it up for sale. The borough paid $750,555 in December, outbidding Centre County government by nearly $20,000.

Officials plan to pay for the land through a loan with a long-term capital funding strategy and lease part of the plot to a developer. The portion of the property that is next to Zion Road and Parkview Boulevard is zoned highway commercial, which allows for all retail businesses, hotels, motels, professional offices and supermarkets.

Stewart said that pairing the development with the others in town would help grow the tax base to provide more revenue and infrastructure.

“We’re trying to create additional economic development in our community,” he said.

The other portions of the land could be used for relocation of Bellefonte police and emergency medical services.

Stewart and other borough officials are talking about specific details with the plans but haven’t released a detailed usage plan for the area.

Even with all the proposed development projects around town, the empty storefronts will not fill themselves.

That’s where the borough is hoping former councilwoman-turned-Keystone Community Development coordinator Vana Dainty can step forward.

Dainty took the new position in December; 60 percent of her job is to promote the borough through marketing and advertising and search for grant funding. The other 40 percent is taking on the role of the zoning officer.

Her first grant application was for facade improvements, and she will continue to look for other funding opportunities, especially for sprinkler systems.

She is working on assembling committees that would make the system run more smoothly, including collaboration between business owners that would allow the borough’s shops to capitalize more on events such as Bellefonte Victorian Christmas.

“They all talked about how great it would be if everybody worked together,” she said of a preliminary meeting she had with some business owners.

Dainty has said that two of her major goals are to fill the storefronts downtown and bridge any gap between the town’s downtown business district and waterfront district.

And if the storefronts get filled, Stewart said, it could be time to improve the parking situation.

Residents have complained that there is not enough parking downtown, especially on days when the courthouse is active.

But he said numerous parking studies have shown that even a small parking garage would not get used enough.

Stewart said when there is sufficient demand, the borough will increase efforts to find a public or private partner to make the endeavor affordable. He added that the garage doesn’t need to make money, but he doesn’t want it to lose any.

“We’ve got to balance out the demand,” he said. “Before we go and build such an expensive structure, we have to make sure the demand is there.”

A possible location would be the municipal lot near the Waffle Shop.

Ultimately, Bellefonte’s charm lies in its Victorian architecture, but the old buildings have been susceptible to fire.

With five historic buildings lost in the past 10 years, Stewart said fire protection and prevention is an increasing concern that needs to be addressed. After the Do De blaze in 2012, the borough assembled a fire-protection task force designed to help prevent the loss of any more buildings.

Stewart said the group will soon present a report with a master plan that mostly focuses on ways of stopping fires before they happen. The borough has increased its code and fire inspection efforts to make sure buildings are up to date regarding fire specifications.

A key component will be finding grant money to help local property owners install sprinkler systems, Wilson said.

“The key is to find funding,” he said. “Even if it’s little by little, (we need) to try to get sprinkler systems in the older buildings that would be affordable.”

Matt Morgan can be reached at 235-3928. Follow him on Twitter @MetroMattMorgan.

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