Hard work helps small towns experience rejuvenation

crosenbl@centredaily.comFebruary 9, 2014 

Green Drake Gallery and Arts Center in Millheim is a showcase for local artists and a performance space.

CHRISTOPHER WEDDLE — CDT file photo Buy Photo

Federal funding helps a historic theater obtain a digital projection system and stay afloat.

Businesses band together to rejuvenate a rural hub.

An early Christmas celebration infuses a small town with holiday spirit.

Chain stores and malls may have crimped small-town downtowns over the years, as shown by vacant storefronts, but some local ones have fought back.

Through financial assistance and community cooperation, they’ve achieved some success in breathing new life into their districts.

Philipsburg’s Main Street Program, for example, applied for about $73,000 in U.S. Department of Agriculture funding for the digital conversion that the Rowland Theatre, a downtown anchor, needed for its survival.

The borough’s council voted to pick up the closing costs of the low-interest loan, and donated the services of its solicitor.

“Everybody really worked together,” Main Street Manager Dana Shoemaker, also the executive director of the Philipsburg Revitalization Corp., said at the time.

“It’s great to be able to show our community that we do have the resources and really intelligent people who can pull together when times get tough.”

In December, Philipsburg celebrated itself at an appropriate location: the nonprofit, municipally owned Rowland.

Built in 1917, the restored theater continues to be the pride of the town and one of Front Street’s main draws.

Residents gathered there last month for a free showing of “Our Town: Philipsburg,” the 75th episode of the WPSU series showcasing central Pennsylvania communities.

Because of the digital system, people could watch the show together on one of the region’s largest screens.

These days, though Philipsburg still struggles economically with high unemployment, the town has had some success in keeping its downtown from slipping into an urban desert as some have.

Seven years ago, the town completed a major streetscape project with state transportation enhancement funds, installing vintage-looking faux gas lights, among other changes. A new sewer system also was built.

Today, Main Street Program festivals such as Philipsburg Heritage Days in the summer and Harvest Fest in the fall keep the downtown alive by bringing crowds to see the parades and sample the fun. Last year’s Harvest Fest in October packed the restored Finberg Building parking lot with more vendors and activities than ever for the event.

In addition, businesses teamed to offer their own Halloween. Children collected candy at participating establishments, using bags provided by a local insurance company.

Last year, the Philipsburg Revitalization Corp. also organized the first “Fare and Pair: A Wine Affair” wine walk at Pocket Park, a culinary tour featuring four wineries and downtown businesses.

“It’s something really different that we’ve never done before,” Shoemaker said beforehand. “It should bring a niche market and different groups of people who would otherwise never really think to come to Philipsburg, which is what will be really neat.”

Another downtown success story is the Holt Memorial Library, which used a $300,000 mix of loan and grant money under the federal stimulus package to move to larger quarters in a former bank building. The library now serves as a cultural hub for the town.

Until 2012, Philipsburg also pointed with pride to the Philips Hotel, a 1921 building restored to its former grandeur after years as a nursing home.

Given $1 million in state redevelopment funds earmarked to help the downtown recover from a 2005 fire, the hotel’s owners spent another $2 million before opening for business.

But they abruptly closed their doors in 2012, and the building remains for sale.

Millheim turned its downtown into a destination not with grants but through teamwork.

In recent years, Millheim Business Community members have banded together to stage the Mayfly Festival and Merry Millheim events, drawing people to the borough and contributing to the downtown’s renaissance.

“I think it’s been a lot of cooperation from all fronts, from business owners who have been around for a long time as well as from new business owners and residents,” said Martha Hoffman, owner of the IngleBean Coffee House and an MBC member.

Hoffman’s coffee shop has become one of the district’s new fixtures, joining traditional landmarks such as the Millheim Hotel, Penns Valley Jewelers and Bierly’s Meat Market and building on the revitalization jumpstarted by the popular Elk Creek Cafe and Aleworks.

Another relative newcomer brightening the scene is The Green Drake Gallery and Arts Center, a showcase for local artists as well as a smaller performance space to complement Elk Creek, which features local and touring music acts.

Owner Karl Leitzel has partnered with his downtown counterparts to organize MBC-sponsored festivals and also separate events such as Oktoberfest, a fundraiser for the Millheim Volunteer Fire Company.

“When you live in a small town, you work together to get things going,” Leitzel said before last year’s Oktoberfest. “We’re working together to set up events that are fun for locals and to help bring people to our town.”

Decades ago, Millheim served as the economic and cultural hub for eastern Penns Valley, Hoffman said.

The MBC, she said, wants to return to those days while striking a balance between enlivening downtown and maintaining its historic character and feeling.

“I think eventually we would like to be looking at it on a bigger scale, and maybe applying for grants,” she said. “For now, it’s a lot of hand-pressing and seeing how businesses and people in the community feel about it, and moving on from there.”

Philipsburg and Millheim may be on the road to healthier downtowns, but Howard sports a literal path.

Last year, the borough built the mile-long Howard Path, a $300,000 paved pedestrian and bicycle trail from one end of town to the other. Funding from the state Transportation and Conservation and Natural Resources departments supported the project.

“It’s helped to bring the community closer together because people stop on the path and talk to each other,” borough Secretary Irv Hoy said before the path’s dedication.

In Milesburg last year, residents celebrated their third Hometown Christmas celebration at the end of November. Organizers say the early festival, featuring street carolers, craft shows, open houses and church activities, has generated business for local stores.

The latest included a 4-story live Christmas tree sporting $2,000 worth of lights bought by the local American Legion Post 893 and draped with the help of a fire company bucket truck.

Said festival organizer and Borough Councilwoman Sandy Dieterle in 2012: “It just gives us a sense of community, that we’re pulling together, because we’re such a little town.”

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