Bellefonte took a hit and went down hard.
After the Bellefonte Academy in 2004, it was the Bush House in 2006, the Cadillac Building in 2009 and most recently the Hotel Do De and Garman Theatre last September. All lost to fire.
It was something that was not easy for the town and borough Manager Ralph Stewart to take.
“It’s certainly devastating,” Stewart said, standing in the shadows of a boarded-up Hotel Do De. “It’s like being knocked out and down for the count, but before you reach 10, you get back up.”
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And it looks like the borough is on track to be standing up again.
State College developer Ara Kervandjian has closed on a deal for the Cadillac Building and has sales agreements in place for the Hotel Do De and Garman Theatre. He plans to develop the properties into work force housing with two commercial spaces available.
The borough also is trying to develop three plots along Spring Creek on Water Street between the High Street and Lamb Street bridges known as the waterfront properties.
Do De, Garman and Cadillac
Kervandjian’s idea for these properties is two buildings that would be known as the Garman House and the Cadillac House. They will provide residential spaces for families with 50 to 60 percent of the county’s median income. The Cadillac Building will be salvaged, but the Hotel Do De and the Garman Theatre will be demolished and replaced with one building.
The project that he is calling “Bellefonte Mews” is something that will provide much-needed housing, and officials are hoping it brings more people downtown.
“Redevelopment of any town and one as rich as a history of Bellefonte needs to start somewhere, and having burned-out and abandoned and neglected buildings is obviously a non-starter,” Kervandjian said. “And by doing this, I think it’ll help the properties around them. It will boost the morale of all the residents in Bellefonte and provide some more focus on what can be in Bellefonte.”
If all goes well, his project will break ground in February 2014 and be completed in a year.
The downtown area is the lifeblood of the borough, Stewart said, and this project just might be the first piece of the puzzle to putting everything together.
“We feel we’re headed in a direction that we will become a more vibrant downtown community,” he said.
He said he would like to see a restaurant occupy one of the commercial spaces available at the Garman House to help draw people downtown.
State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, also looks at the changes as “exciting” for the small town, and he is glad a developer was able to come and so quickly and look to rebuild the properties.
“In some ways this is a nice influx of energy and excitement for the community,” he said.
The development of the land along Water Street known as the waterfront properties is another piece in the puzzle, but legal questions still surround the potential development.
Stewart would like to see the two end properties, one that used to contain the Bush House and the other the site of the former Cerro Metals warehouse, be transformed into a boutique hotel and a high rise with commercial options on the ground floor. He envisions the middle tract — known as the Ham Store property — to be used for parking. On the bottom floor of the hotel, he would like to see a restaurant with outside seating available near Spring Creek.
The borough controls both end properties and is trying to obtain the middle property through eminent domain. But that’s being met with legal resistance. The legal matters are something Stewart hopes can be resolved soon. The two parties may be a candidate for mediation later this month to work out a settlement.
He said he thinks this project can be a real draw to the town making a destination for people who don’t live in the area. The borough is working on plans for a floodwall to keep the properties safe, which could be submitted by summer. He said the plans are moving slowly, but steadily.
“What we want is sustainable economic development,” Stewart said. “We want business to flourish and prosper.”
But not everyone is happy.
In order for the waterfront dream to become a reality, the borough needs the Ham Store property.
Bob Bowersox has owned Victorian Signs for 20 years, and the business has become his life.
He said the borough should be more worried about filling the storefronts within the core of the downtown. He added that his 6,000-square-foot sign shop — the biggest in the county — is still busy, but the uncertainty has been hurting his business.
“With all this bureaucratic political stuff, it’s been disrupting my business,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m coming or going. It’s been a real stress factor.”
He said the two parties are not close to a settlement, and it could be an ongoing issue.
Impact for businesses
Wendy Fultz is just hoping the potential changes revitalize the town and bring more people to the area.
Fultz, the owner of Cool Beans Cafe, said she saw a small decline in business around the time of the Do De and Garman fires.
She said she hopes the addition of the new buildings and attraction will provide people as another reason to come to the area.
“I think Bellefonte is a beautiful town to visit, but there has to be something to do when you come,” she said.
The biggest determining factor in how everything comes together is what the final product looks like, Fultz said. The impact can’t really be known until all the details are worked out.
Pure Imagination Toy Store co-owner Marc Tressler said if the downtown becomes revitalized, Bellefonte has the potential to become a destination. He thinks with the architecture and the quaint feeling it could become a home for artists and place for shows.
“This could become quite the little mecca,” he said, adding that the redevelopment of the burned buildings and waterfront properties could have a huge impact.
He said the town is in need to a “facelift,” and these are the first steps.
“I definitely believe it’s going to put a ‘wow factor’ in our town,” he said.
He said he thinks the next step should be adding more parking. He said a parking garage in the town, even a small one that keeps with the Victorian theme, is something that needs to be looked at seriously.
It will also help with the idea that business breeds business, co-owner of Confer’s Jewelers Brenda Confer said.
She said the town has potential and keeping the Victorian feel is a must. She said that is part of the charm of the town and it’s something that keeps people coming. It might be a long process, she said, but it’s one that can be completed.
“It can be like a diamond in the rough if we can just polish it a little,” she said of the little, fire-stricken town that looks to have positive days ahead.