North Atherton Street businesses enjoy boom: Zoning, traffic allows retailers to expand

It has been a foregone conclusion dating back to the 1960s.

Patton Township Manager Doug Erickson said his predecessors must have seen the development opportunity of the North Atherton Street corridor between Interstate 99 exits, zoning the area commercial more than 50 years ago.

In present day, the booming retail oasis has become what some call the best commercial business area in Centre County.

The newest addition, Kranich’s Jewelry, opened its doors Wednesday, and President Charles Kranich couldn’t be happier with the location of the 3,200-square-foot shop.

“There is no doubt that this has become the commercial hub of Centre County,” Kranich said. “We needed to be on this side of town.”

But Patton Township Business Association President David Panko remembers when the area was not so commercially populated. He said the site of what is now Lowe’s, on the corner of North Atherton and Valley Vista Drive, was a Kmart. Then, people complained it was too far a drive out of town.

Panko credits the growth of the area to the ease of access from I-99 with two exits to Atherton, but also the willingness of the Patton Township Board of Supervisors to cater to business and allow the land to be developed.

That accessibility draws consumers from places such as Lock Haven and Altoona. Panko said he even has a client who lives in Clearfield and shops in State College.

And Panko said he believes the supervisors have struck a positive balance, not overwhelming the township with too many commercial businesses.

“The township was very willing to entertain input from the community in terms of what would be a fair balance,” he said.

Guaranteed success?

Otto’s Pub and Brewery owner Roger Garthwaite said the amount of traffic coming up North Atherton is a reason for his business’s success. Otto’s, which celebrated its 10th anniversary Friday, already has upgraded to a larger building and recently underwent construction to expand its brewery and add a commercial sales area to the restaurant.

The location near the Park Forest residential area is a boon for the businesses because it provides a smooth transition from homes and businesses and provides a loyal customer base for many of the shops, Garthwaite said.

Though he said the heavy traffic moving through the township helps all the businesses on North Atherton Street, he doesn’t see it as a can’t-miss zone where any business can thrive automatically. He attributes much of the success the restaurant has seen to that loyal base of customers.

“Just because it’s North Atherton Street doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful,” he said. “I don’t think just being present on North Atherton Street is a guaranteed success.”

Guaranteed success or not, the township has also attracted many national retail chain stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot and more recent additions such as Pier One Imports and Trader Joe’s. The popular grocery store is slated to open Nov. 9.

Verizon Wireless communications representative Laura Merritt said the company was so happy with the current location at 2030 N. Atherton St., it decided to upgrade the store to the 2.0 model and expand what it offers.

In addition to other factors, the vibrancy of the community is a major factor in drawing retailers to an area, and that is part of what brought the Verizon Wireless store to its current location.

“We’re making an investment in that location,” Merritt said. “We feel that it’s the best place for us to be, and therefore we’re going to be enhancing the existing location.”

That vibrancy and retail growth has helped the township generate tax revenue as well.

Organic growth

Erickson said commercial businesses on North Atherton are taxed at the same rate as residential, and there were no local or state tax-based incentives to develop. However, the growth likely will mean taxes won’t increase in 2013.

He added that even with all the businesses populating both sides of North Atherton Street, there still is room for more.

One location is the vacant building in the Trader Joe’s plaza. Al Pringle, Keystone Real Estate senior vice president for commercial real estate and whose company manages the plaza, said he expects a deal to be finalized soon after Trader Joe’s opens next month.

Pringle said he can’t release details about potential stores moving in until the deal is done, but said it would be something that the community doesn’t already have.

Another chance for redevelopment comes in the form of the Penn State Mobile Home Park, which recently was sold. New owner Heidi Nicholas said she plans to redevelop long-term after the park is closed in 2013.

Nicholas has not yet revealed any specific plans for the parcel and did not return repeated calls for comment on this report. Erickson said the township hasn’t received any redevelopment plans for the space either.

Pringle said he expects to see commercial development on the property in the next five to 10 years, but his company does not have a hand in the management.

Long-term forecast

Erickson also said that there is a small window of long-term opportunity in the area of the township near the Geisinger building nearing the top of Atherton Street. He said there may be office buildings put there in the future, but he doesn’t think retail stores will be an option in the area.

The question of whether the growth in Patton Township will reach the surrounding areas like South Atherton Street remains.

Panko said the problem with North Atherton Street’s southern counterpart is that it doesn’t have the same ease of access.

“There is very, very limited access to South Atherton Street,” he said. “It’s a long ways off before we see that growth occur.”

But it is something Pringle would love to see.

He said the biggest opportunity lies in the South Hills Plaza, and adding business there could springboard the whole area.

Another problem lies in crossing township lines, Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County President Vern Squier said there are more restrictions on business outside Patton Township, but North Atherton Street’s development is a positive for the surrounding areas.

“I think it’s a healthy phenomenon for the community to have that area develop,” Squier said.

And the businesses there don’t seem to be going anywhere. Kranich said he is already thrilled with the location.

“There are a lot of people that like to shop on this side of town,” he said.