Centre County building permits down, but bright spots emerge

New building permits are at the lowest level since the 1970s countywide, but it’s not time to push the panic button yet.

Centre County Planning Director Bob Jacobs said the recession has stalled the majority of building plans and many pre-recession builds are finishing up. He doesn’t see major relief coming any time soon.

“If the interest rates continue to go back up, it may stay the same,” he said.

The lowest point in the recent downswing occurred in 2011, and though the numbers are starting to climb, the ascent has been slow.

Some projects are already on tap and others such as the potential waterfront redevelopment project in Bellefonte are pending, but the county is waiting to see what develops in the next few years, Jacobs said.

In Patton Township, the numbers fall in line with the county, Manager Doug Erickson said.

Before the recession, Erickson said the township had more than 100 new home starts in 2006, but in 2011 that number dropped to 18. The township has seen 14 new single-family home starts in the first five months of this year, but he doesn’t see any major jumps back to pre-recession levels any time soon.

The down building market has just become the new reality, he said.

The township has cut about 10 percent of staffing since 2006, and Erickson doesn’t expect to bring those positions back under the current climate.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to get back to where we were in the early 2000s,” he said.

Though residential numbers are down, commercial growth in the township has been strong and some buildings are being repurposed to bring more money into the area. Erickson said the township has worked with developers on zoning changes if the proposal is reasonable.

The commercial development in already built-up areas is a good sign for the county as a whole, Jacobs said. He added that the insulation provided by Penn State helps.

He said having a university that keeps a strong supply of students and permanent resident employees can likely keep the area afloat at the worst of times.

And elsewhere in the Centre Region, there are glimmers of hope.

College Township’s residential numbers are growing and Mark Holdren, Centre Region Planning Agency senior planner assigned to the township, went as far as to say it’s a “banner year” in the post-recession climate.

The township has seen 12 new housing starts this year as opposed to the low numbers of 2-4 in the past couple of years. He said the numbers are close to where they were before the housing bubble burst.

“As far as residential is concerned, I’d say we’re pretty close to at the same level,” he said.

A rise in student housing complexes, which surprised Jacobs, has also contributed to the climbing numbers.

Jacobs is hoping that when new student housing complexes come in, drawing new tenants, some of the older buildings can be turned into affordable housing, which the county desperately needs.

In addition, sales have been strong on existing properties and new construction, Centre County Association of Realtors President Nancy Ring said.

The market is responding well to the rebound and homes are moving. She expects it to stay at its current levels or better unless interest rates go way up.

“The realty market is doing really well this year,” she said. “The demand is there.”