Editor’s note: This story is part of the CDT’s Business Matters special section.
For the first time in a while, greater Bellefonte has buzz.
More than a dozen new businesses opened in downtown Bellefonte in the past year, said Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins. Census estimates are also showing that greater Bellefonte is growing at least as fast as the Centre Region in terms of population.
And Higgins said he thinks the Bellefonte area is going to continue to build on that momentum over the next several years.
“With the county government, the university, the chamber of commerce supporting these growing local businesses and helping develop the local entrepreneurs, greater Bellefonte’s success should, if anything, increase over the next four years,” he said.
In order to grow, Higgins said, regions have to diversify and try new things.
He’s beginning to see an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” developing in the Bellefonte area.
Hopefully by 2020, Springboard — Bellefonte’s business incubator — will have graduated its first several companies, Higgins said.
“Our overall dream is to see the downtown and virtually all of Bellefonte more vibrant, stronger from the business perspective (and) more foot traffic through visitors and residents,” said borough Manager Ralph Stewart.
The future of the Gamble Mill looks “very positive,” Stewart said. There’s an interested developer looking to buy the property once the bankruptcy proceedings are completed. They want to renovate the building and make it into a first-class restaurant destination.
In addition to that opening, Higgins said he anticipates more restaurants moving into Bellefonte and a growing local music scene.
He sees Bellefonte “starting to develop a bit of a hip and sophisticated nightlife aimed at the growing number of millennials.”
The keynote project to a vibrant downtown, Stewart said, is the waterfront redevelopment.
The borough’s goal is to sell the waterfront property to a developer in 2017, he said. By the time the developer goes through the various planning and approval stages, construction would likely begin in 2019.
“We’re very optimistic that we could see at least a first phase of construction by 2020 of the waterfront project,” Stewart said.
Development might include a hotel, commercial business and office space and residential housing options, he added.
The borough hopes to capitalize on historic tourism, Stewart said.
“We’ve got a great history that we want to share with everybody,” he said.
The number of tour buses visiting Bellefonte doubled in the past year, Higgins said, adding that the county is helping fund a half dozen new historic site signs.
He said by 2020, there might be as many as two dozen signs.
Upgrades to Curtin Village — an iron forge that closed in the ’20s and worker cottages owned by the family of former Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin — are taking place, Higgins said.
The family donated it to the state to be a historic site, but now it’s reverted to a local nonprofit, Higgins said.
‘Virtuous economic cycle’
Higgins anticipates that other businesses will follow Mount Nittany Health’s lead. The medical group is moving into in the space formerly occupied by Weis Markets.
Having more businesses will bring more people to the area, which attracts more employers, restaurants and retail, he said, saying it’s a “virtuous economic cycle.”
Higgins is also hoping more companies will move into the Penn Eagle Industrial and Benner Commerce parks in the next few years.
Several existing companies have begun to expand there and hire new people, he said, which will likely cause more homes to be built in the region.
“All this stuff feeds on itself in a positive, reinforcing way,” Higgins said.
And there’s even more happening in the Bellefonte area in the years to come.
“If even half of these initiatives succeed, Bellefonte will already be a noticeably different town by 2020 and obviously different in a good way — more restaurants, more retail, more new people moving into the area, more jobs, hopefully more better paying jobs,” Higgins said.