Bright future predicted for Happy Valley

Unemployment is down and development is booming.

It’s a combination that has local business leaders boasting about the Centre Region’s future.

The present isn’t half-bad either. The State College area, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry, had an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent in December. Centre County’s unemployment rate was the lowest in Pennsylvania.

“I think there’s a combination of items across the spectrum that you can point to,” Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County CEO and President Vern Squier said.

“I think we have small businesses that are hard at work and potentially back filling positions that they had to do without during the recession,” he said. “There’s some more hiring and filling in occurring. I think also the university has played a role in helping the local economy.”

A 2008 study by Pittsburgh-based Tripp, Umbach and Associates evaluated the 2008 economic impact of the university and found it generated $17 billion in Pennsylvania.

George Arnold, the Downtown State College Improvement District executive director, said the State College economy slows down in the summer when there are far fewer students in town.

Events such as the Central PA 4th Fest, which draws about 80,000 people annually, and the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, which attracts about 100,000 people, give a boost to the Centre Region each summer.

And Arnold says the economy in downtown State College is still recovering.

“The economy hasn’t exactly bounced all the way back yet,” he said. “I think most of what we have is retail and there’s a lot of competition in retail downtown and particularly online. Interestingly enough from what I’ve read, and I think this will be key going forward, is creating experiences — positive ones — is something that is going to be very important in continuing to bring people back.”

DSCID and local business launched First Friday, an event on the first Friday of every month, in June.

“We launched First Fridays to create fun events that we hope locals enjoy and asked stores to stay open late and to offer something special on the first Friday of each month.” Arnold said. “Most towns are looking for those different events to, again, create an experience for folks. I think we’ve had some great First Fridays, and we can do more outdoors in warmer months.”

Developments in the Centre Region could provide a final push for the local economy to leave the Great Recession in a cloud of dust.

The Fraser Centre, a $50 million project, broke ground at the corner of West Beaver Avenue and South Fraser Street in October and will give people a new view of State College at a record 155 feet. The multipurpose, 150,000-square-foot facility, with 158 hotel rooms, 26 to 32 condominiums and retail space, is expected to be complete the summer of 2016.

“Ultimately, it’s a mixed-use development that’s different than most developments, because it doesn’t include housing,” Real Estate Capital Management President Gary Brandeis said. “Our goals are different, because we believe that is a demand for a more modern project with a nationally or internationally flagged hotel. It sets us apart from other projects.”

The Metropolitan, a multipurpose facility at the corner of South Atherton Street and West College Avenue, is slated for completion in 2016, too. It will have underground parking, retail, restaurants, event and office space and student and nonstudent housing.

“The Fraser Centre, that’s huge, we think that’ll be a huge boost,” Arnold said. “The Metropolitan is just across the street from us, and that’s huge, too. I think, looking to the future, young people want to live downtown. I think these projects can facilitate that and hopefully create an environment for younger people to stick around and grow businesses here.”

Other developments in the Centre Region include the Nittany Valley Sports Centre in Patton Township, The Cottages at State College in Ferguson Township and an 82,000-square-foot facility in Innovation Park.

Nittany Valley Sports Centre, a $6 million sports complex with an indoor turf field, a gymnastics training center, batting cages, party rooms and outdoor fields, is in the planning phases and will be built at the corner of Fox Hill and Bernel roads.

Local businessman Michael Lee and Norm Gill, a partner with the Arizona-based firm Pinnacle Indoor Sports, are planning the complex.

“I look at this from a larger vantage point than just Patton Township, because when Shaner Fields was developed we were all very excited to have that, and we were disappointed when it closed a few years ago,” Patton Township Business Association President David Panko said. “To have this new sports complex in Patton is a real nice contribution to not only Patton, but all of the surrounding communities. It will be large, and we’re hoping it does as well as they want it to.”

Developers from Toll Brothers Inc., based in Horsham, submitted plans for a 60-acre, 268-unit residential community for The Cottages in October. It could house about 1,100 Penn State students.

“It’s up to the Board of Supervisors,” Ferguson Township Director of Planning and Zoning Maria Tranguch said. “They’ve presented the concept and gotten generally good feedback. The concept in April was a different look and feel, and this one does look much better.”

The $17.8 million, four-story building at 331 Innovation Blvd. was planned by Baltimore-based GLP Development Co., which has invested $56 million in Innovation Park in three years. It is expected to be complete in August.

“Developments are a phenomenal sign that we have a broad community and region that’s confident in the economy,” Squier said. “Globally, we see that confidence, and we see a lot of confidence in our region, too.”