Area boasts farms, thriving businesses

The Penns Valley Area Medical Center building, in Spring Mills.
The Penns Valley Area Medical Center building, in Spring Mills. CDT photo

Penns Valley community and business members think the region is the place to be.

But with a growing business community, a borough that underwent a business-district makeover, and the plans to expand a major medical facility, Penns Valley still aims to maintain it rural culture.

According to Centre County Farmland Trust Executive Director Sarah Walter there were 481 farms in Penns Valley as of 2012, including 52.4 percent as crop farms, 32.9 considered woodland farms, 8.9 percent used for pastoral farms, and 5.9 percent under other farm uses such as barns.

More up-to-date census numbers were unavailable.

The area is also home to Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture in Millheim, Pennsylvania Certified Organic in Spring Mills, and the Penns Valley Conservation Association — a Spring Mills-based volunteer-driven organization that aims to implement community-based projects within the Penns Creek watershed where improvement is needed.

“It’s a fine balance between an incredible soil that’s rich in nutrients and high quality water, with a legacy of people who have grown up on farms that have been passed down from generation,” said PVCA Executive Director Andrea Ferich.

Farm town

For 20 years, the PVCA has been promoting “agriculture best management practices” on 29 Penns Valley farms of which about $1.4 million is funded by taxes and that helps with stream bank fencing, and protecting plants and trees, Ferich said.

“It’s helping farmers have a stronger sense of demand of environmentally friendly practices,” Ferich said.

One of their partners in the initiative is Martin’s Feed in Coburn.

To help meet strategic goals, the association teamed up with the business to help establish watershed-friendly mixes and feeds.

“Since they’re a mill crop, it’s all milled locally and sold locally so that money is being reinvested back in the community,” Ferich said.

For each product sold, $1 also goes back to PVCA.

PVCA is also involved in a parternship with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that allows farmers to receive a payment for protecting land on their farm that may not be ideal for good production, Ferich said.

And another PVCA campaign is the Young Forest Initiative, which works with 21 Penns Valley farms including Martinec Farms in Farmers Mills and Marquardt Farm in Georges Valley, and other farms in in the Muddy and Pine creek basins.

“If you let old farm fields sit and not farm them for a certain amount of time, what happenes is invasive species come in,” Ferich said. “What we do is help farmers manage land for habitat, and some farmers realize soil that is too wet (isn’t) ideal for farming, and pay prevailing wages for the restoration work to make it sustainable.”

The Old Gregg School in Spring Mills, where PVCA is based, also has a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified kitchen “so farmers can diversify products,” Ferich said.

“A driving force is year round farmers markets, and businesses like Elk Creek Cafe and Inglebean Coffee that buy locally,” Ferich said. “The quality of life is so high here because of the abundance. There are so many people who support buying local.”

But buying local isn’t limited to ag-based products.

Millheim renaissance

Millheim Business Community was established about three years ago to make the borough a local destination location and bring local dollars into the community.

Organization director Karl Leitzel, owner of The Green Drake Gallery and Arts Center, 101 W. Main St., said the business association was formed as a “low-key version of a chamber of commerce” to help Millheim prosper.

“We got started because some of the businesses needed more and we needed to find a way to work together more effectively, especially with events,” Leitzel said.

A group of about 10 people began to regularly meet in 2013 to work on special events that annually include Merry Millheim, the Mayfly Festival, and Oktoberfest sponsored by Elk Creek Cafe and the Millheim Fire Company.

“Our goal is to make Millheim and eastern Penns Valley a place people want to come, by promoting its beauty, and good atmosphere to hike, bike and fish,” Leitzel, of Aaronsburg, said.

Leitzel said that 40 or 50 years ago, Millheim was the business center of the valley.

“We didn’t have a Wal-Mart or Lowe’s, so back then, Millheim was the place,” Leitzel said. “But there was a slow decline and about 10 or 12 years ago, half the storefronts were empty. It was a dying, small town that turned into a bedroom community.”

However in the past seven years — starring with opening of Elk Creek Cafe — the borough has gone through what the business community calls a “renaissance.”

“The downtown is coming back strongly with the opening of new businesses,” Leitzel said. “Elk Creek really became the nucleus of it all.”

Other new businesses include Bremen Town Ballroom, Inglebean Coffee and The Green Drake Gallery.

“It’s so much more than a restaurant or coffee house though,” Leitzel said. “A lot of places have a strong desire for music, and turn into places (where) people can enjoy some live entertainment.”

A community radio station called WSOV, Sounds of the Valley, is also in the works to provide local news and entertainment to residents within a 10-mile radius of Millheim.

And that will eventually broadcast to anyone in the world because of the Internet, Leitzel said.

“That’s what happened when you figure out a way to reach to people globally,” Leitzel said. “We can put our town on the map.”

No new businesses are in the works for Millheim, but an abandoned building at the corner of West North and East Main streets was purchased by Henry Beiler, of Millheim Small Engine and Hardware.

Leitzel said the business community is hopeful that the former apartment building will bring more life to downtown Millheim.

“We don’t want to stop expanding, but we also enjoy the rural nature of the area,” Leitzel said. “We’re not asking for more people to move here, but want it to be a place people can take a day trip to and see what we have to offer off the beaten path.”

According to the 2010 census, Millheim had a population of 904.

The goal by the end of the year is to make the Millheim Business Community an official chamber of commerce that would make it eligible to receive grants.

“No one can do well if it’s just one business,” Leitzel said. “We have to work collaboratively to succeed.”

Mount Nittany Health expansion

As the area grows, Mount Nittany Health found a reason to relocate and expand to better serve health needs of residents in the valley, and that also works with the health system’s strategic goals, said Anthony Cardell, executive director and chief medical officer.

With a target date to open the Mount Nittany Physician Group Penns Valley medical practice in the late fall, the practice will move from 4570 Penns Valley Road, to the site of Jersey Shore State Bank’s Spring Mills branch at 3635 Penns Valley Road.

According to a report from the health system, before medical services are relocated, a 5,000-square-foot expansion will be added, to make the facility about 10,000 square feet in total.

“We are delighted to continue to grow and expand our medical services for the people in the Penns Valley community,” said Mount Nittany Health President and CEO Steve Brown, in a statement. “Penns Valley Area Health and Welfare Association brought health care services to the community many years ago, and we are very pleased to be able to work with them to grow that strong foundation of community support. We are investing in Penns Valley and adding medical services to make health care more convenient and accessible to the people that we serve. The new facility allows us to do just that.”

The facility will offer family medicine and laboratory services, and have space for future radiology services and community education classes, Cardell said.

Mount Nittany Physician Group in Penns Valley is staffed by 17 individuals, but Cardell said more staff might be hired.

To make sure banking services are not interrupted, bank employees will transition operations from the main building to the smaller renovated building onsite, beginning this spring.