In 2016, business booms but brings new challenges for 2017


It was another big year for business in Centre County.

From rising metro areas to a new menu of restaurants, the local economy continued trending upward in 2016, with Centre County boasting one of the higher median household incomes in Pennsylvania, according to the Census Bureau.

The entrepreneurship boom that’s happening here isn’t just slick advertising: It’s vaulting State College up the ranks nationally. Statistics website FiveThirtyEight ranked the town the19th-fastest growing metro area for new startups in 2014, adding 152 new businesses that year. Entrepreneur Magazine ranked the home to the New Leaf Initiative, the co.spaceand the Happy Valley LaunchBox even higher, naming it the 10th best city for entrepreneurs.

But progress is tempered with a higher cost of living, gentrifying areas that make it harder for low-income families and individuals to find places to live and work and an increase in people using local food banks and housing services.

Despite its rapid growth, the county also boasts one of the highest poverty rates in the state — ranking within the top 10. According to Census Bureau data, the county ranks in the top 15 in median gross rent. For many, finding an affordable place to live remains a challenge.

Penn State brings in a wealth of knowledge and talent from all over the world. But both the university and the county are challenged in keeping those diverse talents here. At about 88 percent white, Centre County is less diverse than the state as a whole.

Following a national trend, having a college town in our region is our not-so-secret weapon. It’s an ivory tower of innovation, attracting great minds and great business opportunities. But as wealth increases for some, so do wage gaps. And if that wealth remains concentrated among a few, experts say, the argument for staying becomes less convincing. According to a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center, the median wealth of white households in 2009 was 20 times higher that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, the largest gap in 25 years.

Balancing economic growth equitably is a question human beings have been trying to solve long before the days of Adam Smith. Like “Jack and the Beanstalk,” all you needed was a cow.

But today, fairy tales happen more frequently to the few. For those who don’t come from wealth, a growing economy helps in some ways, but in others it makes the walls of entry higher.

In 2017, the region’s challenge is continuing to grow the beanstalk, but to do so wherein everyone can enjoy the shade.

Here are few highlights from 2016.

Sheetz makes moves

In July, Sheetz, one of the largest privately owned companies in the country, announced it was adding a sixth store for the State College area. The Altoona company also closed down its Valley Vista store for renovations, due to be completed in April 2017, and announced the forthcoming Patton Town Center store would open in late August.

Sheetz operates more than 256 stores in Pennsylvania and more than 500 in the U.S.

An urbanizing metro area

Things continue to look up in State College. Under-construction high-rises bookend the downtown area, with another planned for Beaver Avenue in the former home of Canyon Pizza. In the long-awaited Fraser Centre, Target and H&M opened with Hyatt Place, the building’s anchor, set to open in March.

But outside of downtown, a stretch of farmland in Ferguson Township will contract with the downsizing of Harner Farm, a popular State College staple since 1945.

Entrepreneurship takes off

Philipsburg’s incubator, which opened in May, got its first tenant. Bellefonte’s incubator, which received $18,000 in kickstarter funds from the Centre County Commissioners, is targeting to open in the spring.

While some bid adieu, others said hello. In 2016, entrepreneurs young and old weren’t afraid to start something new. Whether partners in and out of the office, veterans looking to keep serving others after their military careers, a first-time owner moving on from tragedy or a longtime owner moving into the next chapter of life, 2016 proved it was never too late to live your dream.

Penn State’s Global Entrepreneurship Week showcased HackPSU, 3-D-printed hands for kids who need them and a mind at work: Mike Karns, the Penn State alumnus and social media maven behind “Hamilton: An American Musical.” Check it out in 2017.

Gig economy gets going

You have a smartphone. You use your smartphone. A lot.

In 2017, will that change? Probably not.

Soon everything will be on-demand and at your fingertips. Here’s a sliver of the pie: GoPuff launches in State College and Lyft lifts off.

Eats, eats and more eats

You like food. Your friends like food. A lot.

Will that change in 2017? Probably not.

Here’s a not-so-fresh batch of restaurant-related stories:

Troy’s Philadelphia Style Hoagies opens in State College; Burger King plans to add location; Cafe on the Park becomes wine bar and eatery; Bellefonte gets a Domino’s; Buffalo Wild Wings remains on hold; Yallah Taco hits the street-food spot.

Honorable mention

The good people of Snow Shoe lost their only bank and then found out they’re getting a new one. Small towns like this one have been hurt a lot by a changing economy, but now there is hope for 2017.

Roger Van Scyoc: rvanscyoc@centredaily.com; @rogervanscy