Faith Maguire remembers when downtown Philipsburg was a bustling place to be on the weekends — packed with people shopping, eating out and mingling.
Things have changed a lot since the 1960s and ‘70s and downtown has seen hard times, she said. But Maguire, a lifelong resident and a member of Borough Council, said she and other members of the downtown nonprofit Philipsburg Revitalization Corporation, are trying to change that.
One of those PRC members, Eric Kelmenson, moved back to Philipsburg after a stint in the technology sector in San Francisco.
“We want to be a place where artists and entrepreneurs and people who want a beautiful Victorian (house) but don’t want to shell out an enormous sum of money ... can come a build community. But there’s also a very vibrant community that’s already here,” he said.
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A place full of ‘opportunity’
Kelmenson, who manages a real estate investment firm concerned with historical preservation, saw opportunity in Philipsburg, which is located in one of the largest designated economic “opportunity zones” in the state. In an “opportunity zone” — created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 — investments that meet certain criteria may be eligible for tax incentives.
Maguire, Kelmenson and fellow volunteer Kathy Kalinosky are the new leadership at the helm of the PRC, which is currently undergoing a “period of transformation,” Kelmenson said.
Created in 1998, the PRC started to receive funding through the the Main Street Program of the state Department of Economic and Community Development. But a few years later, said Kelmenson, the state cut funding for that program and many small town programs — including Philipsburg’s — floundered as a result.
While the PRC grappled with a loss of funding, downtown Philipsburg took some hits. The mining industry dwindled and many good-paying jobs dried up with the closure of large factories. But historical preservation remained a strong focus, and several buildings in the Borough were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In the 1980s, the traffic pattern in the Borough changed, with major thoroughfares changing to one-way streets. Many flagship downtown stores closed, and the people who bought old storefronts left them shuttered, said Maguire.
In the past few years, before Maguire and Kelmenson joined, the PRC also went through some rough times and financial difficulties, they said.
But things are starting to turn around. With donations from the Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership, the Borough of Philipsburg and the Rabe family in memory of PRC leader Walter Swoope, Jr., the PRC was able to pull itself out of debt and start planning events.
The PRC also received a $50,000 facade grant in late 2017 from DCED for local businesses and building owners to fix up their store and building fronts.
‘A little act of kindness’
Both Kelmenson and Maguire point to the downtown Philipsburg Christmas celebration this past December as a watershed moment for the PRC’s vision.
“Everybody was just starving for ... affection ... and all they just needed was a little act of kindness,” Maguire said of the celebration, which drew hundreds of people to downtown.
The event created an energy neither of the volunteers had seen in years. There was “camaraderie” and “collaboration” among community members, Kelmenson said.
In many ways, he said, organizations like the PRC are part of a nationwide effort “fighting for the heart and soul of downtown small town America.”
And people are noticing. More young professionals are moving into historic buildings renovated as apartment buildings downtown. In the last six months, six new businesses have moved to storefronts downtown. And a pet store and a bank are slated to open downtown in the next few months, Kelmenson and Maguire said.
The PRC is building on that energy through new events that aim to bring people downtown.
On Saturday, the organization hosted its first fundraiser — an “appraisal day” at Shindig Alley, a local mid-century modern furniture store that draws people from all over the country with its inventory.
In April, Maguire said, the PRC is planning a Spring Fling downtown that will include a kids’ rock band, pictures with the Easter Bunny, an Easter egg hunt, Easter egg painting and flower planting.
Other upcoming events are the Armed Forces Day Parade on May 18, the 7th annual Wine Walk and Brew HaHa on May 24, Philipsburg Heritage Days in the summer and the annual Halloween parade, Maguire said.
A community of artists
In conjunction with the historic Rowland Theatre, the PRC is also planning a film series with Penn State professor and filmmaker Pearl Gluck, said Kelmenson.
The Rowland Theatre is “a priceless gem,” said Kelmenson, and the PRC hopes to center it in the organization’s new marketing and branding efforts.
Philipsburg has “character” and “heart,” in large part because of its rich history and preservation of historic architecture in the Borough, said Kelmenson.
That type of atmosphere also translates to having space for artists to make and display their art, he said.
In order to help facilitate that growth, the PRC wants to “preserve a lot of these beautiful buildings downtown and to bring in small businesses and create spaces for artists to thrive,” he said.
The message Kelmenson wants to get out to those in search of more affordable living and a creative community is that Philipsburg is a place to create things.
“Whether it’s fixing up an old Victorian, or building a business, or making danishes at the bakery, or brewing a beer,” he said, Philipsburg is “a place for people to come and to make and to fix things.”