On Centre: Around Bellefonte | Borough charms tour bus riders

A Victorian Bellefonte banner hangs on a pole along Allegheny Street, June 30, 2014. Downtown Bellefonte is becoming an attraction for tourism.
A Victorian Bellefonte banner hangs on a pole along Allegheny Street, June 30, 2014. Downtown Bellefonte is becoming an attraction for tourism. CDT photo

Every now and then, a tour bus or two rolls into Bellefonte and disgorges tourists along High Street.

They’ve already seen the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Times Square and other sightseeing icons of New York.

But for many, the shops, restaurants and Victorian charm of a small town in the heart of Pennsylvania provide some of the best highlights of their trip.

So says local landlord Ron Wiser, the owner of the Plaza Centre Antiques mall, one of his borough properties.

Wiser first arranged the stops with a national tour bus company four years ago. Since then, tour groups mostly from the Midwest on excursions to the Big Apple have been making pit stops in Bellefonte before heading home.

Recently, the town welcomed the 200th bus full of passengers waiting to spend two to four hours walking downtown, shopping, grabbing a bite to eat and, often, leaving with fond memories.

“They just love it,” Wiser said. “Every single bus we’ve had, people tell me, ‘This is better than the tour of New York we get.’ ”

Wiser estimates that the buses have brought more than 10,000 people, adding about $200,000 to Bellefonte’s economy. He bases his figure on sales at the Plaza and the Diamond Deli, which he also owns, and from what other downtown business owners say.

At the Plaza alone, each bus load spends an average of $800 on antiques and collectibles, he said.

Joe Bann, an employee of the Governors’ Pub on High Street, said the buses bring so much extra business — sometimes as many as 75 patrons per bus — that the restaurant adds extra staff when it knows in advance of the arrivals.

“Definitely, it has a good impact on us,” Bann said.

Wiser was inspired initially by a 2001 visit by a Kansas couple, who wandered into the Diamond Deli. It turns out their nephew had a son at Penn State, and the student had recommended they make a detour off Interstate 80 to check out the picturesque borough.

Nine years later, Wiser was in Florida, where he owns a home in Daytona Beach. He met an official of a bus company — he wouldn’t disclose which — and plugged Bellefonte as a stop on the New York trip itineraries.

The company liked the idea, and on March 10, 2010, the first bus arrived.

Passengers still get more than just a restful interlude.

For each bus, Wiser hands out Bellefonte history tracts, downtown maps and chairs in front of the Plaza for relaxing while eating free cookies.

Wiser also dispenses Bellefonte trivia.

After greeting a bus, he hops on for a 15-minute tour of his own. During the ride, he slips into his guide routine, recounting Bellefonte’s famous citizens, such as Gov. Andrew Curtin, and its ties to notables such as the Mills Brothers, Amelia Earhart and Thomas Edison.

Edison first visited in 1870, and returned several times in the 1920s, usually staying in the Brockerhoff Hotel, according to Wiser. He’s also central to one of Wiser’s stories.

As the late Charlie Mensch, a local postmaster, told Wiser around 1985, the Brockerhoff often called Mensch to say Edison and his guest, an auto tycoon named Henry Ford, needed worms to toss to the plump trout off the High Street bridge.

So Mensch, an avid fisherman about 16 at the time, would dig up a bunch and deliver them to the hotel lobby in the morning.

As much as he wants his Midwestern visitors to leave happy, Wiser draws the line on digging.

He just gives handfuls of bread.