Practically everywhere you turn in State College these days, someone is digging.
Two giant pits downtown, cranes towering overhead, are becoming the foundations for the borough’s version of skyscrapers. North Atherton Street is a daily mess.
Here a former gas station site is being redeveloped. There a municipal public works project tears up asphalt, one of several either being done or scheduled for early June. Before long, bulldozers and backhoes will grind out the first steps toward a new high school.
Add it all up, and it’s evident we’re in the midst of our unofficial fifth season — late-spring construction.
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Soon, workers will churn more dirt at various sites around town — but with prettier results.
Borough employees next week will start planting flowers in several public beds, continuing the tradition of gracing otherwise humdrum street intersections with vibrant patches.
“We get a lot of positive comments about them,” said Alan Sam, the borough’s environmental coordinator/arborist.
Let me add my own.
Municipalities large and small face budget challenges. When money’s tight, flower displays could be an easy cut. Tulips? Too bad; try the florist.
In State College, there’s a different mindset. Begonias haven’t gone away. To their credit, borough officials consider the beds not a frivolous luxury but an integral part of the landscape, a signature look like the trees that form shady tunnels down some streets.
“I think they contribute something to the community, the aesthetics of the community, and I think that’s important to us,” said Ed Holmes, the borough’s public services manager.
This year, the borough budgeted $4,800 to buy more than 5,500 plants from Patchwork Farm and Greenhouse in Aaronsburg. Orders were placed in January for wave petunias, angelonia, begonia, dusty miller, geraniums, marigolds, celosia, salvia, vinca, zinnias and other choices for the beds.
With that much dirty work ahead, borough crews could use a few helping hands.
In recent years, the public works department has relied on community volunteers to assist Steve Shirey, the tree division foreman who designs the nine to 10 beds and oversees the plantings.
“Probably more so than ever with budget cuts,” Sam said, noting that the plantings draw about 50 to 60 volunteers annually. “The volunteers have been really important to us.”
Neighborhood residents take the lead with the bed at the intersection of Hillcrest Avenue and Martin Terrace, filling in Shirey’s design with the flowers supplied by the borough.
“They’ve done a fantastic job over the last several years,” Sam said. “That’s one we don’t have to worry about.”
Double green thumbs up for them. They’re making State College that much lovelier for the rest of us, as are the local residents who banded together this spring to tend the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy community garden near the University Drive and East College Avenue interchange.
Judging from plans for The Fraser Centre and The Metropolitan — glass and steel behemoths that will fit in downtown like an iceberg off a tropical beach — it sometimes seems like State College harbors closet big city aspirations.
Then you come across mulch-surrounded blossoms, and you know it’s a long way from becoming an urban jungle. Each petal at the intersection of Pugh and Atherton streets, or at the West College-Atherton light, serves as a welcome reminder that State College, for all its recent growth and current development, remains a small town at heart.
It always raises my spirits — and I’m not alone.
“The trees and flower beds, that’s what a lot of visitors say they come back to State College for, for the ambiance of them,” Sam said.
He and his colleagues in the public works department have made “green infrastructure” a priority, building rain gardens on Allen Street to capture and filter stormwater bound for Spring Creek, and turning a previously drab Westerly Parkway runoff basin into a landscaped park.
In doing so, they’ve emulated green infrastructure leaders such as Lancaster, which embraced the philosophy to make mandated improvements to its stormwater management system.
A few buildings notwithstanding, I applaud the borough for its commitment to the environment, a worthy use of tax dollars. That speaks volumes to its fundamental values.
So do the beds. They’re basically decorations, sure, but they make bees and butterflies happy. They make us smile. They add to our quality of life, and that’s saying something about us a community.
As the expression goes, the borough chooses to say it with flowers.