During a presidential campaign, the economy always rises to prominence.
This year, Democrats point to a turnaround, based on the national unemployment rate dropping last month and an increase in jobs created. Republicans counter the rate, currently at 7.8 percent, remains too high, evidence the economy still lags.
In our corner of the world, it’s hard not to see signs of recovery. They’re all along North Atherton Street.
Businesses continue to flock to the bustling corridor, with Patton Township seeing most of the growth. Kranich’s Jewelers recently opened a spacious store, and across the street nearby, the much-anticipated Trader Joe’s grocery store, the anchor of a new shopping plaza that includes Pier 1, awaits its first customers.
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A development group called 1752 North Atherton Street Associates plans to develop a commercial property at the address in its title. It’s displacing a wooded mobile home park, but has not said what it will build or which businesses it will add.
All continue an economic shift more than a decade in the making.
North Atherton today buzzes with activity. Across town, the area’s former commercial hub along South Atherton, while hardly moribund, pales in comparison. A few businesses — a bank, a car wash, a Sheetz — have breathed new life into the strip, but vacancies still dot the fading Hills Plaza shopping center.
Starting in the late 1990s, big-box stores such as Best Buy began popping up along North Atherton. What was once a wooded tract became, in 2002, the sprawling Colonnade at State College shopping center, home to Wegmans, Target and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Six years later, the full opening of Interstate 99 spurred more growth — banks, retail stores, supermarkets, restaurants. The Valley Vista Drive intersection — on the edge of I-99 and bordered by Sheetz, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Home Depot and the Premiere Theater College 9 — hums as one of the area’s busiest crossroads.
After the Perkins Family Restaurant and Bakery along South Atherton closed earlier this year, the company owning the franchise announced it wanted to relocate to North Atherton. Said one executive, “We’re trying to get closer to the new travel patterns through State College.”
These days it sometimes can seem like half the county is doing the same.
Weekend and evening traffic, slowed further by the long string of lights, was inevitable of course. It’s the price for more jobs, increased local tax revenue and greater consumer choices.
Another cost — low-income mobile home residents booted — is harder to reconcile.
The developers of the Trader Joe’s center softened the blow of bulldozing a trailer park by building a few affordable housing units. But the 1752 group has announced no such plans.
Given the properties’ commercial value, development was just a matter of time. Of course that’s no consolation to people driven from their homes and confronting the area’s high rents.
Despite their plight, and the spectacle of suburban sprawl, North Atherton’s rise has been good for the local economy. It boosts the township’s coffers and puts people to work — though none will profit like the developers and real estate agents, the true beneficiaries of the boom.
The growth also may jump-start two stagnant parcels in need of resuscitation.
The P Hotel and Spa was intended for the wide, empty pad off Colonnade Boulevard, until the recession killed construction and left a partial skeleton of beams. After three lean years the market could be right for adding a neighbor to the lonely Cracker Barrel restaurant on the property.
The former A&P supermarket off North Atherton has sat empty for about 16 years, but its owner, New York real estate tycoon Donald Zucker, has spurned offers for the prime real estate. A deal with Chick-fil-A fell through, and the restaurant ended up building next door.
Maybe now, Zucker will part with a sliver of his empire and prevent a vacant site from sliding into an eyesore.
He may finally get his price. Like open space, chances to buy into North Atherton’s prosperity are disappearing fast.