Investing in our place
Recently I toured an old building in a downtown area along Route 6 in Pennsylvania Wilds that is being improved by the owners, a young couple who moved home to rural PA a few years ago to start a business.
The building is like a lot of others in our rural downtowns – a shell of what it once was. Most of it is empty. It has roof issues. Three stories, each floor about 5,000 square feet. Broken elevator. Someone in the 70s or 80s covered most of the beautiful interior features with ugly carpet or brown paneling or paint or drop ceilings. As I walk through it, I try to imagine what it would take to bring it up to code and heat the thing. If I was rich, very doable, or an experienced developer, perhaps, but for the average person or small business? It takes a brave soul to take it on.
“The problem with a lot of these buildings is they haven’t seen any love in a long time,” the husband tells me as we walk through the second and third floors. “We’re really proud to be bringing this one back to life. These historic buildings. They are the fabric of our communities.”
The conversation reminds me how much I love these distinct old buildings, and of something Ed McMahon, the TED Talk speaker and national expert on sustainable community development, told us two years ago at our annual awards dinner. “You lose your history,” he said in his preacher’s cadence, “YOU. LOSE. YOUR. SOUL.”
It also reminds me of the PA Wilds Planning Team and how forward-thinking it was for the 12 county governments of the Wilds to come together to form the Planning Team more than a decade ago, and how forward-thinking it was of the Planning Team to develop and publish the PA Wilds Design Guide for Community Character Stewardship and build mini grant programs for communities around it. (2017 PA Wilds Design Guide for Community Character Stewardship cover pictured at right.)
Because now that Design Guide and one of those mini grants is helping this young couple bring this particular building back to life. It’s a small but meaningful lift on what for them will be a years-long investment of time and treasure.
They and this building aren’t the only ones. All across Scenic Route 6 in the Pennsylvania Wilds, dozens of other businesses are making similar kinds of improvements.
PA Wilds Center is proud to be investing in this momentum and in soulful projects like the one I toured, through a Regional Façade Grant program, piloted this year in partnership with the PA Route 6 Alliance, PA Wilds Planning Team, local businesses and our longtime state partners in the Wilds effort, the PA Department of Community and Economic Development and PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
All told, some 40 projects have been approved. Twenty five are so far complete, leveraging more than $120,000 in private-sector investment. I smile every time I drive by one.
“It is amazing the difference we are seeing in communities as these improvements are made,” says Terri Dennison, executive director of Route 6 Alliance, the organization that is doing the heavy lifting to implement the pilot program. “It has encouraged others to step up and improve their facades. For example, several business owners in Coudersport, despite not getting a facade grant, have done the work on their own. Paired with the investment from PennDOT on repairing the street and curbing, the Main Street of this historic town has a refreshed and inviting look. We are grateful to DCED and DCNR for helping to make this project happen.”
Our region has seen four decades of population loss driven largely by mega forces beyond our control – globalization, tectonic changes in technology. It’s part of how and why our building stock got to where it is. And it is going to take repeated investments like this – in partnerships, in inspiring resources like the Design Guide, in public-private collaborations and matched investment – to reverse this decline.
But communities in the Wilds are nothing if not resilient, and we’re finding innovative ways to re-position ourselves and work together to make it happen. Like Terri described in Coudersport, the building I toured was but one of several that is being improved along its street and coupled by PennDOT upgrades. Several of the new building owners are young couples with kids who know each other.
“We just started thinking,” the husband told me during the tour. “What kind of town do we want to leave to our kids? Let’s make it the kind of place we’re proud of… Who knows, maybe our kids will be the first generation to say, ‘this is where I want to live when I grow up.’”
Which is funny to hear because I’m pretty sure those same kinds of conversations are what led to the creation of the Design Guide in the first place. It is great to see things coming full circle. Keep it up, Pennsylvania Wilds region, we’re on to something!
The PA Route 6 Alliance, in partnership with PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, awarded 30 facade grants to businesses and properties within the PA Route 6 Heritage Corridor and PA Wilds Region at the beginning of the year and is now opening up a second short term grant round. The PA Route 6 and PA Wilds Regional Façade Program is an effort to enhance the attractiveness of the small towns within the PA Wilds and along the PA Route 6 Heritage Corridor by helping commercial property owners and business owners in Warren, McKean, Potter and Tioga County improve the look of their buildings. Funding is available for either façade improvements or signage. The deadline for applying is November 14, 2018. Complete details available at www.paroute6.com/facade.
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