Coudersport: Carving a Niche in the Modern Economy
In 2004, economic disaster loomed large in Coudersport. Its largest employer, Adelphia, filed bankruptcy and began moving out of town. A full-blown economic recession followed just a few years later.
With Adelphia’s collapse, nearly 2,000 Coudersport area residents lost their jobs. The lucky ones found new jobs. Others, like Coudersport native David Cole and family, were forced to find work elsewhere. They ended up in North Carolina.
Born and raised in Coudersport, David knows a thing or two about what makes a successful downtown. He is studying to be an urban planner and is currently a Graduate Assistant of Public Administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“Coudersport’s low point was 2008, at the tail end of Adelphia’s departure and depths of the recession,” David recalls. “I remember downtown looking like a ghost town. Most storefronts were empty and there was a definite feeling of loss in the air.”
But a ‘never say die’ attitude took hold.
“One of the first positive changes happened when County government moved into the Gunzburger Building around 2010, anchoring both ends of Main Street with occupied office buildings and keeping more workers downtown,” said David.
The revitalization process involved personal sacrifice and financial risk over several years.
“There were many key players who stepped up to the plate, such as John Wright and the Potter County Redevelopment Authority (PCRA), which consists of a five-member board,” said David. “John helped save the old Adelphia headquarters building and was integral in getting Zito Media to occupy part of that facility bringing even more people downtown.”
A huge challenge for Coudersports’s revitalization was removing the “fear-factor” of locating a business downtown.
“The Downtown Committee was responsible for some successful social media promotions, such as the ‘Picture Your Shop Here’ campaign in vacant storefronts and the ‘4 for $400’ lease program,” said David.
Several businesses have qualified for state funds through a private-public partnership program to beautify and spruce-up their storefront facades and signage through the efforts of PA Wilds Center and the PA Route 6 Alliance.
“Brand visibility can help small businesses attract new customers and improve their bottom lines,” explained PA Wilds Center Executive Director Ta Enos, “The signage grant was launched to address this need.”
Downtown Coudersport’s revitalization mirrors the PA Wilds Design Guide for Community Character Stewardship, a best-practices master blueprint for renovations, new construction and redevelopment efforts.
“The visual quality and character of the town center is the greatest single indicator of the overall image of a community,” said Enos. “Town centers are recognized as focal points where shopping, business, social gatherings, entertainment, and government activities are concentrated. Their uniqueness in design and appearance is vital to attracting customers and providing an enjoyable visitor experience.”
Potter County Commissioner and lifelong resident Paul W. Heimel delights in what is happening in town.
“The positive momentum continues. Within the past few weeks, a new candy store opened and an award-winning seamstress and dressmaker has relocated her shop from the town’s outskirts to the business district,” said Paul, the former editor of the Potter Leader-Enterprise who later served as Adelphia’s corporate communications manager. “Not too long ago, a book store opened in an empty storefront and an antique store and craft shop opened in another.”
David said with each new merchant, downtown Coudersport boasts the right mix of businesses and services to form a healthy community.
“Downtown should be a place where people can live, work and play, within a pleasant walk-able environment. Today’s Coudersport more than fits the bill,” said David. He says in the geographical space of the Elmira Arnot Mall parking lot alone, there is a unique business diversity, unprecedented in most downtowns.
He illustrates his point: “Within the six blocks that comprise downtown Coudersport, you can eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, have dessert, grab a cup of coffee, have a beer or glass of wine, and listen to live music. You can bank, buy a book, purchase art and art supplies, see a movie, get legal advice, take a college course, buy toys, flowers, fresh produce, meats, and groceries, buy hardware and appliances, get your hair cut, go to the gym, or book a hotel room,” said David. “The list of services available downtown goes on and on.”
Returning to Coudersport during his 2017 Christmas break, David marveled at the progress.
“This was the visit where I noticed the most changes downtown. Nearly every storefront was occupied with fun and unique shops.”
He said suburban America is trying to regain the sense of community that Coudersport never lost.
Coudersport offers boutiques and good restaurants and is also home to the basic community services that, in more developed areas, are lost in the urban sprawl.
“Sure, there are residents who still mourn the day when JC Penney pulled out of town,” said David. “But today, Coudersport depends on downtown in a way that has come back in fashion.”
However, Paul said challenges remain stiff with the growth of internet commerce and the penchant of some local residents to shop out of town. “Still, success breeds success,” said Paul.
“Leaders in Coudersport and in Potter County are eager to support the kinds of initiatives that have been proven to work in other small towns and the record shows that is certainly true with our Board of Commissioners.”
Many businesses have already signed on for the inaugural “Eliot Ness Fest: Touched by the Untouchable,” a celebration of Coudersport’s most famous citizen and notorious crime-fighter, scheduled for the July 20-22 weekend.
“The Ness Fest is an example of a new approach to help rebuild a sense of community spirit, which certainly faded in the wake of economic setbacks,” said Paul, “but the spirit remains and the momentum is heading back in the right direction.”
As more and more young people take to the outdoors, tourism is making a resurgence as a major driver of Coudersport and Potter County’s economy.
“Much of the downtown’s revitalization is due to increased tourism,” said David “Walking through downtown today, you can find many businesses geared towards that clientele. I think that Cherry Springs State Park International Dark Sky Preserve brings most people to the area and the eventual reopening of Denton Hill State Park will help even further.”
David believes that day-to-day life in Coudersport sometimes can blind residents to just how valuable their community’s lifestyle is in the bigger picture of American life.
“I love the town, and I love Potter County,” David said. “From my perspective, Coudersport has successfully carved itself a place in the modern economy.”