Renaissance on the River: The Revitalization of Downtown Lock Haven
Nestled in a beautiful valley of the Susquehanna River’s West Branch in the PA Wilds I-80 Frontier landscape lies the city of Lock Haven. Named for the Pennsylvania Canal Locks, which powered Pennsylvania’s logging industry to unbridled prosperity, the town flourished and became universally known as a ‘haven’ for the timber industry.
Officially becoming a city in 1870, Lock Haven grew by leaps and bounds. Railroads and manufacturing industries followed timber, and the bustling little town thrived full-throttle through the remainder of the 19th century and well into the 20th.
The latter part of the 20th century was not as kind.
(Aerial photo of the City of Lock Haven provided by Garrett Fisher.)
There was the exodus of Piper Aircraft manufacturing, followed by International Paper. Hundreds of jobs were gone. However, today Lock Haven is reinventing itself and fast becoming a shining example of the hard work and determination of people in the PA Wilds who refuse to say “die”.
Located near the major arteries of Interstate 80 and State Route 220, downtown Lock Haven is home to Lock Haven University, one of the most affordable universities in the state system of higher education. And even though Piper Manufacturing left for Florida nearly 50 years ago, Piper Aircraft Museum continues serving aviation enthusiasts and historians with its displays honoring the area’s Piper legacy.
The Downtown Lock Haven Incorporated organization was formed and is leading the charge for change and moving a community forward.
Creating and fostering a “downtown neighborhood aura” is Downtown Lock Haven Inc.’s mission. Its focus is revitalizing downtown through community and economic development programs and implementing the principles of the National Main Street Program, which includes four key areas: Organizational Development, Community Design, Community Promotion and Economic Restructuring.
Working closely with Lock Haven University’s Small Business Development Center the past year and a half has been a success, according to Kasey Campbell, Director of Community Life for the city and former Downtown Lock Haven Inc. director.
“Downtown Lock Haven Inc. organized the first city-wide Small Business Saturday Event, and worked with our downtown businesses to promote their products and services, and to make the public aware of the impact of shopping small,” explained Kasey. “I believe this has helped give new businesses interest in putting their locations downtown, as well as increased their exposure through downtown-based social media campaigns.”
Some of downtown’s historic buildings have been restored to their original glory, or modernized to suit new establishments in line with the Pennsylvania Wilds Design Guide for Community Character Stewardship.
“Josh and Sarah Grimes of Odd Fellas Burgers are an excellent example of restoring our historic buildings and modernizing them,” said Kasey. “They transformed their building into modern apartments with a delicious burger restaurant below. This definitely has had somewhat of a domino effect on other small businesses downtown, and business owners have been doing renovations to modernize and meet the needs of the growing community.”
“Quite honestly, it’s not easy to maintain a small business within such a small city, but our community certainly makes it worth the effort,” said Josh, who — along with wife Sarah — owns and operates Odd Fellas Burger on East Main Street. “We know our customers by name, we’re friends with our neighbors and other business owners, we work together.”
Josh’s sentiments are echoed by Nick Hawrylchak, owner of the nearby Broken Axe Brew House on East Bald Eagle Street, a 21-and-over venue.
“The diversity of businesses, along with the solid cornerstone establishments, allows the chance for increased growth. I hope that we can complement the hard work that our local advocate groups are putting in and capitalize on what we have,” said Nick, who is liking what he sees downtown.
“Over the past 5-7 years or so I have seen a trend that very simply excites me. While established family-owned stores and restaurant businesses have continued to serve our community, even more exciting is realizing, like in my case, that so many more new entrepreneurs are seeing unique opportunities and adding diverse businesses to our small town,” said Nick.
Josh also noted that several new businesses have taken root and are doing well in the downtown since he and Sarah opened Odd Fellas. “I am constantly humbled by how well our community encourages local businesses. They’re doing their best to support us and they’re rooting for us every step of the way!” said Josh.
Lock Haven’s steady progress is truly a team effort with business owners, merchants, community volunteers and elected officials all working together to promote and preserve the economic viability as well as the historic value of Lock Haven.
“Downtown Lock Haven Inc. has had an excellent relationship with the city and county governments through the years, and officials have truly embraced the efforts that we have made to make Lock Haven a beautiful place to live, work, and play,” explained Kasey. “The city is a major player in decorating during the holidays, and they accommodate our events with parking and providing emergency services.”
City Hall has stepped up to the plate also, offering incentives aimed at encouraging new business to move into downtown Lock Haven. Some of the programs include the Historic Preservation Tax Credit, a Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA) program for qualifying commercial and industrial projects, and a revolving loan fund to benefit local business development.
The Pennsylvania Small Business Development Center at Lock Haven University is another resource for local businesses, providing free professional consulting services for new business owners.
These initiatives and others have helped the city to attract a variety of services, such as retail and dining establishments which foster community pride and create the perfect environment for people of all ages to experience.
“We want to give you an experience to share,” said Josh. “We want to meet a need that lies beyond a full belly. Commerce is important to the health of our downtown, but relationships are our priority. It is our belief that good neighbors make for a good neighborhood. We thrive simply because we have a whole community of great neighbors.”
Downtown Lock Haven comes alive with many experiences such as: the popular LH JAMS (Lock Haven Jazz & Art on Main Street) and free Summer Concert Series, offered on Fridays at Triangle Park and on Sundays at the J Doyle Corman Amphitheater & Floating Stage on the Susquehanna River, which is park of the community’s riverwalk.
Steven Getz is director of the LH JAMS Festival Director and says the arts play an integral part in community pride and adds that a progressive art program establishes a ‘sense of place’ for residents while stimulating the overall economy.
“Our vision is to make this festival one of the signature art and music events in PA, by blending Nature Based Tourism activities with art and music,” said Steven, who also serves on the board of the Clinton County Arts Council, the nonprofit that spearheads the LH JAMS event. “A great resource is ‘The 100 Best Art Towns in America’ by author John Villani. In the book, there are many examples of how communities have embraced the arts with natural assets to revitalize local economies. We created LH JAMS to be one part of this formula and are confident it can be successful in Lock Haven and the entire PA Wilds region.”
On the banks of the Susquehanna, there are other ideas and plans taking shape: a Susquehanna Greenway River Town designation, city boat access, creating a path for safe access to Riverview Park (across the West Branch Susquehanna River from Lock Haven) and development of the nearby Bald Eagle Valley Trail, a rail trail which planners hope will one day connect to the southern terminus of the renowned Pine Creek Rail Trail.
And just as the West Branch of the Susquehanna River gave birth to Lock Haven’s early economic growth spurt with the lumber industry, today it stands to become one of the PA Wilds biggest tourist attractions.
“I am so excited about what we are doing with the Susquehanna River,” said Kasey. “Most recently, Downtown Lock Haven collaborated with Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR), Lock Haven University, and the Clinton County Economic Partnership and Visitors Bureau to create the Susquehanna Wilds Water Trail Map.”
She said the trail map focuses mainly on the river’s path through Clinton County, covering 75 miles from Karthaus to Jersey Shore, broken up into 5 primary sections. “The purpose of the guide is to highlight natural features, as well as wildlife, historical points of interest, and accommodations along the river,” said Kasey. “Our next step for the map is to create an online version, with the possibility of an app as well.”
Kasey said that with the picturesque Susquehanna as a backdrop, and with its welcoming and walkable business district and small-town charm, Lock Haven is becoming a place where people can come together to find family fun as well as educational and business opportunities.
Lock Haven is also one of the gateway communities to the Pennsylvania Wilds, which includes Sproul and Tiadaghton State Forests. The arts community is flourishing in Lock Haven and Clinton County, providing a retreat for artists and art enthusiasts and offering opportunities for creative discussion and expression.
“From the PA Wilds to Downtown Lock Haven’s work, the Economic Partnership, the Arts Council, the River Town project and the county rail trail initiative and so much more, we have an amazing opportunity to continue this growth and establish a foothold for years to come,” said Nick from Broken Axe. “When people ask me how things are going, I can’t help but smile and say, ‘we’re having a lot of fun around here living the dream!’”
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