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Philipsburg area moves towards revitalization

Philipsburg has suffered economic distress for decades. The economy of the area had been based on resource extraction (coal mining) and garment and cigar manufacturing. Then in the mid-1980s, each of these industries closed, putting thousands out of work.

But two organizations are planning revitalization for both the downtown and industrial parks in the surrounding area.

Philipsburg area moves towards revitalization

By Elizabeth Timberlake-Newell

Philipsburg has suffered economic distress for decades. The economy of the area had been based on resource extraction (coal mining) and garment and cigar manufacturing. Then in the mid-1980s, each of these industries closed, putting thousands out of work.

But two organizations are planning revitalization for both the downtown and industrial parks in the surrounding area.

The Philipsburg Revitalization Corporation (PRC) and the Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership (MVEDP) have enacted separate but related programs to achieve the goal of making Philipsburg a more attractive community in which to live.

The MVEDP

According to Stan LaFuria, Executive Director of the MVEDP, the way to revitalize Philipsburg was not just to concentrate on the borough, but to “work for the region.”

The MVEDP was founded in 1988 to do just that; it was an outcome of the merger between the Philipsburg Chamber of Commerce and the Philipsburg Association of Commerce. The organization’s staff strive to work with entrepreneurs to help them start new businesses, work with existing businesses in the area, and work to attract outside businesses to the area.

Thus far, the MVEDP has had some success. In 1996, the Drucker Company, a centrifuge manufacturer, moved all of its administrative functions and manufacturing operations to Port matilda. Drucker employs 50 people. A Wal-Mart distribution center was established in nearby Woodland, Pa. in Clearfield County, and this location employs 1000 people. The cigar making plant was also repurposed.

“The first major asset [of the MVEDP] was this building [the cigar plant],” said LaFuria of the old plant that now houses the offices of the MVEDP, among other businesses. “The MVEDP converted the cigar manufacturing plant to a multi-tenant incubator building.”

The U.S. Department of Commerce, said LaFuria, provided a one million dollar grant to convert the cigar manufacturing plant.

Not all of the MVEDP’s efforts are focused on businesses. Part of the overall community improvement effort is focused on providing loans to rehabilitate housing in the areas surrounding Philipsburg. Currently, housing rehabilitation loans are available to make improvements such as plumbing, structural soundness, sanitary conditions and energy conservation.

“We started with a $176,000 grant for a small area,” said LaFuria about the state grant to the MVEDP. “Now we’re close to 2.5 million dollars with eight different grants for Philipsburg, Rush township, South Philipsburg, and six municipalities in Clearfield County. We’ve done close to 150 homes now.”

But the MVEDP has faced a major challenge in finding a means of dealing with the gap left behind by the closure and abandonment of the Philipsburg Hospital in 2006. The facility sits on 15 acres of land, and if torn down it could be used for housing and a public park, or developed commercially, according to LaFuria.

The MVEDP as of yet has no long term plan for economic development of the region.

“It’s not something that is going to happen overnight,” said LaFuria. “It’s a long-term progression—hire professionals, work with the elected officials, build relationships. We are now developing strategic plans for the first time. What we’ve done all these years is to have an annual plan where we identify a key focus for the year.”

The MVEDP’s revitalization plan also hinges on natural gas extraction companies. But the current cost of extracting natural gas exceeds the price it commands, thus, drilling companies have been moving out of Pennsylvania. LaFuria admits that this is a conundrum for the drilling industry, but believes that it will not affect the Moshannon Valley’s economy.

“You can’t take natural gas out of the ground for $2.75 a cubic foot when it is selling for $1.99, so the companies decrease scope of operations and head to western Pennsylvania,” said LaFuria. “I don’t think it’s [the industry in the Moshannon Valley] going anywhere. It’s market driven. We have ten businesses that support the Marcellus Shale business, and they are hauling water to Ohio.”

One company, called Calfrac, has bought a building in the area worth over 1.25 million dollars. LaFuria stated he does not see them leaving the Moshannon Valley.

Philipsburg recovers

Downtown Philipsburg is a nationally recognized historic district with a history, but until recently, no future. But the town now has an active revitalization corporation with a plan for recovery.

One element of this recovery are programs such as the Elm Street Program, a state-wide program designed to bolster historic neighborhoods that are within walking distance from revitalized Main Street commerce areas. The Philipsburg Revitalization Corporation, in partnership with the MVEDP and borough of Philipsburg, applied for the Elm Street state grant on behalf of the northeast section of Philipsburg, a residential area that is now a mix of rental and owner-occupied properties.

Another part of the recipe for recovery according to executive director of the PRC Dana Shoemaker is an active Main Street Program with a business-friendly borough council. Some of the evidence she points to for this—a brewpub is coming into Philipsburg.

Shoemaker is a native of Philipsburg and graduate of Penn State who was enticed to return to her community with the opportunity to “give back” to her hometown. She is both Main Street manager and the director of the PRC, and according to her, Philipsburg is an ideal bedroom community in central Pa.

“Sure there’s much better places to visit—Las Vegas, Orlando, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia; but located between State College and Altoona, we have opportunities that are not available elsewhere because of the traffic that must come through,” said Shoemaker.

But Shoemaker’s vision is not just to emphasize the great location. She is also looking to create and stabilize the businesses and services available downtown, and to give locals a reason to visit the downtown area.

One of her more recent projects towards this goal is a pair of fall-themed events. Shoemaker convinced business owners to participate in a downtown promotion involving a “pumpkin hunt” for children. Businesses paid a $50 fee and were given a numbered pumpkin to display in their storefronts. Children could then fill out a form listing all the pumpkins and locations and enter a drawing for a $25 gift card to downtown businesses. The other was a Harvest Festival that included a parade and scarecrow making.

“My job is to work in partnership with the MVEDP and not just with the mom and pop vendor, but with industry,” said Shoemaker. “We’re going to get this community to work together and be proud of itself. We’re done with the ‘woe is us.’ We’re making something happen.”

 

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