Johnstown takes another shot at a comeback
Having rebuilt after floods, then plunged into decline, the city is taking another look at the Main Street Program
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Keith Srakocic, Associated Press
Johnstown lies below a placard describing the great flood of 1889 at an observation deck. More than 116 years before Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, a flood in Johnstown exposed the rift between rich and poor, the kindness of strangers and, in the end, the power of the human spirit to rebuild.
By Caitlin Cleary
When city leaders, business owners and the people of Johnstown gathered in small groups one night last month to hatch a plan for revitalizing their central business district, they were asked to think of adjectives that described downtown Johnstown today.
They used words such as "dead," "dying," "slow," "old," and "empty," said Jeff Philibin, president of the Discover Downtown Johnstown Partnership, a volunteer, nonprofit group dedicated to restoring the core of the city to its former self.
Asked later to imagine their downtown in 10 years, the participants brightened, using terms such as "thriving," "bustling," and "vibrant."
It was the Johnstown of their dreams. For some, it was the Johnstown of their childhood memories. Before the flood of 1977 devastated businesses, driving them out of downtown and into the suburbs. Before the steel mills went dark. Before the tax base shrank, sending Johnstown spiraling into the red: official "distressed" status for more than a dozen years.
"The emptiness is the hardest part," said Mr. Philibin, who was born and raised in Johnstown. "Everybody agrees that something needs to be done."
But what, exactly? Will the road back to prosperity be lined with residential lofts? Or will it be tourism-based, highlighting the city's steel heritage and historic architecture? At night, will the downtown storefronts be lit up with restaurants, bars and nightlife to attract younger people, or should Johnstown cater to the old, who are already living downtown in significant numbers?
For the 125 people who attended that first public meeting, this was their homework, aimed, organizers say, at developing a singular vision of how to rebuild downtown, but, more specifically and immediately, at securing hundreds of thousands of dollars in state money as part of the Main Street Program. They will meet again Dec. 12, Jan. 9 and Feb. 13.
The level of optimism was high, especially given that Johnstown's first go-round with the Main Street Program ended in failure several years ago. Organizers couldn't sustain the program, and the money ran out.
A slot in the Main Street Program, which is administered through the state Department of Community and Economic Development, can be worth between $750,000 and $1 million in state funding over five years, said Bill Fontana, executive director of the Pennsylvania Downtown Center. That includes $175,000 toward the cost of a main street manager, who guides economic development projects, oversees business recruitment and promotes downtown, and makes Johnstown eligible for up to $500,000 in grants for public spaces, facade improvements and other reinvestment. The city is required to contribute $90,000.
City officials and business owners seem confident things will be different this time.
"Time has passed, number one," said Jim White, Johnstown's economic development director. "There's a lot more support than there was 10, 11 years ago."
The program now offers more technical assistance and training on things such as market analysis and business recruitment, Mr. White said. And organizers and volunteers are younger, with "a real sense of what the central business district can be."
The political climate has improved markedly from a decade ago, people say, with the community "speaking in one voice now."
Andy Lasky, owner of the Westwood Plaza Theater and Cafe, and the City View Bar and Grill, at the top of the city's incline, attended the first public meeting. He counts himself among the ranks of optimists who "see things as half-full" in Johnstown. He cited numerous recent improvements to downtown: a new conference and convention center, a new Johnstown Technology Park, a rebuilt Point Stadium ballpark.
Mr. Lasky said many younger families were moving back to Johnstown, and that he hoped it was the beginning of a trend. He left at the age of 19, feeling as if the city's smallness was suffocating. Fourteen years ago, he returned to Johnstown as a young father, wanting to raise his children with those same small-town values.
"In Johnstown, everybody kind of watches out for everybody else," he said.
People tend to think of the Main Street Program as being all about beautification and street-scaping, Mr. Lasky said; he imagines Johnstown's main street manager performing assessments of available retail and residential space, recruiting businesses and administering low-cost loans.
His suggestion for improving downtown involves preserving historic buildings. The city has razed some buildings that could have been reused, he said.
"People are retiring back to Johnstown because of that quality of life, because our heritage is very much on display," Mr. Lasky said. "I want to make sure that we don't take down too much of the old infrastructure in the name of progress."
Some of the talk at the first public meeting centered on how to redevelop the upper floors of buildings. The street-level occupancy rate has improved during the past several years, from 30 empty storefronts to eight or nine, Mr. White said. There was also a call for more market-rate housing downtown.
The biggest issue, said Mr. Philibin, of the Discover Downtown Partnership, is that nobody felt a connection to downtown. Suburbanites go to the places that fit into their daily lives, he said, such as where their children practice sports.
"You could never go downtown, except if you go to a parade, or if you have to mail something at the big post office," said Mr. Philibin, whose home and business are in Johnstown's suburbs. "You can't have a parade every week."
Mr. Philibin believes a successful revitalization effort cannot depend on people coming downtown from 30 or 40 miles away. Bring businesses and jobs in, he said, and the rest takes care of itself. Downtown's major employers include the U.S. Postal Service, AmeriServe Bank, the National Drug Intelligence Center and the Lee Campus of Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center.
"We're not necessarily looking for the big bang, like Wal-Mart or Target, to come in with a large presence out of the blue," Mr. Philibin said, "but businesses with 20 or 40 employees, attracted to our rents and the sense of community here."
The Main Street Program tries to get localities to think about their downtowns in a greater regional context, said Mr. Fontana, of the PA Downtown Center.
"The days of the downtown as an individual economic entity are gone," he said. "We try and get them to start thinking about the economic realities of the 21st century. These are not isolated, self-contained mill towns anymore."
Main street managers look for assets that have the potential to become economic generators, of which Johnstown has many, he said. What there isn't enough of is money and time for different groups to work on different projects, to go in different directions.
Mr. Fontana said previous failures of towns under the Main Street Program were the result of the once short-term nature of the funding. It used to be a three-year program. It took months to find a manager, who would then spend most of the final year looking for a new job, he said.
"The problems [cities such as Johnstown face] didn't happen overnight," Mr. Fontana said, "So to think you're going to turn it around in two years is unrealistic."
Sharyn Spinelli is another optimist. She believes the city is poised for an infusion of new residents and businesses, and she is about to practice what she preaches.
Mrs. Spinelli opened Spinelli's Cafe more than a year ago off the corner of Johnstown's Central Park and is remodeling it.
She is about to buy an entire downtown building, turn it into lofts and live in one of them.
"My husband died, my children moved," Mrs. Spinelli said. "It's perfect for baby boomer. We've shoveled the snow. We've tended our gardens. I want to live in a nice apartment, and there's beautiful architecture here."
A board member of Discover Downtown Partnership, she attended the first public meeting and left feeling encouraged.
"There are plenty of people behind the scenes who have the money and the wherewithal to help us, but they don't want to be in the limelight," Mrs. Spinelli said. "I believe in the downtown. I believe in Johnstown. We survived floods. We survived the closing of the mills. We're a hearty group."
(Caitlin Cleary can be reached at email@example.com
or 412-263-2533. )