Senate Urban Affairs & Housing Committee Reviews Main Street & Elm Street Revitalization Programs at Hearing in Carbon County

JIM THORPE – The Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee reviewed the successes and struggles with the state’s Main Street and Elm Street programs during a public hearing on Thursday, and received a tour of one of the state’s first Main Street programs in Jim Thorpe.

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Joined by state and local officials, the committee toured the downtown to hear a firsthand account of the history behind the revitalization of Jim Thorpe from Elissa Garofalo, who served as the Main Street manager in the 1980s. The walking tour went up Broadway Street and down Race Street with Garofalo providing references to how the once-blighted properties are now restored historical buildings.

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Main Street and Elm Street programs provide state grants that are mixed with local and private funds to improve the business district and surrounding neighborhoods in older communities. The goal is to rebuild downtown commerce, create opportunities for small businesses and provide affordable and convenient housing.

Senator David G. Argall (R-29), who chairs the committee, said Jim Thorpe’s history and success with the program provided an ideal location for the hearing.

“Jim Thorpe is the community many throughout the state and nation wish to replicate,” Argall said. “A ‘Main Street’ lined with small businesses and the entrepreneurial spirit is something every downtown community wants to see. My goal is to shed light on what works, what has failed, and how we move forward to achieve the ultimate goal: Bring back jobs that once existed in now struggling downtowns across the state.”

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The committee then heard from six testifiers with a broad background on the issue. The goal for the committee is to weigh the pros and cons of both programs.

Ed Geiger, who serves as the Director of the Center of Community Financing at the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), spoke about the past, present and future of the program from his perspective at DCED.

He noted that while there are many successes, the recent economic difficulties have led to a decrease in available funding.

“Consequently, DCED no longer provides operational funding that supports the costs of a manager’s salary and other operational funding for the organization,” Geiger said. “Designated communities must demonstrate that the program has developed such support prior to receiving designation.”

Geiger highlighted that 65 communities are interested in the program. Geiger noted the program’s success is contingent on criteria established by DCED.

Geiger stated that the program must use asset-based strategies and install a benchmark-style system to provide for greater accountability of public resources.

On behalf of the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, Sharon Davis, who serves as Main Street Manager through the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, testified in support of the program due to its effectiveness in several communities in Lehigh and Northampton Counties. Davis detailed the Main Street program’s collaboration across the communities of Bangor, Bath, Catasauqua and Pen Argyl.

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Davis emphasized that an arts district is pivotal to her success in each of these communities.

“We are building on our town’s rich tradition of skilled crafters and artisans through a partnership with our local non-profit arts center,” Davis said.

She mentioned three key ingredients to her continuing success as a Main Street manager — strong communications with businesses and residents, working with codes and zoning enforcement officers in each municipality, and meeting with elected officials on a regular basis.

Jeff Feeser, Schuylkill Community Action’s Director of Housing and Community Development, testified on the importance of the Elm Street program in the City of Pottsville.

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“The Elm Street Program is a statewide initiative that focuses on residential revitalization in neighborhoods that are in close proximity to, or adjoin, the commonwealth’s municipalities’ downtown districts,” Feeser said. “The program was a virtual godsend for the City of Pottsville and their revitalization efforts within the city.”

Feeser emphasized his point through pictures presented to the committee via a PowerPoint slideshow. His slideshow can be found here:

Tamaqua Borough Council President Micah Gursky provided a contrast from the past, when downtown buildings were falling apart, to the present, when classic businesses are rejuvenated thanks to the development tools provided by DCED and local fundraising efforts.

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“Tamaqua’s Main Street district includes classic businesses that are community staples like The Chili Dog, Charles X. Block’s Men’s Store, M&S Hardware, the Tamaqua Diner and Klingaman’s Office Products,” Gursky said as he cited cornerstones to Tamaqua’s downtown business community.

Gursky pointed to new industries coming to town providing new jobs and opportunities for local residents. “These businesses have been joined by businesses that reflect trends in technology, lifestyles and diversity.”

Gursky noted the success in Tamaqua should be replicated.

“There are many ‘Tamaquas’ in Pennsylvania,” Gursky said. “I ask that this committee work with your colleagues in the General Assembly and the Administration to give that next generation of Tamaquans the tools to continue to improve using the Main Street Program: expertise, structure and funding.”

Jim Thorpe’s first Main Street Manager Elissa Garofalo testified about the program’s residual effects on the downtown.

Garofalo noted four lessons she learned throughout her experiences that lead to a Main Street program’s success:

Commitment –

“The incentives provided by the Commonwealth were a small carrot to encourage the initial local investment that was made by private property owners decades ago. Since that time the improvements you see in Jim Thorpe are largely self-funded.”

Historical preservation –

“Some downtowns have lost too much of their community fabric via demolition, long-term neglect and misguided improvements. Unfortunately, not every main street can be a successful ‘Main Street.’”

Four-point approach –

“Main Street’s four-point approach is a good one. Many successful downtown revitalization initiatives utilize the elements of organization, promotion, economic restructuring, and design. As a result new life has been breathed into districts across Pennsylvania and the nation. The National Main Street Center does not provide direct funding to participating communities. It delivers the technical expertise local communities need to succeed.”

Each program is unique –

“Downtowns are much like snowflakes; no two are alike. Each has its own image, history and circumstances. Forcing a community to comply with strict criteria in order to comply with state regulations may make great sense for the funding agency, but it is often inordinately time-consuming and ineffective for local partners.”

In the end, Garofalo said that the local efforts led to Jim Thorpe’s success over the years.

“Local initiatives that commit both organizationally and financially ultimately care more about the success of the program, and result in healthier, more successful downtown districts,” Garofalo said.

On behalf of the Pennsylvania Downtown Center, Executive Director Bill Fontana highlighted his organization’s commitment to both Main and Elm Street programs.

“Our small staff of four full-time and four part-time people has the task of fulfilling our mission of supporting revitalization efforts in hundreds of communities throughout the state,” Fontana said.

Fontana, whose organization collects data throughout the state on these programs, emphasized the positive economic development impact. Since 2005, Pennsylvania gained 4,067 new businesses in Main Street communities. These new businesses led to over 16,000 new jobs, according to Fontana.

Fontana announced that his organization is convening a “think-tank” to review the Elm Street program and recommend improvements for the future.

The original author of legislation enacting the state’s Main Street and Elm Street program, Representative Bob Freeman (D-136), testified before the committee on his current proposal designed to improve the Main Street program.

“The Main Street and Elm Street programs are invaluable tools for assisting struggling older communities to attain a level of much-needed stability and to set them down the path toward revitalization,” Freeman noted. “The funding of the administrative side of these programs is relatively small but very critical to ensure their future success.”

Freeman’s proposal would extend the current state support for administrative costs of these programs up to 10 years. The programs currently provide administrative funding for the first five years.

“Sometimes a community needs a little more time in either Main Street or Elm Street to realize their goals, meet their objectives, and get across the finish line to revitalization,” Freeman said.

Touching on improvements for the Elm Street program, Freeman suggested encouraging rent-to-own housing initiatives and reintroducing neighborhood elementary schools in Elm Street program designations.

Freeman agreed, during questions from the committee, that benchmarks could be used to sustain funding.

Concluding the hearing, Chairman Argall said the committee will evaluate the information gathered and use suggestions by all testifiers to turn recommendations into legislative proposals to strengthen the communities.

“The testifiers brought a wealth of information to the hearing today,” Argall said. “Our downtowns are making a comeback. I want to make sure we are giving them every tool to bring new jobs and new residents to these communities.”


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