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Jay Paterno: Time For Downtown’s Wake-Up Call

by on March 06, 2013 7:24 AM

Now that The State Payoff Day’s holiday is over, it is time for reasoned, rational discussions about the future of Downtown State College. The payoff approach seems to have been a mild success with $170,000 buying the Borough of State College fewer arrests than last year.

Before State Payoff’s Day there was confusion about the money’s source, but one borough official made it very clear that no Borough money was used. This was Penn State money all the way. Penn State has stated it came from parking funds or some other murky source.

(Given the many North Korea-esque pronouncements about State Patty’s Day can anyone really be sure? Perhaps we’ll see Dennis Rodman seated with administration officials at this Sunday’s basketball game)

All kidding aside, the bigger issue is the long-term health of Downtown. The canary is still singing in the coal mine, but for how much longer?

Downtown business owners are privately expressing genuine concern over the community’s long-term health. The site at the old Kappa Sig fraternity on Beaver Avenue and the Frasier Center site still sit undeveloped. These are just two of the opportunities in downtown.

The NCAA sanctions and the declining haul from football weekends is a very real concern. That is why some of those same business people have supported Governor Corbett’s lawsuit against the NCAA. The Borough’s policy on student housing has been a debate for decades and it seems more and more students are moving farther out.

I love downtown. If I can buy or eat what I want at a store or restaurant downtown I go there. To walk around feeling the vibe of a population dominated by collegians is to sip from the fountain of youth.

There is an authentic feel downtown. It’s had a hold on student and alumni business, but there is a very real danger. Nothing is guaranteed. Downtown must compete by leveraging that which makes it unique, special.

The government, business leaders and Penn State need to realize their interwoven destiny. The “college town” environment is a huge selling point to attract Penn State students and other people to live here. A downtown littered with vacant storefronts sends a message to prospective students or residents of stagnation or decay.

The downtown leaders must realize that students are the lifeblood of their success. They give energy to the place that attracts older people to town. There is nostalgia in all of us and the ability to be reminded of our youth is a powerful draw.

There is legitimate concern over excessive alcohol consumption. Some of that behavior has been shaped by unintended consequences of well-intentioned decisions. Pressuring the bars (where they card patrons and try to regulate the amount they are served) pushes students to drink at parties where there is little oversight.

Eliminating kegs at a parties increases distribution. A one-tap fraternity party puts out one beer at a time; about 15-20 seconds each. When fraternities were limited to one tap they could hand out 3-4 beers per minute. Long lines of waiting (non-drinking) students would amass, slowing the pace of consumption. Today at a party a case of 24 beers vanishes in seconds.

There are issues to address, but the constant pronouncements of new levels of bad student behavior are both exaggerated and damaging. They deter people from coming to town.

Add in huge new student housing projects showing a trend of movement away from downtown. If students move farther out, businesses will chase those dollars moving out to be nearer to them.

For non-students it has become a lot easier to avoid downtown. The area on North Atherton Street has become a hub of activity with highway access. On State Patty’s Day how many forty or fifty-somethings (locals or visitors) ate at any number of places away from downtown where they could get a beer or glass of wine with dinner before the Bon Jovi Concert?

For downtown State College it was an opportunity lost.

That may or may not have been a one-night impact. The larger worry is this—North Atherton is one area that has reached a critical mass with restaurants, hotels, shopping, banks, and grocery stores that make it a one-stop area. Much like the suburbs of much larger cities, they create viable consistent alternatives to going downtown.

The vision for downtown must go beyond banners and slogans. No one ever visited and spent money because there was a cool banner hanging over College Avenue. Most studies will tell you that healthy downtowns consistently spawn healthy surrounding communities. Everyone can win here.

There are no easy answers but there must be a reckoning. There needs to be an honest look taken at Downtown’s relationship with students and with the community around. There are no easy answers, but that is no excuse to avoid asking the questions.

If there is no vision, no long-range plan the students and population will continue to shift away from downtown and the business community will follow.

The consequences will be felt on both sides of College Avenue and in all the surrounding communities.

State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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