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What Can We Do to Preserve the Places That Define the Spirit of Happy Valley?

by on January 16, 2018 4:50 AM

Here in Happy Valley we’re reminded that change is all around us on a scale most places on the planet never experience. The population of State College and the surrounding five townships – Ferguson, Patton, College, Harris, and Halfmoon – is currently 97,000 people. There are more than 46,000 students at Penn State. Meaning about every four years, roughly half the population of the area changes. 46,000 faces are here, then year by year they disappear and are replaced by 46,000 new faces.

Can you imagine if New York City had half its population turnover every four years? 4.25 million people leaving and being replaced every four years. Unfathomable.

Yet that’s exactly what we experience here in Happy Valley. Some might wonder how any place on earth could possibly have a shred of a sense of community with such massive and constant human transformation.

And yet we do.

We have a very generous, giving, sharing and loving community. Happy Valley is, after all, Happy Valley.

But in less than two weeks, a region seemingly so often immune to the effects of change, will undergo a change that has sent shockwaves through the mountains and via the internet across the country. The longest continually operating bar in the entire state of Pennsylvania will close its doors. Doors that opened for the first time just three days after prohibition was repealed in 1933.

The All-American Rathskeller’s last call is Jan. 27.

And like that, the community and downtown will be less rich. Less communal. Less about who we are and more about who has what. As a salesman once said to me, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

And the question becomes, is that how we want to do things? How do we maintain the spirit and life that is Happy Valley, so that it remains happy?

A little background…

In June of last year the building at the corner of College Avenue and Pugh Street that houses the All-American Rathskeller, Spats Café, and several other businesses and apartments was sold. Happily, the new owners of the building said, “Business there will continue as usual. There are no plans to make drastic changes to the properties, although we will do some renovations and improvements.” This was clearly no cause for concern because many iconic businesses in downtown State College exist in spaces they rent and do not own, as the Rathskeller had for all 84 years of its existence.

Then on Dec. 4 the floodgates opened as it was announced the new building owners had not offered the Rathskeller a lease. Instead they signed a lease with a new tenant to take over the historic space and instructed the Rathskeller owners to clear out by Feb. 28, 2018.

The reaction from residents, students and Penn State alumni was overwhelming and caused such a negative backlash against the building owners that they released statements to defend their actions.

These included language such as “Herlochers Save Rathskeller Location…” (notice they said they saved the location, but not the Rathskeller); “While other investors intended to raze the property…” (notice they didn’t say all other investors intended to raze the property); “the operators of the All-American Rathskeller and Spats had been…  paying well below market rates” (notice they don’t offer any details as to what “well below market rates” means); “Attempts to resolve the issue were unsuccessful” (they are on record as stating they did not offer the Rathskeller owners a new lease, so I wonder what they mean by “attempts”); and “Before the New Year, we will announce the new operators” (and here it is Jan. 16 and no announcement).

My point in the above paragraph is to suggest everyone should practice good media literacy skills, especially when people, companies or organizations are commending themselves and pointing fingers at others.

However, as you read this, the Rathskeller’s existence appears, by all accounts, to be fait accompli. So, we go back to my question. Is this how we want to do things? And if not, how do we stop this type of communal travesty in the future?

The first thing is to acknowledge there are those who will say you can’t. Or you shouldn’t. That the ability to buy things and do with them as you wish is part of capitalism. Part of democracy. If I buy a building I should be able to do with it as I want. If I want to buy a building, kick out a tenant and rent to someone else, that’s my right.

Except, most everyone who has bought property, a house or a building has learned that’s not always the case. You don’t always get what you want.

The primary reason for this is zoning, land use laws by which local and state governments regulate privately-owned property. Zoning tends to be very physical in practice. What type of building? How big? How tall? How far back from the street must it be? Where on the lot can the building be placed?

But what about the space inside the building? Can we regulate what goes there? Again, zoning laws, in addition to the physical aspects of the structure, are able to regulate where a given type of business may or may not locate, and the time, place and manner in which some businesses are operated.

But what about a specific business? What can be done to prevent a developer or building owner from harming existing businesses? In this particular case, a business that has been continuously occupying the same space since 1933.

Rent control and rent stabilization are used by some states and municipalities to protect the public and prevent building owners from imposing rent increases, while also requiring certain services the building owners must provide – water, heat, etc. They are almost exclusively residential in nature, however. But the belief behind rent control is that having a supply of affordable housing is essential to sustaining a local community. Without rent regulation, building owners can demand any amount and evict tenants at will. By allowing tenants who are meeting their obligations to remain in their spaces, stability in the community is enhanced. The place you know and love and call home is not torn apart just for money.

And isn’t that what is happening here? The longest continually operating bar in the entire state is being forced to close its doors. The business is solvent, it provides good wages for dozens of people, the owners are committed to sustainability and local sourcing of their products whenever possible, and the business is popular among residents and alumni alike. It adds a positive flavor to the cornucopia of life in Happy Valley and has since 1933. Yet it will soon be gone.

Could some form of rent control be used to ensure iconic, historic businesses in Happy Valley are not tossed aside? There are a number of such significant businesses in downtown State College that rent and do not own their space but have been in the same location for decades. Should this be a conversation we the people of the Centre Region engage in? Do these businesses add to the character of Happy Valley, and are they worth keeping for years to come?

That includes Spats Café, upstairs from the Rathskeller, which has been in its space for 30 years and also will be forced to close on Jan. 27. In all the uproar over the Rathskeller, it’s easy to miss that this outstanding restaurant with wonderful cuisine and lots of people who enjoy dining there is also being pushed out. More employees displaced, more upheaval, all in the name of money.

I’m not a lawyer, politician or civil servant, so I do not know how to make the above possible. But as a resident I believe that if a locally-owned business has survived, is solvent and providing good jobs, and has been around for more than a few decades, we owe it to ourselves and the community spirit of this wonderful place we call home to do everything we can to allow it to stay right where it is as long as it wants to stay there. So the place we call home feels like home.


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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