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Borough Manager: ‘Bellefonte Will Bounce Back’

by and on June 02, 2020 4:45 AM
Bellefonte, PA

Editor’s note: COVID-19 has impacted Centre County in numerous ways, and The Centre County Gazette is united with the community, working to provide information and resources during this challenging time. The Gazette is speaking with some prominent community stakeholders about the pandemic and how the region is responding to it. The fifth discussion in the series is with Ralph Stewart, borough manager in Bellefonte.

CCG: It has been more than two months since everyone’s life changed because of COVID-19. How has the Borough of Bellefonte adapted from the start of the pandemic to now, as the county has settled into the yellow phase? (The county was since moved to the green phase on Friday, May 29.) 

Stewart: On March 17, the mayor declared a state of emergency, which is done for two reasons. One is to express the seriousness of the situation and two, to be eligible for any state or federal funding that might be available.

Early on, we split work crews, installed hand-sanitizer stations and offered courtesy parking in the downtown. Our main services, like water distribution and wastewater collection and treatment, saw no changes. We modified other services like refuse collection, street operations and parks due to the split shifts. In April, we began having virtual council meetings with public comment on agenda items done through alternative methods (in place of being present).

We also closed the main office to visitors and moved to virtual meetings, emails and phone calls to communicate. Some of our authorities, boards and commission meetings have been postponed where possible. Overall, we have been able to maintain our essential services.

CCG: How has the pandemic affected the borough financially?

Stewart: We have some utility (water, sewer and refuse) customers who have contacted us to say both wage earners are laid off and that they won’t be able to make their payments.

The borough is committed to maintain services for anyone who is having difficulty with payments and will work out payment plans. Our real estate tax collection has been relatively healthy as much of these funds are escrowed by mortgage banks and then sent to our collector. We are anticipating losses in the earned income tax collection due to the high number of people laid off, businesses closed, etc.

CCG: The Bellefonte waterfront hotel project was looking to begin construction this summer and the new owners of the former Gamble Mill location were busy working on the building when things shut down. Where do things stand now with those projects?

Stewart: The Bellefonte waterfront hotel project has been slowed due to the major downturn in the economy. Despite the downturn, we remain optimistic that the project will see a groundbreaking sometime this year. The Gamble Mill project is progressing. The owners have been very busy finalizing the renovation permitting and putting their long-term financing in place. Renovations are projected to start in June.

CCG: Have any borough projects been delayed or canceled?

Stewart: Within each department, there are projects that have been delayed due to the uncertainty of our budgeted revenues and the scarcity of state and federal funding. For example, the water authority has been in the process of contracting with a design consultant to build a beautiful cover over Big Spring. The projected cost of the project is over $1 million. This project is on hold until we have a better understanding of how our funding sources have been affected.

CCG: Before the pandemic, there was excitement about Bellefonte with people using the phrase “the renaissance of Bellefonte” to describe what was happening. As we move forward, how does the community continue to work toward that bright future?

Stewart: Bellefonte will bounce back. We have great people who are capable of adapting to new normals. There will always be some bumps in the road. We just have to figure out how to go around them.

CCG: When you look at the way the people of Bellefonte have responded to this crisis, are there things that stand out in a way that shows the true character of the town?

Stewart: Bellefonte is made up of people who help one another. Early on in this crisis one of my neighbors went door-to-door with loaves of fresh-baked bread. People stepped up their donations and volunteer efforts at area food banks and distribution networks. The volunteerism and spirit of helping your neighbor has been and continues to be sky high in Bellefonte.

CCG: Thank you. Do you have anything else to add?

Stewart: People have said that the number one thing in Bellefonte is the natural spring water and they have said it is the beautiful Victorian architecture. While these things rank high, our number one thing here is the people.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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