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State of Retail in State College: Allen Street

by on April 10, 2011 6:00 AM

Editor’s noteThis is the sixth part of an ongoing series entitled “State of Retail in State College.” From struggling areas to the more bustling shopping centers, we’ll examine the main retail sections of State College, with an eye on openings, closings, and the attendant challenges of the retail business. Look for the column every other week, and keep us updated on what you want to see. As always, we appreciate your feedback.

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Allen Street is the center of activity in downtown State College. The portion of the street that stretches from College Avenue to Beaver Avenue has become a destination for local businesses looking to relocate in recent years. It also is home to some of the oldest buildings and businesses in State College.

Before State College residents had the Nittany Mall, downtown was the place for the big stores. Danks, a department store, was located in the space that’s currently occupied by Panera, the Penn State Theatre, GN Centre Apartments, and Hollywood Tans. G.C. Murphy's, a five-and-dime, occupied what is now Chili’s, Voices, Connecting Point Computers and the new addition to Appalachian Outdoors. G.C. Murphy's had a lunch counter and soda fountain, and was a popular lunchtime spot.

Allen Street was also home to the state's first Ben and Jerry’s, a space that’s now the Philly Pretzel Factory.

Allen Street Mainstays
Today Allen Street is populated with businesses featuring a mix of products and services that attract loyal customers who, in most cases, are there to shop—not just to browse.

Woodrings Floral Gardens has been at 145 S. Allen St. since 1971. While the economic climate has changed, the store's fresh product line and quality customer service have remained consistent, said Stephanie Woodring.

“We have seen our share of hard times,” she said. “You just have to tough it out.”

Rapid Transit Sports, 115 S. Allen St., is another Allen Street fixture. The store has a tight relationship with customers on and off campus who seek out owner Terry Losch for his extensive knowledge of athletic shoes. With its loyal clientele, the store would probably find success just about anywhere downtown. But Losch says Allen Street has been a prime location, especially on Saturdays—its busiest day.

Since 1925, Allen Street has also offered downtown customers a place to get their hair cut.

Rinaldo’s Barbershop, 107 S. Allen, has been owned by Becky Durst since 1988. Durst worked at Rinaldo’s as a barber before buying the place, and is still one of the people who greet you with a smile at the door before cutting your hair.  The people who work at Rinaldo’s prefer to be called barbers. Warm shaving cream, a barbershop pole, and pictures of downtown State College from the ‘20s and ‘30s complete the nostalgic feel.

Durst said Allen Street is the ideal location. But the foot traffic comes with a price; she refers to Allen Street as the “high-rent district.” Just like anything, she said, “you pay for the name and location.”

Graduating to Allen Street
Jody Alessandrine, the executive director of the Downtown State College Improvement District, said Allen Street has always demanded the highest rents and attracted the most customers.

He compares businesses moving to Allen Street as “graduating” to the area.

Old State Clothing is one business benefiting from a move to Allen Street. In 2009 it left its College Avenue location for its current spot at the corner of Beaver Avenue and Allen Street.

“It seemed that a lot of the focus regarding promotion of downtown State College was on Allen Street,” said owner Erin O’Leary.

But the upshot to operating a business on Allen Street isn’t simply the number  of customers who walk into the store, she said. It’s also the amount of money they’re willing to spend; since moving to the location, the total amount of money spent per customer has increased. “We get a different kind of customer on Allen Street,” she said.

Increased Visibility—and Space
For one newcomer to Allen Street, the move was motivated by a simple need for more space.

About two years ago Freeze Thaw Cycles moved from its location on Calder Way behind the Tavern to a new spot at 109 S. Allen St. Owner Justin Wagner said that the old location, despite being tucked away, did a lot of business.

But it had plenty of other drawbacks. “Storage and floor space [at the Calder Way location] was pretty low,” said Wagner. “We really jumped on this location. There’s more space for our mechanics to work, along with storage space for our repair bikes, bikes in stock, and spare parts.”

Another attractive feature of the new location: it’s on the ground level.  “Nobody likes carrying a bike up or down steps.”

While increased visibility wasn’t a primary motive of the move, it certainly doesn’t hurt, Wagner said. Sometimes a customer will walk by a bike on Friday night, and come into the store that weekend to buy it.

One of the busiest blocks of downtown
Old State and Freeze Thaw can point to a case study of a business that has moved to Allen Street and thrived. Appalachian Outdoors, 123 S. Allen St., moved from West College Avenue about eight years ago, benefiting from greater foot traffic, downtown events like the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, and a perception that the street is home to some of the best stores in town.

“The foot traffic is so much more dramatic,” owner Geoff Brugler said. “It is one of the busiest blocks in town, which made it a pretty clear decision.”

Proof of the store’s success is on display in the former Eddie Bauer location, the site of a new expansion. At the moment, the store is a storage space for tents, kayaks, and other outdoor equipment, but the wall that separates the two will be coming down soon.

“We have our work cut out for us to keep our level of service to the community,” Brugler said.

A Cohesive Group
For some businesses, an Allen Street address also means membership in a tight-knit group of owners and employees who share customers.

This is especially true for Freeze Thaw, Appalachian Outdoors and Rapid Transit, which offer complementing products. Many customers will come downtown to visit all three stores on the same trip.

“It really benefits having all three stores together,” said Brugler of Appalachian Outdoors. “We all refer customers to each other.”

If you have any insight on the business climate of downtown State College, drop us a note at [email protected] As always, we welcome any feedback.

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Matthew Groves is a senior in the Penn State Smeal College of Business, and will be graduating in May with a degree in Business Administration Economics. He grew up in State College and loves the community and what it has to offer. He looks forward to sticking around after he graduates, and doing something that can benefit the area.
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