I'm a little disconcerted. Or better yet, in the parlance of today's youth: I has a sad.
What is the cause of this affliction you ask? Well, I recently had the opportunity to see Happy Valley through virgin eyes.
First a little background...
There are a number of ways to drive into Happy Valley. Lesser-used roads such as Route 45 up from Spruce Creek or down from Lewisburg. Both offer miles of bucolic agricultural scenery before opening into the expanse of our glorious valley. Or Route 26 from Huntingdon which brings you over the crest of a mountain in Rothrock State Forest, looking out onto the valley from the picturesque Jo Hays Vista.
Then there are the more highly-traveled roads such as Route 322 from Harrisburg which provides a 15-minute ever-growing view of the "back-side" of Mount Nittany as you get closer to our valley. And Interstate 99 from Altoona as it literally cuts through Skytop and reminds us that quarried rock is big business in these here parts.
Then there is Interstate 99 from the other direction – for those travelers heading westward on Interstate 80 from points such as New Jersey, or in this case, New York City – who cover the last miles on I-99.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to drive a friend to Happy Valley from New York City. Someone who, although slightly older than me, had never been to our magnificent hometown. The weather cooperated most of the trip and as we approached the Centre Region it was a gorgeous spring day.
For me, driving the interstate westward from New Jersey is a reminder to those of us who grew up when the cataclysm-de-jour was population explosion, that there are still a few places we can put people in this great land. The highway travels 130 miles or so through wilderness where trees – and wildlife – vastly outnumber buildings or people. It convincingly evinces "out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere."
Upon exiting Interstate 80 and coming to a stop sign at the bottom of the ramp (nothing says "rural" better than a stop sign when you exit the interstate) we drove the final four-lane miles into the valley. I had the opportunity to point out our county seat, and then, before the big bend at Pleasant Gap, off in the distance we could see our destination – Penn State. Beaver Stadium, the Bryce Jordan Center, Old Main, the steam plant smokestack, construction cranes, all are visible along the horizon across the valley. At last, civilization loomed.
And then my virgin moment happened.
As a local I drive that stretch of road frequently, and with anything done frequently, familiarity breeds a certain laissez-faire attitude to your surroundings. Things are as they are, you accept them, they meld into the background, and you move on with your life.
During the trip I was a helpful tourism ambassador, drawing attention to various sights and landmarks, subconsciously making a valiant effort to paint a positive picture of our commonwealth. I must have been doing a comprehensive job – or maybe an annoying one – as my guest hadn't proactively asked about anything during the trip. Driving toward and through the Benner Pike interchange my worldly passenger finally found something interesting enough about our surroundings to query me. While pointing to the extensive structures on either side of the highway, I was asked, "What are all these buildings?"
"Uh, prisons" was my sheepish response.
It was then that the proverbial light-bulb went on. On a four-hour trip through three states, across expanses of land with millions of tress, up-and-down mountains, and past the occasional truck stop, the first impression my visitor was getting of Happy Valley meaningful enough to need clarification was that we incarcerated a whole lot of people.
Not exactly a glowing visitor's bureau moment.
Sure, I've heard the "State Penn" jokes for decades, and I'm old enough that driving in from the east used to mean going along Route 26 right in front of Rockview's main gate – an awe-inspiring sight for some newbies who wondered if that was the college they were scheduled to attend. But, the omnipresence had not struck me in this way before.
Which got me to thinking – an extremely dangerous endeavor – does Happy Valley need these prisons?
Centre County is an anomaly within Pennsylvania. The state's population has grown ever so slightly in the last two decades and has lagged the country as a whole. We were the second slowest growing state between 1990-2000 and not much better the next ten years. And the majority of the growth has been attributable to people from New York City, Washington and Baltimore finding cheaper digs here.
Centre County's population, however, grew by 20,000 people from 2000 – 2010. This growth was fueled by opportunities, not by people getting away from somewhere else. The only other county in the state to show significant opportunity-based growth during the last decade was Forest County – which went from 4,943 people to 7,693 people. And why? Because a maximum-security state correctional institution was built there.
In addition Centre County consistently has one of, if not the lowest, unemployment rates in the state. And I'll be a complete homer here and posit that the engine driving these optimistic Centre County statistics is Happy Valley.
Now, I understand that the construction and existence of prisons creates decent, stable, living-wage jobs with reasonable retirement plans. I have a relative who works for the department of corrections and goodness knows we should all be happy to have jobs that offer a regular paycheck. I also understand that what's done is done and the buildings near Interstate 99 will not be leaving anytime soon. I'm really looking at the long-term (50-year) picture here.
Given that Happy Valley would likely be able to economically survive the absence of those prisons, and that there are many, many towns, boroughs and counties within the state that would benefit greatly from a bit of economic development and population growth, I would suggest to the powers-that-be (as they consider future decisions regarding the placement of correctional institutions) if this political largesse could be spread to other needier areas, it would be to everyone's advantage.
I think long-term we all deserve to have a happy.
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