Lunch with Mimi: Mayor Elizabeth Goreham Discusses High-Rises, Immigration and Changes Ahead
State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham announced at a Borough Council meeting in February she will not run for re-election at the end of her term this year. Goreham took office as the first elected female mayor of State College in 2010 and was re-elected to begin her second term in 2014. As mayor, she and the community worked together to stop a natural gas pipeline, enacted an environmental bill of rights, and supported marriage equality. Goreham has served as a public official for 20 years and is taking time off to be a private citizen, but plans to remain active in the community.
Born in Chicago, she was raised in a rural community on a small farm outside of Chesterton, Ind. Goreham first attended Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., for 2 years and studied abroad in Austria and Germany before transferring to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and graduating in 1963 with a degree in political science. She came to State College with her husband, Jack Matson, in 1993. Matson was a professor of environmental engineering at Penn State until he retired in 2010.
Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Goreham at Faccia Luna to discuss the changes taking place in downtown State College.
Mimi: You came here over 20 years ago and you entered politics early. And you followed perhaps, one of the more legendary mayors of this borough. Tell me about how that happened.
Elizabeth: Well, I’ve always loved politics, but I’d never run for office before moving to State College in 1993. I entered politics three years later because of my husband, who knew I was a strong environmentalist and wanted me to go public. He suggested I run for Borough Council to raise issues that were important to me: protecting our abundant natural resources. So, I threw my hat in the ring and went door-to-door. To my surprise, I found the people of State College and I were on the same wave length regarding the environment! I quickly felt at home, and won that election in 1996. Twelve years later, I ran for mayor after Bill Welch, the community’s beloved mayor, suddenly passed away shortly before his almost certain re-election to a fifth term. When he passed away, it was a shock. Running for mayor was challenging. But becoming mayor changed my life.
Mimi: There are a lot of changes that are taking place in the downtown area. What is your perspective?
Elizabeth: I think most of the new buildings we have seen, wanting to attract different populations downtown, are good, especially the Fraser Centre. New construction opens up a broad discussion because we live in an area with a successful, top-ranked university that has great influence and a town with strong neighborhoods as well as a majority of student housing. State College Borough has just begun a total review and rewriting of our zoning laws, reworking them to make them easier to deal with and planning for changes that we need.
Mimi: So, does that suggest that there will be more high-rises in downtown State College in your mind?
Elizabeth: It does to me. At the same time, we have a committed group of people working with our Historic and Design Committee to establish an architecture review board that would protect the treasures that we do have in our historic districts. Even though it may look like we are going in two directions at once, I have faith in our community coming forward to work with council and successfully balance the needs of our various constituencies.
Mimi: Important word, balance. I think serving on State College Borough Council may be one of the toughest political jobs.
Elizabeth: I agree. We need leadership and people who are able to articulate and analyze the needs of our community.
Mimi: And never forget our closest neighbor is a very important part of that decision.
Elizabeth: We work closely with Penn State. For example, university and borough administration members, including council members, meet twice a year, on the primary and general election days.
Mimi: Really? What do they do?
Elizabeth: We talk about areas of mutual interest including future plans, opportunities for cooperation, residential housing, and more.
Mimi: The university has offices, storage places, and some real estate in downtown State College, which has been willed to them. To what extent will that growth of facilities pour into downtown State College?
Elizabeth: Well, it’s not a bad thing. The university has discussed various ideas for downtown and they own significant property along Atherton Street. The university is very deliberate in what they do to ensure their actions fit the needs of both town and gown. Penn State goes through the same process as anyone else, working with our Planning Commission and other commissions to make sure a project meets our requirements.
Mimi: We are landlocked unless we tackle once again, the dream of consolidation of the Centre Region. What’s the first step?
Elizabeth: I believe a special commission would need to be named by the interested parties, consisting of people willing to investigate consolidation from an impartial perspective.
Mimi: Who should be the catalyst of it?
Elizabeth: I think the community should be the catalyst. State College could be because we have 25,000 students living in our community and we don’t have as much tax base as townships next door. We gave up the business privilege tax. Students come to learn, they don’t come to work. We have a healthy property tax, but earned income tax is also important. University employees do provide earned income tax, but students, even graduate students, don’t earn much. So, the median income downtown is under $26,000. That’s one of the issues that we face. Another issue that would really affect us is the federal Community Development Block Grant. We’re an entitlement community because of the relatively low median income of our student population in State College. If this grant is eliminated, our infrastructure improvements will be impacted.
Mimi: Even though we are getting big names downtown such as Target, H&M, and Amazon. You think we can still stay a small town
Elizabeth: No matter how much we grow, State College has a wonderful sense of community and is committed to maintaining the quality of life that we enjoy here including strong sustainability practices.
Mimi: In the area of commercial development, one category I think of is retirement. In the course of just a couple decades, the choices for facilities for retirees here are as good as any place on the planet.
Elizabeth: And better than most. Our healthcare system and school district are excellent. One of the areas where we are sadly lacking throughout the Centre Region is opportunities for young professionals.
Mimi: We need facilities to help make that happen.
Elizabeth: Yes, we need incentives that will result in reasonable housing costs for young professionals as well as jobs. Both are essential future elements for our town and region.
Mimi: One of the things that is impactful on the community is the immigration issue today. Our council has the courage to be a sanctuary community. Tell me a little bit about that.
Elizabeth: Well, we are fortunate to have a world class university with more than 10 percent of its faculty and student population from other countries. Our international residents and residents of color bring the world to us. It is in our best interest to welcome them because we quickly learn how their cultural differences enrich our lives in ways we cannot imagine.
Mimi: I am personally very proud of council having done that.
Elizabeth: Me, too. Democracy begins at the first rung of government, in places like State College. If everyone feels safe here, and that’s important, then we’re doing one of our most important jobs. Our police have for many years embraced the policy of not asking the immigration status of internationals. They do so because all residents need to trust the police, who are here to protect them.
Mimi: Yet, we also have the protection. I don’t think that many people, foreign or otherwise, have fear of living in State College.
Elizabeth: That’s right, even though people from other countries in the world may have different relationships with their police. Some people are quite hesitant to come forward if they are victim of a crime or witness to a crime. In State College these folks have no cause to be concerned because we have worked to establish our police force as reliable and trustworthy.
Mimi: So, we have these instances that relate to behavior and habits, whether it’s riots after football games or drug and alcohol issues. What’s your read on all that?
Elizabeth: Well, we have many fine students. I spoke with some during a year-long honors class which investigated how these “riots” occur. Students go to a football game really revved up and after the game there is an urge to release some of that energy, without a place to go. So a sizable fraction of them run to “Beaver Canyon” and start going into the neighborhoods causing havoc. Our neighborhoods are the glue that holds our community together. What students do not realize is those spontaneous actions erode the neighborhood’s confidence in its safety. In State College there are many different constituencies living side-by-side. If students and non-students don’t respect each other, their relationship disintegrates. The university and the town need to join forces to expand the education of students to appreciate the benefit of freedom and adulthood. I think a restorative justice program in our community would help. If you had to meet the person whose shrub you pulled up, plant a new shrub, both parties would benefit. Recently, the IFC sponsored a day for their members to go into the neighborhoods and ask residents what help was needed. One weekend fraternity members assisted their non-student neighbors at no cost, to show their goodwill.
Mimi: That’s a good beginning. So, can we help with the big problem of alcohol and drugs beyond the ordinary?
Elizabeth: One thing State College did last year is decriminalize marijuana by lessening the penalty to a non-traffic violation. Our action doesn’t legalize marijuana but it allows people to learn from their mistakes, move on, and not hinder their future job prospects, for example, to teach or to work for the state — which now is the case in places where possession of marijuana is a felony offense.
Mimi: Is there evidence that decriminalizing will help the larger problem?
Elizabeth: We hope so. The Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale came to State College to collect data on this topic. Our manager and police chief put him in contact with other managers who are working on the same issue. We will know in a couple of years. Eugene DePasquale estimated that, if Pennsylvania were to make marijuana a non-traffic violation statewide and subject to a fine, we could receive well over $100 million a year.
Mimi: Wow. How would you like to be remembered for your service to the community?
Elizabeth: During 20 years of elected office, I feel the citizens of State College have become part of my family. More than any particular accomplishments, I would like to be remembered as someone who is approachable, cares deeply about State College and believes in a bright future ahead if we continue on our current path, embracing diversity and encouraging graduates to build their lives here. Personally, I want to become an active volunteer and grow native plants.
Mimi: Among the many things that you and I have in common is the fact that we are both survivors of cancer. You are in the throes of that. What has it done to your thought process in terms of how you view today, tomorrow, and the next day?
Elizabeth: A diagnosis of cancer is always a shock, but life goes on. Friends like you have surprised me with your kindness and openness about the difficulties we all face and the importance of simply feeling the joy of life every day.
Mimi: Nurture yourself and the place that we live. I want to thank you. I wish you continued good health and recovery.
Elizabeth: Thank you.