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After years of hardship, the allure of downtown Philipsburg is bringing businesses back

by on July 24, 2019 12:10 PM

When Bill and Kristin DeBoer’s business, Brown Dog Catering, outgrew its old kitchen space, the couple decided to move their headquarters from State College to Philipsburg.

“We moved here because it was affordable. There’s no way we could have bought a kitchen in State College. I mean, nothing against State College. It’s a wonderful community, and I would love to be … ,” Bill DeBoer explains, pausing and reflecting for a moment.

“No, I wouldn't actually,” he says on second thought. “Philipsburg has been so welcoming. And I’ve said it a thousand times. Again, as much as I like State College, I can’t imagine this sense of community there that we have here right now.”

Brown Dog is part of a growing list of businesses choosing to set up shop in Philipsburg’s historic commerce district. Since the start of 2019 alone, the once run-down downtown has seen an influx of more than half-a-dozen new business ventures, with more slated to open in the coming months.

Philipsburg’s burgeoning resurgence is an example of a national, albeit, perhaps, micro trend, visible locally in places like Bellefonte, Boalsburg, and Millheim, where older, small towns are being infused with a fresh, enterprising spirit.

Eric Kelmenson operates Reframe, a real estate firm that is using tax credits and opportunity zone incentives to restore some historic buildings in downtown Philipsburg. He’s also president of the Philipsburg Revitalization Corporation, and says a sense of community is as valuable as the area’s economically friendly price tag to the business owners moving in.

“A big thing is affordability; then you realize it’s more than just price per square foot,” Kelmenson says. “There’s a talented labor force here. It’s also a hauntingly beautiful place, full of character and history – that old charm. And there’s community. People have banded together and formed a family of sorts to support downtown and to support each other. People are realizing that we’re stronger together.”

‘A little act of kindness’

“A little act of kindness is what started all this,” says Faith Maguire, a community volunteer-turned-PRC coordinator.

Maguire became disheartened last year when a group of students she was taking downtown for a field trip expressed dread at the prospect of their destination.

Maguire remembers when Philipsburg was a prosperous little town with bustling shops and familiar faces on Front Street, and she became determined to beautify the downtown before the students’ visit. She hung up curtains in an unkempt store front, cleaned the windows of vacant buildings, and planted flowers. 

She hasn’t slowed down since. Maguire has continued her efforts to revamp the downtown and has been helping facilitate tours of empty buildings for prospective tenants and coordinating events that showcase the downtown’s splendor.

“Faith totally rallied the town,” Kelmenson says. “She basically single-handedly orchestrated [last winter’s] downtown Christmas celebration with a tree-lighting and having all the stores open. People said, ‘I haven’t seen this much energy in Philipsburg since I was a kid.’” 

Maguire, who is a member of the borough council, says she couldn’t have done any of it without the help of the borough crew.

For the grand Christmas celebration, the borough staff put together decorations and strung up lights in the freezing cold and went out to an old tree farm and cut down a giant Christmas tree. 

“I love the people of Philipsburg,” Maguire says. “My family is all here, all the people I love are here, and so many people I loved who have died were from here. The next generation of people I love are here, and I just want to make a better place for them!”

Specializing, striving, and surviving

It does, however, take more than spruced-up store fronts and nice neighbors to sustain a town, of course.

Gary Williams has been in business at Gary and Company, a salon in downtown Philipsburg, for 48 years. He remembers when, on Friday nights, “if you weren’t in town by five, you didn’t get a parking place.

“[Philipsburg] was booming, and then when a lot of the industries went out, it really made a difference in the whole community,” Williams says. “Once the factories started leaving, that really took a toll, and the coal mines closing, that started hurting people.”

Bruce and Nell Centra opened Philipsburg Electric & Supply Inc. in 1978 in a downtown building that was formerly a hardware store and then a clothing store rumored to have sold the first-ever pair of bell-bottom slacks.

“In the early days, Philipsburg had a lot of timber, coal, factories, welding shops,” Bruce Centra says. “This area at one time was loaded with traffic. You couldn’t even get in and out of this town because of the commerce. The coal companies were very lucrative in the day. Welding shops have gone out since the strip mines stopped needing equipment. Our personnel has dwindled. At one time, we had quite a few employees – we had 17 in here, then we dropped down to 12, and now a small crew is what we have.”

Both Williams and the Centras point to the closing of the Charles Navasky & Co. clothing manufacturer – which operated just off Front Street – as a huge blow to downtown.

“They probably had 1,200 employees themselves,” Centra says. “That all moved off-shore. It was a lot of revenue [for us], because those people were here every single day. [Navasky’s] was buying light bulbs, fuses, all kinds of equipment from us, because they had sewing machines. They must have had [500] or 600 sewing machines in one building.”

“We got a lot of foot traffic back then,” Williams says. “People going to restaurants downtown for a quick lunch break, things like that.”

The demise of the local cigar plant, the Mid-State Airport, and the Philipsburg Hospital dried up the need for housing, food, supplies, etc., and the revenue that came with it.

Williams and the Centras say they’ve been able to survive Philipsburg’s economic highs and lows by catering to loyal customers.

Williams says he has women who travel back home from Pittsburgh to have him cut their hair.

“You just have to hope for your main base of people to stick with you,” Williams says. “And I really think the town has made a turnaround lately. It doesn’t look it, I know to some people, but it’s nice to see little businesses, a few restaurants coming back to the area.”

“I think the people who come in here to see us come in to get an answer to a problem,” Centra says of his business. “[My employees] will take your problem and dissect it and give you a solution. And then word of mouth gets out there, and people say, ‘That’s where you want to go, because you get an answer.’

“You have to persevere,” Centra continues. “Your standard of living has to change. You have to give up a lot, but if you stay, things will turn around.”

Centra points to Joan and Jim Ricotta, whose family has owned and operated Ricotta’s Jewelry on Front Street since 1968, as innovators who have survived economic hardship through specialization. 

Joan Ricotta says their store gets business from as far away as Punxsutawney and elsewhere.

“People drive here for our repairs,” Ricotta says. “I think because we are one of the few stores that has an actual watchmaker and jeweler on the premises. A lot of it has been by word of mouth, because Jim also specializes in antique pocket watch repair and the old mechanical watches, and there’s hardly anyone left who can repair those. We do the little jobs that big stores don’t want to bother with. They tend to want to make the sale and get the customer out the door.”

Ricotta says they are also typically able to offer cheaper prices than big box stores because they can repair items without having to send them out.

Ricotta, too, stressed the importance of providing a personal experience, and she has a box full of heartfelt thank you notes from customers affirming the small-town, neighborly way of treating people is appreciated. 

“I want them happy and coming back and telling their friends about us,” Ricotta says. “And, our name is on it.”

A majestic monument

The Rowland Theatre, a landmark that celebrated its 100th birthday in 2017, is another remnant of downtown Philipsburg that’s managed to survive the ages.

The Rowland, with its thousand seats, stately balcony, and opulent décor, continues, through the dedication of volunteers, to make going to the movies special in a way modern movie theaters can’t.

The Rowland is on the National Register of Historic Places and now operates as a nonprofit organization. In addition to showing new-release movies, the Rowland plays host to various events throughout the year, including a weekend film festival scheduled for this fall. 

Re-attracting industry

Centra says he used to sell materials to customers in Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and New York, but, “that all went away” after the North American Free Trade Agreement, which eliminated many tariffs and duties on foreign goods.

“It’s a very fragile system,” Centra says. “They say it’s only 1,000 jobs here, 500 there. You start pulling them out of different places, and it just starts to collapse. We’re hoping that industry does make a turnaround. We’re seeing a resurgence in manufacturing coming back into the area. You stop sending jobs overseas, you start to bring things back to the country, and people start having a different outlook. They say, ‘We can do things ourselves.’

“People are investing in homes in the area,” Centra adds. “You used to walk down through the neighborhood here, and there were a lot of homes that were closed up and vacant. Now, they’re starting to rebuild them, and people are coming in and investing in the downtown, and things are starting to develop – a little shop, a private business. People want to be able to be independent. If you can be independent, you can thrive.”

Nearby Lee Industries is a leading employer in the area, and a variety of manufacturing companies are growing in the Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership’s Business Park and Business Center. Advanced Powder Products Inc. is in the process of expanding both its manufacturing facilities and its crew. Organic Climbing also recently moved into a larger space, and DiamondBack Truck Covers was just named Pennsylvania’s Small Business of the Year.

Gaining momentum

Since its ignominious founding in 1797, when settlers were lured to the area with false advertising, Philipsburg, like many small towns, has experienced the best of times and the worst of times.

Now, Joan Ricotta says, there’s “a new, positive attitude from some of the new businesses and the younger people who are coming into town.”

Tanu and Russ Cameron are one such example. They moved to Philipsburg from Brooklyn and opened Cameron Bakeries earlier this year.

“After spending some time downtown checking out some of the shops and historic buildings, we knew Front Street was where we wanted to be,” Russ Cameron says.

“We have had tons of positive experiences in the six months since we opened up shop,” says Tanu Cameron. “The awesome feedback we receive about our baked goods keeps us motivated and always striving to top our last creation. The community and other local businesses have been extremely welcoming, and we could not ask for more.”

Ronald Rothrock, whose Rothrock’s Clothing Store has stood the test of time downtown for 45 years, says that last year, he had “about a 20 percent increase in sales,” and this year “I’m running at about 15 percent so far.”

Rothrock also says there’s been more foot traffic on Front Street since C&C Tropical Paradise Pet Shop relocated from the Peebles Plaza, where, until June, it had been operating for 27 years.

Kelmenson says the next big goal of the PRC, which has been restructured in recent months and received a “lifeline” of funding from the MVEDP, is to hire a Main Street manager to persevere in Faith Maguire’s mission and keep the momentum of the downtown going.

The DeBoers, who plan to open a restaurant in Philipsburg in the near future, say that as newcomers, the support and encouragement offered by the PRC and fellow business owners has been inspiring.

A neighboring business, Poppy & Co. Café, “has come over and embraced us and said, ‘Hey welcome to the neighborhood,’” Kristin DeBoer says. “And everybody on the downtown block has [embraced us], and it’s just been such a community. I think that’s the heart of the renaissance right there: Everybody’s on board, and everybody’s on the same page, and everybody wants to do well, because if they do, we do, too.” 

 

Teresa Mull is a freelance writer in Philipsburg.

 

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