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Bellefonte Renaissance: A Victorian jewel shines again

by on June 29, 2018 2:23 PM

Twelve miles northeast of State College lies Bellefonte, a quaint community known as “Central Pennsylvania’s Victorian Secret.” Incorporated as a borough in 1806, Bellefonte serves as the county seat of Centre County and is home to some of Pennsylvania’s best Victorian architecture.

Though its 19th-century history has continued to be highly celebrated and honored, like many rural Pennsylvanian towns, Bellefonte experienced economic downturns during the Great Recession and years prior. In recent years, revitalization efforts championed by local and state leadership, business owners, and community residents see Bellefonte moving in a new direction – one that is welcoming modern initiatives and enterprises while upholding Bellefonte’s Victorian legacy.

A quick walk through Bellefonte’s downtown showcases the regeneration efforts spearheaded by the town’s borough council, county commissioners, entrepreneurs, and Bellefutians, the coined term for the community’s residents. New businesses, building restorations, and renovations of landmarks like the Cadillac Building and the Garmin Building, and street and landscape beautification projects are plentiful.

“We are dedicated to helping businesses arrive and thrive in 21st-century Bellefonte while preserving, protecting, and utilizing Bellefonte’s historic architecture and heritage and organizing town-wide initiatives that invite residents and visitors alike to discover all that Bellefonte has to offer,” says Shannon Wright, Bellefonte’s Keystone Community Development coordinator, Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) consultant, and zoning officer.

Through partnerships with organizations like Downtown Bellefonte Inc., previously known as BelleKey; the Bellefonte Intervalley Chamber of Commerce; Historic Bellefonte Inc.; and the Penn State Small Business Development Center, Wright says the Bellefonte Borough is focusing its efforts on commerce, partnership, and preservation. 

In her various roles within the Bellefonte Borough, Wright works with property owners and the HARB to appropriately renew buildings in the community’s historic district and issues permits for building projects throughout the borough. Wright’s job responsibilities provide her with first-hand access to business owners and economic development projects – two highly important and ever-growing components of Bellefonte’s renaissance.

In just two years, Bellefonte has seen the opening of 22 new businesses in its downtown. Wright believes this is largely due to the town’s historic charm, its proximity to State College and Penn State, its strong sense of place and community, and its affordability.

Tom Wilson, Bellefonte’s mayor, agrees. He believes the decrease in the mall-type shopping mentality has also opened the door for Bellefonte’s boutique downtown set-up. 

“It’s extremely significant to have a vibrant downtown in these days and times,” he says. “This is a significant effort on the parts of young entrepreneurs. The philosophy of the millennials has helped. They are looking for a more eccentric area to live or play. Bellefonte can provide that.”

Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins says that in addition to the shift in shopping trends, Bellefonte’s entrepreneurial growth relates to the town’s history. After completing some research on the town, Higgins discovered that six of the seven Pennsylvania governors from Bellefonte were entrepreneurs at some point in their lives.

“Bellefonte from shortly after its founding until about the 1930s was a very entrepreneurial place, very forward-thinking, [and there was] a lot of innovation in Bellefonte,” Higgins says. “I think that is cycling back.”

Bellefonte business owner and resident Ellen Matis says the town’s unique allure and atmosphere drew her in. After touring apartments and homes in other local communities, a drive and walk down Bellefonte’s High Street made her decision obvious. 

“I knew I had to live here. It [Bellefonte] was way more charming than what the other communities were offering,” she says. “It was really nice to see … people waving to us on the street wanting to say hello. That is something you can only get in a small town like this.”

Matis chose to open her business, Hello Social Co., a social media agency, in Bellefonte. Currently, Hello Social Co. can be found in SpringBoard, Bellefonte’s business incubator and co-working space.

Spearheaded by Higgins, the Bellefonte Borough, and Downtown Bellefonte Inc., SpringBoard opened in May 2017. The space prides itself on helping ideas become a reality in the local community. SpringBoard hosts startups for their first 12 to 18 months in business. After that timeframe, businesses are encouraged to venture out into Bellefonte and open their own space. SpringBoard also has desks available for individuals to rent in order to co-work. 

As the owner of the first business housed in the incubator space, Matis quickly found herself serving as an ambassador of SpringBoard. Her ambassador role evolved into an official directorship, opening more doors for Matis to engage and collaborate with other local businesses and organizations like Downtown Bellefonte Inc.

With the Downtown Bellefonte’s reorganization and rebranding campaign came new leadership and new initiatives. Matis says that in the past six months, the organization has worked to implement significant change in the community. Unique initiatives have pushed retail and commerce, the arts scene (including the vibrant Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County), and community excitement generation to the top of the priority list.

“With all these new people working together with one common vision, there are so many possibilities for how we can grow. I think you are going to see improvements in not only the spaces that business owners can lease, but also in the way Bellefonte looks, feels, and grows,” says Matis (who works as a contractor for Town&Gown and its sister publication, The Centre County Gazette). “We are a group of people working with all the downtown business owners, nonprofits, and organizations to make Bellefonte this cool, hip place to live [in order] to attract young professionals.”

According to Higgins, the group’s efforts are being recognized, as the community has seen an increase in young professionals and young families moving into greater Bellefonte.

“Bellefonte is genuine. Bellefonte is historic. Bellefonte has character. I think that level of authenticity is something that millennials are looking for and something they want to invest their time and energy in,” he says.

Higgins says in the recent reports he has received from local real estate professionals, the percentage increase of Bellefonte home values is very similar to, if not higher than, homes in State College. Reported data shows the total number of homes sold in Bellefonte is equal to about 30 percent of the total number of homes sold in State College. In the last month, the number of days a home is on the market for all of Bellefonte is shorter than the number of days on market for a home in State College.

Wright says that the increase in young professionals living in Bellefonte is directly related to the increase in the available opportunities, and vice versa.

“They [young professionals] have been one of the driving forces behind the things that we’ve been able to do. They bring an energy and excitement to things,” she says. “I think, too, that we will start to see that the more events that we have and the more things we do, we will see [young professionals] emerge even more in the Bellefonte community.”

First Sundays are among the most recent developments for the community. Each month, many businesses and restaurants in downtown Bellefonte open from noon to 4 p.m. on the first Sunday to increase foot traffic, create more awareness about what Bellefonte as to offer, and to encourage more residents and visitors to shop locally. This idea came from a conversation between Matis and Carly Andriaccio, owner of Bellefonte’s Bone Bar & Boutique, a store that sells treats, toys, food, and accessories for dogs and cats.

“I noticed Bellefonte could be a little sleepy on Sundays and that some people that live in the town and the surrounding areas didn’t realize that Bellefonte had grown and had a lot more stores,” she says. “I hope First Sundays become a huge attraction that hundreds of people won’t want to miss out on each month.”

Another new event aimed at creating a welcoming, community atmosphere for Bellefonte residents and to attract visitors is Bellefonte Under the Lights. The event, hosted by Downtown Bellefonte Inc., will be a progressive-style outdoor dinner on the Waterfront at sunset. It is scheduled for September 7.

Family-style tables and lighting will weave along Spring Creek, creating a unique dining experience. Menu options will be provided by Bellefonte restaurants, and drinks will be courtesy of members of the Central PA Tasting Trail, including Bellefonte-based Good Intent Cider, Big Spring Spirits, and Robin Hood Brewing Co., and wines from Happy Valley Vineyard and Winery, which owns and operates the Bella Vino Wine Bar near Talleyrand Park. Similar to Tussey Mountain’s WingFest, Bellefonte Under the Lights attendees will purchase tickets for different courses and will choose from a variety of menu options.

Tickets for the event will be on sale soon.

“This event [Bellefonte Under the Lights] has seen so much traction since we announced it,” Wright says. “We’re really excited to see how it turns out and how the community reacts to it.”

Wright says another event the various partnering organizations are looking forward to is the July First Sunday, a fundraiser known as Chalk the Walk.

“We’re going to bring Bellefonte to life with colorful artwork created with chalk on high and Allegheny Streets downtown,” she says.

Families, businesses, and organizations can purchase one or more $15 squares to design and decorate between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. A panel of judges will review each square in the corresponding business/organization, non-business/organization, and family/children categories. Tickets for this event may be purchased through Evenbrite.com.

“[These] two events engage the community by providing them with something fun they can get involved with,” Wright says.

Providing residents and visitors with fun activities in a beautifully kept town is also a key priority of those leading Bellefonte’s revival. Beautification projects around the community include the addition of retaining walls, a new pedestrian walkway in Talleyrand Park, sidewalk improvements on West Water Street, and the installation of historical tablets throughout town.

Two of the largest beautification and activity projects include the development of the Waterfront District and the design of the Bellefonte to Milesburg biking trail. The excitement surrounding these projects highlight Bellefonte’s investment in the natural resources and recreational entertainment that entice so many residents and visitors, something Higgins hopes will continue the buzzing boom that is Bellefonte.   

“As something becomes more attractive, more people want to visit it or live there or work there. Then all the more people want to visit it and live there,” he says. “I’m almost hoping for a little bit more of the same – small, incremental improvements [to Bellefonte.] It just seems like when things start to go well and you work hard, things continue to go really well. When you have many people all working hard together, you end up with a lot of really good things. These really good things are happening in Bellefonte.”



Samantha Chavanic is a freelance writer living in Bellefonte.
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