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An Idea for Our Changing Downtown

The Hotel State College is the heart of our downtown.

Change has always been the order of the day in State College, but it seems as if our downtown is changing even faster than usual. The Fraser Center is finally complete and open for business. One mega-sized student-centric building, The Metropolitan, is complete and filled with Penn Staters. Two other large projects are under construction, and three more are well along in the pre-construction permitting process.

It’s not just our skyline that’s changing. Living institution Emma Gunsallus has retired from her position in the front room of The Corner Room after sixty years of service. And in what may be the lowest blow to State College traditionalists, The All American Rathskeller has closed after more than eighty years in operation. Fans lined up for days for one last authentic ‘Skeller experience.

With this in mind, the editors of State College Magazine asked some community leaders to write about their vision for State College. The editors emphasized that both small and large ideas were fine. We were encouraged to think outside the box, inside the box, or just write on the idea of the box. Some big thinkers agreed to share their ideas. They included Eric Barron, President of Penn State; Molly Kunkel, Director of the Centre Foundation, and State College’s new mayor, Don Hahn.

The piece I wrote elicited more comment than just about anything thing I’ve written. People have mentioned it in church, at the coffee shop, and in my adult beverage purveyor of choice. I’ve also heard about it at work, via email, and on Facebook. I’ve been bowled over by the response. The comments were universally positive. I suppose that’s not a surprise. It would take quite a lot of gumption to stop someone in a coffee shop and tell them that you hated a piece they wrote.

Since the Festival depends on a vibrant downtown, I think my remarks bear repeating here. Thanks to the magic of copy and paste, here is a little bit of my vision for our town:

Downtown State College should be more than a place where undergrads live within stumbling distance of the bars, where alums come for a trip down memory lane, and where mainline Protestants go to church on Sundays. It needs a vibrant commercial, office, and residential core.

Downtown should have stores where people can buy housewares and hardware, and clothing that’s not blue or white. Downtown also needs professional offices (for lawyers, dentists, accountants, social service agencies), for not only do they pull clients downtown, but people who work in offices, walk down the block to get a haircut, buy a birthday card, or return a book to the library. Thousands of small, seemingly insignificant activities help to create a vibrant city.

State College needs adults who choose the local brand of urban living too. This means more than apartments and condos for the very rich or very poor. Families have re-inhabited lots of urban downtowns and near downtowns across the country; there’s no reason it can’t happen in State College.

The longest journey—even the longest journey to a more vibrant downtown—starts with one step. What I’m suggesting isn’t as revolutionary as the discovery of penicillin or as far-fetched as flying cars, but it’s a step nevertheless.

We should encourage the Megabus to move its stop to downtown State College. Right now, the Megabus stops in the outer reaches of the Walmart parking lot on North Atherton Street many times a day to drop off and pick up travelers on their way to and from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York City. Not only is the Walmart parking lot a terrible introduction to State College, but if the bus stopped downtown, passengers could spend money downtown before and after bus trips. In addition, passengers would be nearer CATA, the Penn State campus, restaurants, and hotels.

I’m not necessarily proposing that we build a new bus terminal (though I’m open to the idea). I’ve heard that operators like Megabus skip bus stations because they’re costly to maintain and have bad reputations. Instead, I’m suggesting we dedicate some parking spots for the bus, just as they do in Manhattan.

Moving the Megabus stop won’t cure all of State College’s ills, but it would be a start.

Before writing this, I had no idea that so many people I know–all of whom have cars–had taken the Megabus to New York or Philadelphia. And not one of them thought the Walmart parking lot made a good bus stop. Blog readers, make your feelings known to Megabus and the Borough of State College! Let’s work together to bring the bus stop downtown!

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