Leaders Look to Future of Downtown

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By April Feagley

Daily News Staff Writer

2018-01-20 / Front Page Huntingdon Daily News

http://www.huntingdondailynews.com/news/2018-01-20/Front_Page/Leaders_look_to_future_of_downtown.html

Image removed.Andrea Darby of A.C. Darby Studio, Penn Street, Huntingdon, offered a painting demonstration as Connor Price looked on during the January Art Walk Huntingdon event. Photo by APRIL FEAGLEY

Huntingdon Borough’s downtown business district has been dealt some difficult blows lately, but local leaders believe positive changes may very well be in the future.

“The way we’re looking at it is as an opportunity to transform the area by looking for things to increase walkability and opportunities for hospitality and larger restaurants,” said Huntingdon County Business and Industry (HCBI) executive director Bob Reitman. “With the right treatment and the right partner, we can take this and leverage it and in a few years, we could be looking at a whole new Huntingdon.”

As the new mayor of Huntingdon Borough, David Wessels also sees room for growth and positivity.

“I do think we’re at a possible turning point,” Wessels said. “I think that with some hard work and elbow grease, we can reband together the downtown merchants, include the rest of Huntingdon’s merchants, and get a cohesive idea of where they are going and what is possible.”

The challenge in ensuring that restoring businesses to empty storefronts is planting the seeds for success.

“There is opportunity there. There are also challenges that come with that opportunity,” said Matt Price, chairman of Art Walk Huntingdon and organizer for the weekly summer walking tours through Huntingdon Landmarks Inc. “If you put something in and it doesn’t succeed, that can, over time, give the location something of a ‘revolving door’ reputation.”

Finding the right fit for businesses to fill empty spaces is vital to ensuring future successes.

“It is inevitable in a small community for local businesses to close over time. This happens when businesses aren’t adjusting their offerings and services to meet ‘current’ consumers’ needs. Today’s consumers want to visit small town ‘Main Street America’ for locally-sourced, unique items, services and products,” said Ryan Gibboney, founder of ReInvision Huntingdon. “I am optimistic that this transitional phase will offer potential local business owners the opportunity to see our downtown as a blank slate that is ready to be reinvented and revitalized.”

Seeking out niche businesses which can meet the needs of customers is also a must.

“I think we need more unique specialty shops that are willing to be open when those that have jobs can shop. It’s difficult to patronize businesses that close before people get home from work,” said Yvonne Martin, Huntingdon County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. “I’d also like to see the merchants work together as they once did as the Huntingdon Area Merchants. If they can get together and brainstorm I’m sure they can come up with some ideas to increase traffic. I’m offering right now to attend a meeting or meetings that they arrange and share some ideas and see how the chamber may assist them.”

Other hurdles lay in the need to renovate spaces to accommodate new businesses.

“Some of the challenges in the boroughs — both Huntingdon and Mount Union — is that we have buildings that need to be purposed and that can have a substantial upfront cost,” Reitman said. “We need to find the right partner to invest the right amount of money to renovate them.”

Even locations that seem in good repair may need investment to get the building back in operation.

“I have heard there have been some other business owners interested in some of the spaces downtown,” said Wessels. “One is seeking space for a restaurant and the other is looking at putting in a video golf place.”

Wessels credited organizations like HCBI, the Huntingdon County Chamber of Commerce and ReInvision Huntingdon in working toward business success in the borough.

“There is a strong group of people who are mindful that the downtown needs businesses,” he said. “There is a new wave of business owners and we need to connect the dots. We are having good conversations.”

Emulating successful ventures from other small towns also has value.

“We need to look at things that are working in other places in Pennsylvania,” said Reitman.

Initiatives like Art Walk Huntingdon and walking tours through the summer months also serve to encourage foot traffic and raise interest in local businesses.

“We did a survey of those businesses that participated during the first year of Art Walk. We found the results overall were positive,” Price said. “Part of our goal was to work toward uniting the Huntingdon community with the Juniata College community and all of our business partners agree that all in all, Art Walk has accomplished that goal.”

April can be reached at afeagley@huntingdondailynews.com.