Rebuilding Billtown, 1 old building at a time

Anyone who has spent time in Williamsport in the past decade likely has noticed a new energy and level of activity downtown.

Hotels, restaurants, small businesses and new living spaces have lent a new atmosphere to the streets within several blocks north, south, east and west of Market Square.

Leading the transformation have been Charles Imbro and Matthew Schauer. The two are businessmen, but perhaps visionaries as well – at least with respect to helping breathe economic life into Williamsport.

Charles Imbro, 44, has opened several restaurants in the downtown.

They include Three Gringos and The Brickyard, a pair of eateries in Pine Square, a development that remains a work in progress.

Not long ago, Pine Square was little more than a vacant alley that was really a pedestrian walkway connecting two thoroughfares. Even that alley was created by demolishing old buildings that decades ago housed vibrant stores. Those stores ultimately had closed and the buildings sat mostly vacant for years.

Now, the area is a vibrant corner of the downtown that draws patrons to the two restaurants – with more to come.

“It’s great to take a used building and transform it into something,” Imbro said.

It’s a quiet late November morning and Imbro is sitting at the bar of Three Gringos, which opened this year, reflecting on his recent developments.

With its brick wall interior and long wooden bar, the restaurant has the feel of a somewhat hip place while still maintaining a family friendly atmosphere.

The Brickyard, adjacent to Gringo’s, has a similar look, but with its outdoor sidewalk cafe, it draws its share of patrons who enjoy sitting outside with a cold drink on warm days and nights.

Imbro is transforming the entire Pine Square area through

H.I.P. Development, which he owns and operates along with his business partner, Dave Hertwig.

Retail shops and apartments that the two are planning will bring more people to that part of downtown.

“We have another project I can’t disclose,” he said.

One would think Imbro is busy enough.

He also owns Barrel 135, a restaurant and bar that opened several years ago at 135 W. Third St., as well as rental units.

He shows little sign of slowing down.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a graduate of Mansfield University, he fell in love with the area and feels very much at home here, he said.

“You can live and work at a reasonable pace,” he said. “It’s a small enough town and you can make a difference.”

Married with two children, he feels it’s important to be involved in the community.

He has been active in coaching local youth teams.

Williamsport is what drew Schauer.

He had been living in Florida and working in real estate development when he felt the call to head north and return home in 2005.

“The town was different eight years ago,” he said.

It wasn’t so much the downtown was rundown, just not alive.

Schauer said he saw potential.

Now, he owns a number of properties in mid-city.

They include apartments, but also some recognizable places where people can stop for a bite to eat or a cup of coffee.

Between Market and William streets, he owns a number of properties, including those housing the SunFlower Cafe, Alabaster Coffee, and the old Salvation Army building.

In October, he opened the Moon & Raven Public House at West Fourth and Williams streets.

The former site of a gift shop was the sort of space he couldn’t wait to transform into a restaurant with an old pub sort of ambience.

“It’s nice to do something different,” he said.

Schauer said he saw opportunity after coming to the city and seeing the number of historic buildings that were left either vacant or rundown.

Right next to the Public House he has workers transforming what was long a little more than an empty hallway into spaces for commercial shops.

But he has more apartments in the downtown than anything, he said.

And it really didn’t take the natural gas boom for him to begin filling his units.

“I had a waiting list before the gas came,” he said.

He thinks people will continue to move downtown.

Other cities across the nation, he said, have proven that downtown living can work.

After all, downtown living with its proximity to restaurants and entertainment venues and services is an attractive option to many people.

“You don’t have to have a car,” he said.

Like Imbro, Schauer feels as if he is just getting started.

He works seven days a week and simply loves what he does.

“My options are wide open,” he said.

Williamsport, he said, has a lot of talented people who can help make things happen.

Both Schaur and Imbro like the idea of having something to do with the new look of Williamsport.

“There’s something about leaving a footprint behind,” Imbro said.

Added Schauer: “We are taking Williamsport as a challenge and rebuilding it.”