Group discusses advantages, areas for improvement

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Above, Valerie Beggs places a dot on the boards to answer questions before the Heart of Williamsport focus group on the theme of “small-town feel” at the Williamsport Sun-Gazette Thursday.

Friendly faces, an accessible newspaper and downtown businesses and services make Williamsport, the largest city in Lycoming County, one with a small-town atmosphere.

Recently, those affiliated with the Heart of Williamsport, a pilot program established through the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, gathered information for a possible action plan to be presented to Lycoming County commissioners and City Council.

While writing down a list of assets came easy, Heart of Williamsport also is seeking input as a means of improving the community.

“I think we need to be more overtly welcoming,” said Mark Winkelman, a New York City resident who established the Pajama Factory, an artist incubator on Rose Street and Memorial Avenue.

Winkelman said part of welcoming is to incentivize and promote entrepreneurial spirit.

Assets include walkable, tree-lined streets, family-owned restaurants, food trucks and mountain vistas, but also the collegiate community.

One idea expressed is a Welcome Wagon to introduce students and families to what the city offers and some of its history and heritage.

As always, faith-based institutions play a role in giving the community its closeness.

“We are a city of churches,” said retired Rev. John Manno, who noted the United Churches of Lycoming County get involved in their communities and demonstrate mutual support for each other, especially for those most in need and during times of natural and man-made disasters.

The city holds many family-oriented, fun and educational events, including the annual Grand Slam Parade during the Little League World Series, Williamsport Welcomes the World, a street fair featuring a celebrity each year before championship weekend of the Series, and regular activities for children and senior citizens available at the James V. Brown Library.

Among those library programs is a technology class for seniors who want to learn more about the modes of modern communication such as Internet, email and smartphone technology.

Dallas Miller, a visitor who has attended prior meetings, said the city continuing to try to create more affordable housing opportunities should be an idea to pursue. Welcoming people with diverse backgrounds and making and watching educational materials such as “Follow the North Star,” the story of the Underground Railroad and slaves embarking on the dangerous trek north into Canada, which Miller said should be mandatory viewing.

Local business owner Valerie Beggs said she notices the efforts to beautify the city, including the many flowers in pots lining West Fourth Street, especially in the Historic District.

The group consensus is to see additional kiosks and signage directing visitors and others to the river and its amenities, such as the Susquehanna River Walk. They also would welcome mass transit expansion, such as more bus routes to areas outside of the city. Additional promotion of the area’s scenic wildlands also must be included in any future marketing plans.

New technology must be a part of the welcoming spirit for those seeking it, according to Tom Krajewski, of the county planning department, who observed how the millenials are getting news from social media sources, of which the Williamsport Sun-Gazette has a heavy presence. However, he said, technology such as the city website needs to be more user-friendly and updated.

Among the assets is the newspaper and its accessibility and emphasis on local coverage, while also providing regional, state, national and international information. Bernard A. Oravec, publisher, said the newspaper regularly covers 17 high schools in terms of news, sports, entertainment and the arts. It provides a seven-days-a-week forum to give readers an opportunity to sound off and offer public discourse through the letters to the editor section.

Readers are given information through local breaking news, special sections on health, food, entertainment, business, outdoors and the opinion pages, which carry local and syndicated commentary.

The newspaper — with employees who live in the city and the region — always will maintain a commitment to the local reader, according to Oravec.