Downtown: Evolution of a destination
Many business people perceive downtown Williamsport as a thriving community with a wide variety of shops, restaurants, art galleries, entertainment venues, and hotels. Merchants who’ve decided to locate or chosen to stay in center city are quick to count off its positive aspects.
When Ryan Rafferty took over Vannucci Foto & Video two years ago, he decided to move the business from Washington Boulevard to downtown.
At the time, he wasn’t completely sure if it was a good move.
The natural gas boom, which had helped pump life into the city, including the downtown, had ebbed, and empty storefronts were on each side of the building he moved into at 8 W. Fourth St.
But almost immediately, he didn’t regret the move.
“I always personally liked the downtown,” he said.
Growing up in Williamsport, he recalled the thriving days of the downtown with its department stores and shoppers.
While those days may be long past, he sees center city showing plenty of vibrancy.
“I just think it’s a community downtown,” he said.
The mix of businesses help bring plenty of people who aren’t necessarily drawn to any single product or purpose.
“You are literally surrounded by good food,” he said, noting the variety of different restaurants.
There are also the art galleries and unique shops that dot the downtown.
Beyond that, Rafferty feels that people are eager to go outside and walk around the commercial district, if for no other reason than to get away from their iPhones and computers.
“Once they experience it (downtown), they like it,” he said.
These days, the storefronts are no longer empty on either side of Vannucci’s, with a yoga studio and a soap shop flanking Rafferty’s business.
Jule Hanford, co-owner of Patinaz, a boutique and women’s clothing store at 38 W. Fourth St., is quick to praise the downtown.
“We love the downtown,” she said. “We like being part of all that is happening downtown.”
Hanford, treasurer of the Williamsport Business Association, is especially happy with the array of different dining selections in center city. Many of them are within walking distance of her own shop.
“We get a lot of customers from out of town. It’s great to give them a lot of choices, instead of having them leave (Williamsport) and go elsewhere,” she said.
The Otto Bookstore has been a downtown mainstay for years.
When new owners took over the longtime business a few years ago, they kept it right at its 107 W. Fourth St. location.
“Downtown is a good place for us to be,” bookseller Alissa DuBois said. “I think downtown rocks.”
DuBois noted the mix of businesses that comprise the downtown which she feels help draw people there.
The presence of good restaurants certainly help, but she also gives credit to the merchants who put forth the effort to keep the downtown strong.
“I like to think it’s because we do a good job here,” added DuBois, honored with the 2018 Drayback Handseller of the Year. The award, sponsored by the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, recognizes those who find “the right books for their community as well as the right book for each person who walks in the door.”
Brian Fredo, manager of Boom City Brewing Co., 317 Pine St., called the downtown simply a good location for the restaurant.
He said he’d like to see the downtown have more parking for patrons.
“I think we need a few more shops downtown to draw more people,” he said.
Tom Derone launched Harvey Tee’s Hot Dog Express, a restaurant at 100 W. Third St., last summer.
He wanted a storefront location after selling his food products as a mobile food vendor.
“It’s working out,” he said. “We have a lot of foot traffic. There are lots of people downtown.”
He too feels the variety of downtown businesses draw people there.
Nearly 20 years ago, Bernie Katz and his wife, Bonnie acted on a desire to move their business, Le Chocolat, to 420 Pine St. from the Lycoming Mall.
“We have no regrets being downtown,” he said.
Although the downtown wasn’t the vibrant place then that it is now, it has proven over time to be a good move.
“All downtowns are growing and revitalizing,” he said. “Malls are dying.”
The downtown, Katz was quick to note, isn’t perfect.
He feels there could be more retail stores, and there continue to be a few, although not many, empty storefronts.
“We need more good landlords serious about renting out space,” he said. “We need more millennials opening businesses.”
It’s the younger people, he explained, who will be around for a while to help keep the business community thriving in the city.
They also bring fresh ideas.
Katz sees Williamsport in many ways as a destination city, where people arrive from elsewhere in cars or off buses. Many of those people spend a good part of the day browsing and shopping the downtown.
He believes the city needs to better promote itself to people from out of the area.
“We got everything here — dining, shops, entertainment,” he said.
Entertainment venues include the AMC Classic theater, Community Arts Center and the Community Theatre League — all in the downtown. There is also the new Liberty Arena, a sports complex and restaurant, at the former site of the old YMCA
Katz dismissed the notion that lack of parking is a problem in the downtown.
And, he doesn’t favor pulling up parking meters to open up free spots for people.
“We tried free parking. It doesn’t work,” he said.
Hanford noted that more people have chosen to live downtown in recent years, which further helps the entire commercial district.
Meanwhile, efforts to revitalize the eastern end of the downtown have been under way.
The Gateway Project, funded in part through public and private grant support, involves erection of a new building on the Lycoming College campus as well as reconstruction of Basin and Franklin streets for creating a more lively college-town feel to that part of the city and deepening connections between the school and Williamsport.
“It’s (downtown) only going to get better,” Hanford said.
Plankenhorn Stationery Co., 144 W. Fourth St., is another of Williamsport’s longtime businesses that has experienced the ups and downs of the downtown business climate through the years.
“The walk-in business isn’t like it was way back when we had the department stores downtown,” owner Chip Plankenhorn said. “(But) it’s picked up a little in recent years.”
The business, which sells office supplies and does printing, was launched in 1899.
Plankenhorn feels the downtown could use more parking, especially around his site which sits close to the Community Arts Center and the AMC Classic theater.
Still, he feels the downtown has come a long way in recent years.
Shannon McDermott, manager of Amber Rose Bridal, 123 W. Fourth St., likes her downtown location.
“It’s great down here,” she said. “We stay very busy.”
There are always plenty of walk-in customers and events such as First Fridays have proven to be great for the business.
William Lang, of Lang’s Chocolate, 350 Pine St., doesn’t see First Fridays as a big boost to business.
He feels people who do come downtown for the monthly events aren’t there to shop at storefront businesses.
Downtown parking could be better, and there’a also a perception by some people that crime is bad in center city, although Lang noted, “It’s not bad.”