By ARTHUR STERNGOLD
For the past month, a rumor has been spreading that the Lowe's Market and Ben Franklin stores are closing in Clarkstown, an unincorporated village by Muncy. I'm happy to report the rumor is false - the stores' owners have no plans to shut down. But the fabrication reminded me how much local residents depend on these stores to help give Clarkstown a sense of identity and place. Lowe's and Ben Franklin provide common spaces where residents interact and catch up on local news while shopping for groceries, getting prescriptions filled, and posting flyers on the stores' bulletin boards.
These stores are located in a relatively built up section of Clarkstown that also includes a bank, a barber shop, two churches and a few compact blocks of houses. This concentrated group of places and spaces - and the human activity that occurs within it - gives Clarkstown a visible identity that's more than just a sign along the highway or a scattering of stores.
Many communities in Central Pennsylvania have this kind of town center a compact area of mixed uses, such as businesses, offices and diners that form a visible hub of activity that local residents use to meet basic needs. Just think of the town centers in Lewisburg, Hughesville, Montoursville and Selinsgrove, or the larger central business districts in Williamsport, State College and Bloomsburg. These built-up areas help give communities a sense of locality and place, especially when they include historic buildings or landmarks that residents value for more than just their current uses.
Of course, in today's automobile-centric world, it's a constant struggle to keep town centers relevant and whole. Local merchants must compete with shopping centers and big-box stores, and some places are stuck with run-down buildings, congested traffic intersections or poorly planned areas that keep people away.
The largest town center in our part of Central Pennsylvania is the central business district in Williamsport, the region's principal hub of commerce, banking, government, law, entertainment and culture. The city center offers a mix of urban uses and experiences, including historic architecture, one-of-a-kind specialty stores, locally-owned restaurants and cafes, local music and arts, and walkable city streets that often bustle with activity. (It also boasts an excellent public transportation system for those who don't want to walk.) Just attend a First Friday celebration or a performance at the Community Arts Center to see downtown Williamsport at its liveliest.
For decades, Central Pennsylvania has suffered from a brain-drain as many talented, educated and ambitious young adults moved away to find better jobs and lifestyles elsewhere. Studies show that having an interesting mix of urban uses and happenings can help counter this decline by drawing young professionals and skilled workers to an area. Central Pennsylvania has always been known for its outdoor recreation and rural amenities, and so having a thriving core of shopping, dining and entertainment only adds to the region's reputation and appeal as a place to live, work and raise a family.
Before moving to Central Pennsylvania, I lived in Detroit, Miami, New York, Atlanta and Chicago. I never imagined I'd settle in a rural area, but here I am. I'm grateful to live in a small town that looks and feels like a real community, and to work in the downtown section of a city that offers a rich mix of urban attractions and uses.
During past economic downturns, many downtown establishments struggled to survive, and none has been more tenacious over the years than Otto Bookstore. How many people know that Otto is the oldest surviving bookstore in the country that was completely independent from the start? Like Lowe's Market and Ben Franklin, Otto Bookstore has been subject to rumors about closing, which I'm again happy to say are untrue. Otto is able to compete with big-chain stores and online retailers because its owner and staff are expert booklovers who offer great customer service and book recommendations on every conceivable topic. Otto Bookstore has made a real difference in the lives of many residents and families in Central Pennsylvania, and it epitomizes the unique value of local businesses run by people who believe passionately in what they do.
Over the past year, downtown Williamsport has gotten an economic boost from the opening of Kohl's department store, a Marriott hotel, and a new bus station and parking deck. I hope city officials will do their best to make sure future developments reinforce downtown's character and appeal, despite the constraints they face in doing so. Having a well-functioning core business district is important to the economic diversity and quality-of-life of our entire region.
Sterngold is an Associate Professor of Business at Lycoming College and resident of Clarkstown. He studied urban economics at Princeton University and community development at Penn State and worked in economic development and advertising before pursuing an academic career.