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Johnstown Struggling, But Showing Some Signs of Life

Fri February 27, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Shawn Piatek

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) Walking streets lined with vacant shops and empty store fronts, Jim White said Johnstown is much like “any other small former industrial community that’s trying to get back on track.’’

In recent years the same area at times had fewer than 10 vacant store fronts, said White, the city economic development coordinator. But now, his agency counts 18 vacant spaces in the central business district.

The slowing national economy’s local impact now is clearly evident in the number of “For Lease’’ signs cropping up throughout downtown.

“We’ve been hit by this bad economy, like anyone else,’’ White said.

And while there are examples that investing in improved infrastructure will bring tenants to downtown, he said it’s often a challenge to get building owners on board.

“Everybody, including me, would like to have those buildings filled to the hilt,’’ White said. “But it’s going to take investment.

“We offered a program several years ago that we would provide matching funds for IT infrastructure upgrades to buildings in the central business district. A few took advantage of that opportunity, but it wasn’t enough. It’s always a struggle to get people to invest money into a building that they probably have already made their money on.’’

Randy Clark, owner of Miller’s Clothing and Tuxedo Rentals on Main Street, said he fondly recalls traveling downtown to what was then his father’s shop during the 1960s. In those days, Clark said, the streets bustled with thousands of shoppers snaking in and out of shops downtown.

Now Miller’s is one of the few retailers remaining in the central business district. It would seem Miller’s would have an advantage with no competition nearby, but Clark disagrees.

“I would love to see all of the store fronts filled,’’ said Clark, whose business has operated in downtown for every one of its 119 years.

“Some people have said that I must love it because we’re one of the few still here,’’ he said.

“But the truth is, competition builds business because it brings more people into the downtown, creating more opportunity for everyone.’’

Some current downtown vacancies were created when businesses left for the East Hills, a trend that began in the early 1970s. Those leaving for the higher ground in recent years included staffing agencies Manpower and Adecco.

Miller’s faced that same opportunity in the early 1970s, Clark said. But his father chose to remain downtown, a move that has paid off as the company has come to own its buildings, lowering overhead and allowing it to be more capable of surviving recession.

“We have had the option many times to move to other locations,’’ Clark said. “But when you own your own buildings, there’s a tremendous benefit you gain to operating during a time of adverse economic conditions like this.

“We have always been a downtown store and hopefully always will be.’’

Apryle’s Jewelers on Market Street has operated from three different locations in downtown during the past 106 years.

Owner T.J. Apryle believes that fundamental changes are needed in order for the central business district to again become healthy.

Apryle said the challenges to conducting retail business in downtown are many. Everything from a shortage of parking to a large number of buildings in varying stages of disrepair make downtown less appealing to shoppers.

Like Clark, Apryle said his business is able to continue to operate downtown because he owns his location and has a strong base of repeat customers. But he knows if downtown were to be improved and capable of drawing more foot traffic through the addition of other retail and entertainment options, his business could grow.

Apryle doesn’t believe there is a quick fix to the problems facing the central business district.

“I think it’s the city government that needs to make the necessary changes to make the city more appealing,’’ Apryle said. “I’m not sure if it can be accomplished through tax breaks or other incentives, but something needs to be done.

“And we could benefit from an entertainment district,’’ he said. “We used to have three movie houses downtown, and now we have none.

“We don’t need a Band-Aid, we need a transfusion.’’

White, economic development coordinator, believes that the business will return to downtown once the economy improves.

He also said there are a number of reasons to believe that the downtown area is generally on a trend to recovery.

For instance, White said that when he took his current position in 1998, as many as 30 store fronts in the central business district were empty.

The city also has been the site of three high-profile construction projects in the past several years.

The Mock Tower Lofts on Clinton Street and a residential loft project above Em’s Subs on Main Street have added higher-end residential sites to the downtown portfolio. In place of the former Swank Building — a crumbling landmark building on Bedford Street — 1st Summit Bank has constructed a new signature branch office.

Moving forward, two major renovation projects to downtown buildings have been announced. As this year progresses, plans are in place for both the Conrad Building, at the corner of Vine and Franklin streets, and the former Manpower offices on Main Street to undergo significant face-lifts.

The Conrad Building project is being undertaken by a partnership out of Harrisburg that hasn’t yet decided upon the final use for the facility. That group said it has completed some temporary fixes and expects more extensive work to begin in the spring.

Investar Redevelopment has taken ownership of the Main Street building. Work has begun on transforming it into a mixed-use facility offering commercial office space and four new residential units.

These developments alone won’t bring downtown back to full vitality, White admits. But he sees the growing residential section of the downtown community as playing a crucial role in the long-term health of the central business district.

“We’re on the verge of having three loft apartment buildings built in downtown when only three years ago we didn’t have any,’’ White said.

“I think the residential development here is what will go a long way in answering that chicken-and-egg question we’ve faced for so long.’’

White’s office also is claiming victories beyond the borders of downtown. In recent years, a new emphasis has been placed on the economic redevelopment of the Kernville and Hornerstown neighborhoods.

Those efforts have paid off in a number of ways.

Kernville has had the most success, luring CBM Business Machines, ITSI Biosciences and the Gella Professional Building in addition to the development of the Greater Johnstown Technology Park.

Hornerstown recently added a tenant to its neighborhood when CJL Engineering opened its new Johnstown headquarters on Horner Street. The company renovated the former Team Chevrolet showroom — a building nearly 100 years old — as the city’s first certified green building under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

It’s the list of recent victories that keeps White optimistic about the city’s economic future even in the face of an increasing number of vacant store fronts.

“I can’t afford to get discouraged,’’ White said. “I look at it as a process that will play out over time.’’

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