2016-10-01 / Features

Out on the Town

Robyn Passante | Photos by Matt Fern

We’ve long heard from just about every demographic that State College is a great place — to go to school, to raise a family and to retire. A key element of that appeal is our walkable, vibrant downtown district, yet there’s a lot going on downtown that eludes the occasional visitor (which many of us, over time and amid the busyness of life, become).  So we set out to explore downtown with fresh eyes, diving into the burgeoning visual arts scene, getting to know some of the personalities that form and foster our community, and giving you the scoop on a few things to check out the next time you’re wandering through the heart of State College. It’s just a start, but we hope you see something you never saw before.

Art on Every Corner
Twenty-eight years ago, artist Stephen Porter created a contemporary sculpture, called “Colonnade,” designed to bring the iconic columns of Old Main across the street to downtown State College.

If you’ve ever stopped to consider it, wondered about it or made up your own name for it (“The Lipsticks” is the most common), then it has done its job. And nearly three decades later, there’s an effort gaining momentum to bring much more of those actions, reactions and interactions downtown.

“I think we’ve been ready for a long time and not known it. And we’re getting more and more aware that people’s needs are not being satisfied in the full sense of our beings if we don’t have art,” says locally based national photographer Michael Black, whose programs, special events and Black Sun studio have been part of the burgeoning art scene for years. “We see a lot, we’re stimulated a lot with music, art, performances, but it’s very limited, and a lot of it is on screens. There’s something wonderful about being with something in the 3D space, really experiencing it in the flesh.”

Want to be a part of the visual art scene downtown? You already are; just look around. Here’s what’s here now, what’s coming, and what’s hopefully going to turn up soon.

Public Art
Check out to learn about the more than two dozen art pieces beautifying the downtown district. From sculptures like “Colonnade” on East College Avenue, to murals like “Dreams Take Flight” on Calder Way, to the “Soft Sounds” fountain on East Beaver Avenue, it pays to take a closer look along the streets you thought you knew.

Woskob Family GalleryHaley FinneganHaley Finnegan
This collaboration between Penn State’s School of Arts and Architecture and the State College community, located in the basement of the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center on South Allen Street, has given us a contemporary art space that will highlight local and national talent in eight exhibitions per year. “This is cutting-edge contemporary art; the idea is to bring a Chelsea gallery to Allen Street,” says program director Haley Finnegan, who will be creating free public programming based around the gallery’s exhibitions, especially targeting young professionals and families. The gallery is open during box office hours, with extended hours every Thursday for special events, as well as for First Friday.

Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania Gallery
After nearly 49 years in Lemont, the Art Alliance is making an appearance downtown, with its new gallery — on Fraser Street across from the new Fraser Centre — set for a grand opening on Oct. 7. Executive director Marie Doll couldn’t be happier. “We’ve wanted a downtown location for a long time, because it’s a whole different market,” she says. “It will be more exposure for our artists, and having art in a downtown I think is very, very important.”

Commissioned Pieces
Ever notice the gorgeous mosaic above Looks Hair Design along Calder Way? That’s been up since 2008, but more businesses are catching on to the idea of how commissioning such artwork elevates the community’s aesthetic as well as their own business. Take a peek inside Happy Valley Optical on South Allen Street, and you’ll really “see” what we mean.

Photo by Greg GriecoPhoto by Greg GriecoGet Exposed
Michael Black’s second annual Get Exposed “open studio mixer” later this fall promises to showcase local artists of every form — from photography to printmaking to sculpture to tattoos — during a free party you once dreamed only took place in major metropolitan cities.

Badass Artists Doing Art Series
This series of workshops and small-scale events for artists and art is headed into its third season in the spring of 2017, and organizer and host Michael Black has something special in store. “It’s constructed as at least a weeklong experience with one resident artist,” Black says. “It will be an educational, socially powerful art conversation.”

Mixing Business With (Artistic) Pleasure
The Art Alliance’s outreach program has placed some of its 320 members’ works in downtown establishments including The Corner Room, BB&T Bank and The State Theatre. “The works change every month or two,” Doll says. “It’s a win-win because it gives our artists a chance to exhibit, and when people walk into a business they get to see some original art.”  

Everything you don’t know about until you see it
Those who caught artist William Snyder III’s powerful pop-up art piece along the side of the Fraser Street parking garage early last month — or his whimsical #BigVespa aluminum sculpturePhoto by Lake BlackPhoto by Lake Black that was parked at the corner of Beaver and Fraser for a few months in 2014 — know the delight in puzzling over something that’s here and gone in a blink. Snyder is one of many who hope more of that is coming — and says it’s a very good sign.

“We think we all need to know what’s going on, but when things happen that no one knows about, that’s when you have a vibrant arts scene, when everyone doesn’t need to have approval or insight into one sculpture being put up. It needs to be popping up wherever, not ‘Everyone in the community decided to give approval to this one thing,’” says Snyder, who’s working with local property owners and artists to make his vision for temporary graffiti art downtown a reality. “I like that I don’t know everything that’s happening. That’s proof that things are really alive. And I think we’re getting to that point.”

DID YOU KNOW? State College has a Clean Team. Three full-time Downtown Improvement District employees start at 5 a.m. weekdays, 4 a.m. weekends, seven days a week almost every day of the year to keep downtown looking beautiful. They pick up trash and leaves off the sidewalk, remove stickers, gum and graffiti, pressure wash the sidewalks in the summer, and make sure sidewalk crossings are clear of ice and snow in the winter before most of us are getting up for the day. “They keep downtown nice, clean and presentable,” says George Arnold. “So that nobody ever sees what went on the night before.”

We’ve heard it, we’ve been there, we’ve done some of the griping ourselves: But the fact of the matter is that driving and parking downtown is only a hassle if you make it one. We set out to learn the facts from local experts and dispel the myths one by one.

Complaint #1:  There aren’t enough parking spaces.
“There are 2,081 parking spots in downtown State College,” says Downtown Improvement District Executive Director George Arnold. “There are plenty of spaces to park.” That includes three parking garages, three public lots (Beaver, Allen Street, McAllister deck) and 423 metered spaces in about a 1-square-mile radius.

2. There’s too much traffic — vehicle and pedestrian — when the university is in session.
“We joke about the State College ‘rush minute,’” says Appalachian Outdoors owner Geoff Brugler of the misconception of how much traffic congestion downtown State College gets as opposed to other cities across the country.
While it’s true that all drivers need to keep their wits about them (cell phones down!), the crosswalks, timed traffic lights, one-way streets and 90-minute parking meter limit before 5 p.m. keep traffic flowing pretty well at all hours of the day.

3. I can’t park close enough to where I want to go.
“My response to that is always, ‘Well, if you go to the mall you can park anywhere. But you’re going to be walking through the parking lot and through the mall,’” says Betsey Howell, executive director of the Central PA Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The only difference is whether you’re walking outdoors more or indoors.”

4. I shouldn’t have to pay money to shop downtown.
Did you know the first half-hour at any downtown garage is free? And that nearly 50 downtown businesses validate parking for those parked in garages, whether or not you purchase anything there? Look for the “We Validate!” sticker in the window, or just pop in and ask.

5. The parking garage and public lot kiosks are too hard to figure out.
Bring the ticket with you, scan the bar code at the kiosk when you return to the garage, then enter the amount you owe (or scan one of the Merchant Validated Parking tickets you received from a downtown business to have the fee, or a portion of it, waived). And if you typically park in the street metered spaces or the public parking lots (Allen Street, McAlister Deck, Beaver Lot), you can download the Park Mobile app and pay directly from your phone each time you park.

The bottom line, says Brugler, is how you view the destination against the process of reaching it. “It’s like anything in your life:  If you don’t want to do it, there’s a litany of reasons not to. And if you do want to do it, then you don’t even see any obstacles.”

DID YOU KNOW? The first McLanahan’s in State College, opened in 1933, was on the corner of South Allen Street and Beaver Avenue. It had a traditional soda fountain, and reportedly was the first downtown business to get air conditioning. The store burned to the ground in 1988, but the familiar name returned to Allen Street when McLanahan’s Downtown Market opened in 2002.

When you step down into W.C. Clarke’s Cheese Shoppe on Calder Way early in the morning, you’re struck first by the rich aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans, and second by the sheer number of people who are already there.

Police officers, construction workers, university employees and a host of others crowd around the tiny bistro tables out front and mingle inside the dimly lit shop. Half of them seem to be on staff — replacing empty pots, grinding coffee, readying a corporate order to be picked up — but none of them actually are. Nobody seems to be in a hurry, and everyone’s in a good mood.

“It’s all family here,” says owner Bill Clarke, who’s been selling gourmet cheeses and other goodies in that same Calder Way location for 40 years.

State College would be nothing but buildings and streets without the people who make it great, and Clarke is on a long list of business owners who’ve added charm, character and a sense of community to the downtown district. He opened in 1976 after working at a cheese shop in his hometown of Wilkes-Barre and deciding to venture out on his own. He says he checked out several locations, but State College won his heart.

“I drove into town and just felt it,” Clarke says of that unexplainable thing that makes this place special. Forty years later he’s become part of it, not just as the only coffee roaster downtown, or the place to get the kinds of specialty cheeses you can’t find elsewhere, but as the man who uses the honor system for payments. A pile of money typically sits on the counter, and customers leave what they owe and make change for themselves.

“I trust everybody. I’ll be in the middle of something, roasting or something, and a customer will show me what they’re putting down. I’ll say, ‘You don’t have to show me,’” Clarke says. “I’ve had many students come back because they forgot to pay — and I didn’t even know.”

Though it’s still called the Cheese Shoppe, he’s known more these days for his coffee, which was added to the menu in 1988 after a few lousy business years due to construction on Calder Way.

“I was one of the first three in-store roasters on the East Coast. I was excited,” he says of his “new” venture. “I would come in at 3:30, 4 a.m. to start roasting. It vented out onto the sidewalk, so I wanted to stop at 9 when everybody was going to work.”

Still, there were more than a few calls made to the fire department in those early days from concerned residents wondering about all the smoke.

Each morning he selects a handful of his two dozen international coffee beans and 15 flavored coffees to brew for the day’s customers. He still tastes every one, which no doubt adds to his estimated personal total of three pots a day.

“I used to drink six,” he quips.  

That’s a lot of coffee being consumed by just one man, so perhaps it’s good that he’s got so much free help. But Clarke says he believes his loyal customers get as much as they give, just by having a place to connect.

“I’ve helped several people go through their divorces and keep their sanity,” he says, then ticks off a list of some other benefits of being among the Cheese Shoppe faithful. “There’s a car dealership owner, I’ve sold a lot of cars for him. A realtor who comes in a lot, I’ve sold homes for him. An electrician has gotten a lot of jobs here, investment people have gotten clients here.”

And besides being a deal maker, at times Clarke’s coffee and cheese have served as matchmakers.
“We’ve had a couple people meet their husbands and wives here,” he says.  

Clarke’s wife, June, was the one who encouraged him to open the shop all those years ago. Married for 51 years, she died last August after a long battle with ovarian cancer. Former Cheese Shoppe staffers and many of the store’s regulars attended the funeral.

“After the funeral, I went out to talk to some of the kids — who aren’t kids anymore. And they said, ‘You know, Bill, when you hired us you told us this was a family,’” he recalls. “‘We thought we got it when we worked with you. We thought we really got it when we graduated. But we really get it now.’”

DID YOU KNOW? The five-story Glennland Building (205 E. Beaver Ave.) was State College’s first “high rise” apartment building. Built in 1933, it had a swimming pool in the basement — the first indoor pool in State College, and the largest in Pennsylvania at the time. The Glennland Building — like much of downtown’s architectural landscape — will soon be dwarfed by the 13-story Fraser Centre and The Metropolitan, a 12-story mixed-use high rise going up on the corner of Atherton and College Ave.

If you view downtown as just a place to eat and buy stuff, you’re missing out on a slew of free events that downtown businesses and organizations host every week to exercise your mind, body and soul.

Understanding the effort it takes to reach their doors and wanting to build community, not just business, some local establishments offer much more than the occasional sale.

“It’s a big commitment to leave your house, get in your car, drive downtown, park, walk down the street, and walk in that front door. That’s a commitment,” says Geoff Brugler, owner of Appalachian Outdoors.

“It needs to be rewarded.”

Turns out there’s something free happening just about every day of the week downtown. Try mingling with your neighbors at one of these ongoing events.

FRIDAYS: If you think Friday evening is only for Penn State students downtown, think again. State College First Friday has become the best place to kick off the weekend on the first Friday of the month, with shops staying open late and offering everything from free food and drinks to special giveaways and artistic demos.

“One thing we try to keep in mind is that we want to be family friendly, offer a broad appeal,” says Downtown Improvement District Executive Director George Arnold. “Downtown can appeal to everybody and should appeal to everybody. We want families to come down and enjoy our downtown.”

There’s tons of live music and entertainment, walking history and art tours, discounts at several stores, free validated parking in the Pugh, Beaver and Fraser garages, and much more. 5-9 p.m. Various locations downtown.

SATURDAYS: Anthym (228 E. College Ave.) hosts Waffles & Coffee Yoga one Saturday a month that includes a free hour-long yoga class followed by gratis waffles and coffee made on-site. Time and date vary.

They also lead Group Long Runs at least one Saturday per month at varying trail locations around the area. Check Anthym’s event calendar for details.

Schlow Centre Region Library (211 S. Allen St.) offers Gadgets for Grownups two Saturdays a month, with experts demonstrating and teaching the technologically challenged about something new each session. Check the library’s calendar for dates and to register. 10:30-11:30 a.m.

TUESDAYS: Put on your dancing shoes and head to Webster’s Bookstore Café (133 E. Beaver Ave.) for Tango Tuesdays, free Argentinean Tango lessons for people of all ages. Donations are accepted. You’re welcome to show up just to watch, but trust us, you will dance. 7-9 p.m.

WEDNESDAYS: Anthym’s Weekly Run & Yoga brings runners of all ages and abilities together for a 3-mile run around downtown — led in three different pace groups — followed by a half-hour yoga stretch back at the store. Afterward, stick around and mingle with free beer and other beverages and share stories from the road and trail. 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Appalachian Outdoors (123 S. Allen St.) holds Free U on the second and fourth Wednesdays, bringing in experts on various outdoor activities and sports. Some tell tales of their incredible adventures, others help you get ready for your own. 7-8 p.m.

Appalachian Outdoors also hosts Pint Night on the third Wednesday, a longstanding tradition with donations benefiting a different local charity each month. Enjoy free food, beverages, prizes and more. 6-8 p.m.

THURSDAYS: On the first Thursday of the month, Webster’s offers a Wide Open Mic Night for would-be poets, singers, musicians and comedians to earn the applause they’ve been dreaming of. Free for listeners and performers. 6-8 p.m.

On the third Thursday, the café hosts a free Words at Webster’s open mic that showcases State College poets of all ages. (They’ve had as young as 12 and as old as 80, proving poetry is ageless, timeless — and free.) 7-8 p.m.

DID YOU KNOW? President Dwight D. Eisenhower is the only U.S. president to stay overnight in State College. He visited four times during his presidency, as his brother, Milton Eisenhower, was president of the university from 1950-1956.

A sampling of thoughts on downtown's past, present and future from some of the many longtime business owners who've helped to create this community.

Katie Dawes | Kitchen Kaboodle (est. 1987)
I have mixed emotions about Target coming. We always like to keep our downtowns local, but unfortunately with the development of these large spaces, it’s very difficult to fill those large spaces with independents.

I remember when Benetton came to the corner of Fraser and College Avenue. That may have been one of the first “chains” that came to State College. So it started with that, and then there was The Gap, American Eagle, Eddie Bauer. None of them are still here. So with Target and H&M, they are focusing on urban markets, and good for them, because they must have an overall plan for it. But folks who come here from out of town can shop at the Target in their hometown. So they’re not going to rush to Target to shop. And we have a good local clientele too, in addition to the tourists and visitors. And they’re very loyal.

Doug Albert | Uncle Eli’s/Douglas Albert Gallery (est. 1970/1981)
I’m deeply concerned about the Target and the H&M stores. There will be small businesses in my opinion that will be damaged by it. They’re targeting college students and college dollars, and we’re already doing a pretty good job of that. It’s the dollars being spent by students that will be funneled into those stores that normally would have been distributed to different local stores downtown.

They’re bragging how they’re going to hire 70 jobs; well, there’s going to be maybe 70 jobs lost by businesses not being able to hire. Target may be able to pay better and offer better benefits. Maybe I’m wrong. But this is a whole new ballgame.

So these high rises, I think it’s progress … but I think it’s going to change the whole complexion of the town. I don’t live in the past, but I don’t see a bright future from my perspective. I see less and less people coming down here to shop.

Elaine Meder-Wilgus | Webster’s Bookstore Café (est. 1974)
We’re working in an intergenerational community. That’s just what life is. But in a community with a major university, I feel a sense of stewardship to provide an opportunity for students, to give them a structure in which to interact with different age groups, to practice respectful appreciation of each other’s creativity.

Ahmad Saghir | House of Kashmir (est. 1976)
I went to Penn State; this is a good town. I’ve always loved the students — that’s my favorite part of being downtown. This is my fun. The students are really nice. We enjoy them. The stuff that used to be popular 20 years ago, now it’s back.

Parents bring their kids who are in school now and say, “I used to shop here.” Because we’ve been here since about 1976.

Brian Cohen | Harper’s (est. 1926)
When we first moved to town there were four men’s stores and half a dozen women’s stores, and just like the rest of the country, through the ’80s and ’90s they closed rapidly. Now we’re the only full-fledged men’s store in Centre County.

My business has always been a downtown business. And I think stores like mine thrive and do best in this kind of environment. My kind of store does not work in a mall.

I like the energy you get in a downtown versus a shopping center, where people are just there to shop. Because downtown people are there to shop but they’re also just enjoying life — they’re there to eat and walk and be entertained.

And I love that we’re right opposite the university. It creates a great, great feeling. We have an interview suit package for students buying their first suit. And it’s great when these alumni guys who are 60 or 70 and are here for a football game, they see the signs and they come in and see the kids shopping for their first suits and they say, “I bought my first suit here too!”

Melinda Hooper | Designer’s Denn Salon and Spa (est. 1981)
We just celebrated our 35th anniversary in August. My favorite part of being here is the foot traffic from the university and from those who live and work here.

I think the new development going up downtown is progress. I think it will add to the downtown. I think it’s very positive.

Geoff Brugler | Appalachian Outdoors (est. 1974)
When I first went into business, there was this old guard in State College, maybe 10 to 15 people. We joke now that we’ve become those people. They’re all in their 80s and 90s at this point. They had their own ideas about how things should be done. But I was just a young kid then and I would defer to them because they had 30 years of background that I didn’t have. There’s no substitute for that experience and wisdom; that perspective and longevity really helps. Now the older people in business downtown look to the younger business owners for the culture and technology. Now 35-year-olds can’t keep up with 25-year-olds when it comes to that stuff. Those age bands have gotten a lot smaller.

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