2017-10-02 / Features

A New View

In 1896, when State College was incorporated as a borough, downtown wasn’t much more than a smattering of houses on a few dirt roads across from an agricultural college. Today it has grown to include more than 42,000 residents and nearly 400 businesses — leading to a bustling borough that retains its historical charm. In this special downtown-focused feature, we set out to find and share a collection of stories that speak to the character, commerce and community of downtown State College.
Maggie Anderson and Robyn Passante | Photos by Matt Fern

From the top of the new Fraser Centre, State College somehow seems bigger. With cranes in the distance both on campus and downtown, the borough is not only sprawling but growing up — and up, and up. Owners of the 26 luxury condominiums in the Fraser Centre have access to this rooftop view, as well as similarly expansive vistas from their private balconies. Realtors Jane Cohick and Kristin Cohick, listing agents for the property, say the first Fraser Centre condo closed in May and half of the 26 are already sold. They range in price from just under $500,000 to over $1.5 million.

Living the High Life

With five buildings actively under construction, it seems like State College is rapidly changing. But it’s actually all part of a master plan from 2013.

“A lot of the private development that you’re seeing right now is mostly relatively consistent with some of the planning work that was done at that time,” says Ed LeClear, planning director for the Borough of State College.

Follow along as we explore construction, high rises, housing numbers and the changing landscape of downtown.

The corner of College Avenue and High Street — the real entrance to downtown coming from the east — has been a Hooters and Kildare’s Irish Pub. Now, The Rise’s 12 stories, three more than the neighboring Meridian, will stand 140 feet tall.

“Historically, we’ve been undersupplied as far as the amount of purposeful student housing in the market,” says LeClear. “We have historically not matched up to enrollment growth and the university.”
The Rise’s 330,000 square feet will include an Urban Market grocery store on the street level.

The planning department considers McAllister Street a district divider. “Pretty much from the east of McAllister parking deck has been what we consider a collegiate district that’s historically been most of the student housing in the high rises there,” says LeClear.

The buildings in “Beaver Canyon” are almost as tall as the new planned high rises — Penn Tower, for instance, is 12 stories and about 148 feet high.

In January 2016, Penn State Hillel announced that it planned to build a 26,000-square-foot building at the corner of South Garner Street and Beaver Avenue — the site of the former Citizens Bank above the Garner Street Lot. LeClear says the lot, which is owned by the Friedman Real Estate Group, now may be part of the equation.

“It hasn’t started on the land development process but we know there’s design teams looking at it,” he says. “It would be Hillel for the first couple stories but then there would be massing above it. That would be the student housing.”

The Edge is under construction at the site of the former Canyon Pizza, across from McAllister Street and next to the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity, which filed an appeal to the State College Planning Commission when the building was proposed.

“There is a little bit of litigation going on, but they are still continuing to move forward in constructing the footings and foundations,” says LeClear.

Associated Realty Property Management has already fully leased the 4-bedroom apartments for $4,200 per month starting in the fall of 2018.

“This one just came in for land development a couple weeks ago,” says LeClear. At the site of the former CVS on Beaver and Pugh, it’s slated to be seven stories tall, with the first two stories being commercial, plus parking in the back and student housing above it.

The building on the corner of College and Pugh that houses Spats Cafe and Speakeasy, the Rathskeller, Sadie’s Waffles, The Apple Tree, The Clothesline and The Old Main Frame Shop was sold in June 2017. Nearly 125 years old, the Gentzel building also includes apartments on its upper floors. Neil and Charles Herlocher of Herlocher Foods purchased the historic building but were quoted in local media as saying they’re leaving the building intact.

“When the Gentzel building sold, my phone rang off the hook for a good couple of weeks,” says LeClear. “There was a rumor that they could build a 160-foot building there and that’s not the zoning. The zoning caps at 45 feet there.”

Though the oft-mentioned pedestrian mall is officially off the table — “There’s very few true pedestrian malls that work,” says LeClear — Allen Street’s master plan seems to be “remain the same.” When asked about his response to residents’ concerns about the changing landscape, LeClear says we have to think regionally.

“I think the first thing to think about is what is it about State College that is being changed. Historically Borough Council has looked at needing to balance new growth and then also maintaining  our historic ‘Main Street’ in that scale that we have, whether it be The Corner Room or the 100 block of South Allen. So the choices have always been to increase the height and the density on the edges of downtown and then kind of keep that character and scale on the interior.”

Though the oft-mentioned pedestrian mall is officially off the table — “There’s very few true pedestrian malls that work,” says LeClear — Allen Street’s master plan seems to be “remain the same.” When asked about his response to residents’ concerns about the changing landscape, LeClear says we have to think regionally.

“I think the first thing to think about is what is it about State College that is being changed. Historically Borough Council has looked at needing to balance new growth and then also maintaining  our historic ‘Main Street’ in that scale that we have, whether it be The Corner Room or the 100 block of South Allen. So the choices have always been to increase the height and the density on the edges of downtown and then kind of keep that character and scale on the interior.”

Though it’s still early, plans have been submitted to develop the block of College Avenue between Burrowes and Atherton — the corner across from The Metropolitan. The Residences at College and Atherton would be 12 stories and 155 feet tall. That means West College Realty, California Tortilla, Zola Kitchen and Wine Bar, the Golden Wok and two houses would need new homes.

“It’s in permitting now,” says LeClear. “I don’t know when the buyers will be closing on that deal.”

The Metropolitan, on the corner of Atherton Street and College Avenue where Arby’s used to sit, has been years in the making. The 146-foot-tall mixed-use building opened in August for its first semester of tenants. The project’s timeline was similar to the Fraser Centre’s, making the pair of new buildings first subjects of anxiety about a changing skyline.

“I understand people’s concern when they see that change and they think that it could happen throughout all of downtown,” says LeClear. “But on the other hand I think the borough does have to find some way to grow. If you think about it regionally, if we don’t want to sprawl and build more housing further and further out, then the greatest market demand for that housing is adjacent to campus. That’s where the students want to be. So in some ways by the borough not building it, it just induces that development to happen in Patton or Ferguson Township.”

And there’s more change coming to the intersection of College and Atherton. “Penn State just put an RFP [request for proposals] out for development on the H.O. Smith site [which includes Minute Mart and the building that houses Surge Business Development] and they’re looking at maybe nine stories of redevelopment there too,” says LeClear. “So you are seeing a much denser intersection and hub right there, which I think has been identified as, well, if we are growing and we need to increase, where does that makes sense so we don’t damage the other aspects of downtown that we value.”

Also part of the eventual plan is West End, the area farther down College and Beaver, past Atherton, which right now includes a lot of houses rented to students.

“West End has been an area that the borough has spent a lot of planning work on in the past looking to rezone that part of downtown essentially from Atherton to the Ferguson court line,” says LeClear. In “transitional zones,” the planning department wants to make sure heights don’t change drastically.

“When you’re going from downtown into the neighborhood, how do you make sure that there is a both a natural progression of density and scale and use but that you also are best using your parcels so that you don’t end up in a situation where you go from a 12-story high rise to a one-story home. “

The Rise, The Metropolitan, The Icon. The Helix, The Station... Some of the newest developments have the least inventive names. “The developers have some book somewhere with all these awful names and they just pick the next one,” jokes LeClear.

“When you can have a property and charge a thousand dollars a bed, it’s amazing what it does to housing values,” says LeClear. “So we’re hopeful that as that supply goes up, as more of the development is built downtown, that will meet the demand for student housing and will open up some room in the market for non-student  rentals or the Holy Grail — the owner-occupied house.”

“There were some incentives given to developers to do some better facades,” says LeClear. “They got some additional height and density, and that’s a process that actually goes through council approval. It’s called ‘conditional use permit.’ So that zoning change that created that signature project and that process to look at architecture, look at the design, look at the materials — that was in place for The Metropolitan and Fraser Centre, and it’s in place for The Residences.  I’ve learned a lot more about fiber cement than I ever thought I would know.”

“We’re really antiquated as far as our parking requirement. Most progressive communities have either eliminated their parking minimums for downtown or they are doing things where they essentially send those requirements to the parking garages. Some of the reason these buildings are so tall is that they have three or four or five stories of parking underground. And that doesn’t necessarily make sense if you have a public garage two blocks down.”

“We get a lot of folks who are like, ‘Hey let’s activate Calder Way and make that more vibrant.’ And there’s some good ideas on how to do that. But they all cost significant outlay. There’s a lot of desire to make Calder this great pedestrian urban space, which I think we all want to do, but it also is a service alley and it has a function that you don’t want to mess with. It’s the lifeblood of that downtown corridor.”


A 24/7 Commitment to Service

For more than a century, Alpha Fire Company has been keeping the residents of State College safe.
By Kevin Sliman

Photo by Michael Black/Black SunPhoto by Michael Black/Black Sun

“If we do our job well, most people think we’re not doing anything,” says Steve Bair, fire director
for Alpha Fire Company.

That’s quite a feat for a fire company that ran more than 1,300 calls in 2016, which averages out to more than three calls a day for everything from firefighting to bomb threats to vehicle crash rescues.

“We try not to be full of drama here,” Bair says with a smile. “We’re trained very well. We go do our job. We do it efficiently. We’re in and out, and most people don’t notice we’re there.”

Alpha also supports hazardous materials cleanup, evacuations, injury assistance, large event safety and security planning and staffing, damage assessment, fire investigations and more. And all of these services combined cost Centre Region residents about $38 per person annually — about 24 percent less than suburban volunteer fire companies in similar communities, according to Bair.

“We are very efficient and mindful of what we cost,” says Bair, one of three paid Alpha Fire Company employees. “If you have to replace that with career firefighters, you are looking at $200 annually per person for a fire department.”

How does Alpha Fire Company accomplish so much for so little? It starts with a long-standing tradition of volunteerism and service that dates back to the late 19th century. The borough’s first volunteer fire company was formed in 1899 under the name Union Fire Company. In 1900, the name was changed to Alpha Fire Company. Its first fire hall, built in 1908, was on Fraser Street. Alpha’s first motorized truck followed 15 years later, in 1923. The company’s current primary headquarters, which sits at the intersection of Atherton Street and Beaver Avenue, was dedicated in 1974.

Maybe to a firefighter, a call might be a small problem. But to that person, it is a big deal or they would not have called 911. And if I can be the person who comes and makes that problem better or go away, that is what we are here for.”  —Steve Bair

Alpha’s coverage area encompasses 104 square miles and supports a significant portion of Centre County’s population. It serves Patton, Ferguson and College townships, the southeastern part of Benner Township, State College Borough and University Park. There are two satellite stations in Patton and College townships, and the company recently put together a proposal to build a fourth fire station in Ferguson Township.

Alpha also aids a number of surrounding communities, including Harris Township, Halfmoon Township and Port Matilda Borough. To serve such a wide area, Alpha has more than a dozen vehicles, including fire trucks, fire engines, tankers, rescue vehicles and command vehicles. Its Atherton garage, like the rest of headquarters, is clean and organized — a place for everything and everything in its place.

While it is a tax-supported organization, Alpha sends out a mailer every other year asking for donations. According to Bair, those donations are used for items or programs that shouldn’t be paid for or cannot be paid for with tax dollars, including family picnics, scholarship programs and building remodels. Bair also applies for grants to fund recruitment efforts, including advertising and marketing.

But the core of this organization is definitely the people — volunteers who put in more than 11,500 hours of on-scene time and who lug 50 pounds of gear into emergency situations. The company has 102 volunteers who provide professional fire, rescue and emergency support services for the Centre Region. They choose to spend one night a week at the fire house or wear a radio that alerts them to when they are needed for an incident.

“This is a volunteer fire department, and there are no set working hours for our volunteers,” Bair says, who added that volunteer hours and staffing are set up in a way that ensures Alpha always has an engine crew at the ready in at least one of its fire stations. “Our responses are very timely because we are rarely at minimum staffing levels in our stations. At any given time, we have no problem quickly getting 15 to 20 people on the scene of an incident, with more following.”

Bob Kurzinger is one such volunteer. He got involved with the fire company after a group of his friends, who were already members, invited him to join. Twenty-six years later, he says the excitement keeps things interesting.

“Every call is different,” Kurzinger says. “You never know what you’re going to get into.”

One of his most memorable calls was a tanker crash and fire on Route 99 in 2011.

“Both directions of Route 99 were shut down,” Kurzinger says. “We were there for about seven hours, putting out the fire, cooling the tank, controlling runoff and ensuring we would have enough water on Route 99 to do all of that.”

Longtime Alpha volunteer firefighters Bob Kurzinger and Fire Chief Steve Bair at the main station on Atherton Street.Longtime Alpha volunteer firefighters Bob Kurzinger and Fire Chief Steve Bair at the main station on Atherton Street.

Kurzinger says knowing that he’s helping people in distress — and that the next such person in crisis could be someone he knows — makes his service to the community worthwhile. It’s a sentiment echoed by many others in the company.

“I can’t think of any volunteer opportunity that gratifies as quickly as the fire department,” Bair says.

“Maybe to a firefighter, a call might be a small problem. But to that person, it is a big deal or they would not have called 911. And if I can be the person who comes and makes that problem better or go away, that is what we are here for.”

Former Alpha firefighter Duane Cornish agrees. He was a member of Alpha from 2007–2012 while attending graduate school at Penn State. He believes it is each person’s job to make their neighbors’ lives better, and the fire service is one exciting way to accomplish that.

Cornish, who is currently the assistant chief for Worcester Volunteer Fire Department in Worcester, Pennsylvania (about 10 miles north of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania), likened the volunteer job to being on a sports team — a physical activity where a group of people work together to accomplish a goal. The big difference is that a fire company’s successes help humanity in a very direct manner.

When Cornish was with Alpha, he oversaw its in-house new member training, which lasts about a year and a half as members advance through the different company operations to learn all the skills needed.

Alpha volunteers are represented by all walks of life, from the marginally employed to established professors and lawyers. About 30 percent are made up of Penn State students. Four percent of Alpha volunteers are women, a number that’s on par with the national average but one Bair says the company would like to increase.

“The common bond among all of these people is they all want to do something to improve the world,” Bair says. “This is a place where you do not have to wonder if you improved the world. You know as soon as you get back to the fire house that you made a difference.”

Cornish says some of his greatest moments at Alpha were with the friends he made there — late nights running fire calls, eating together, joking around, playing lawn games in front of the station and enjoying each other’s company.

“Once you get here, and you realize that the things that brought you here are the same things that brought everyone else here, you develop some really good friends,” says Bair, who began serving as a volunteer firefighter in 1975.

However, as State College and the Centre Region are growing, the volunteer numbers are shrinking. There are currently 102 volunteers — a number Bair says ideally should be about 125.

“I think we are really pushing the limits of what we can do with a volunteer fire department,” he says. “The world is moving whether we like it or not. We just have to roll with it.”
He points to the new high-rise buildings going up in State College.

“The buildings themselves do not create huge problems for us in terms of the structure, but there are some differences,” Bair says. “Logistically [an incident at a high rise] is bigger, and on the command and control side it is bigger. What this means is more people are needed.”

In cases where there are not enough Alpha volunteers, the assistance of another local company, such as an engine from Bellefonte or Pleasant Gap, may be needed.

Bair says he is often asked by elected officials how long State College can be adequately served by just a volunteer fire department. His answer: As long as we have enough people who are capable and willing to do the job. People are the variable.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but it is a concern,” says Bair, who encourages people to learn more about Alpha by attending one of its events, visiting the website or speaking with Alpha firefighters.

“I think, if we look at the community today, we have a lot of untapped potential,” he says. “If I could get some of these people in the door to see what we are all about, I could keep those people.”

Talking Shop

Third-generation retailer moves Harper’s down the street — and up to the next level.

After 91 years in business, Harper’s owner Brian Cohen closed up shop. Of course, he opened it again just about two blocks away — still on College Avenue, still downtown.

“If you stand here and look at Old Main,” he says, “it’s almost the exact distance as when we were at the other store.” But the space, most recently occupied by both Sercy and Blue I.V., is twice as big and 100 percent new. On Sept. 6, a grand opening party revealed the store’s new look, feel and merchandise.

“We’re back into women’s apparel,” says Cohen, “which we’re really excited about. We hadn’t been in the women’s business for a decade. It makes the store feel more complete.” Harper’s has retained the men’s sportswear, tailored clothing and Penn State apparel in its Varsity Club, and they’ve expanded the shoe selection and custom suiting departments.

Though the store looks like it belongs in a bigger city, Cohen, who grew up in Altoona and moved to State College 32 years ago, is all about downtown.

“I’ve always lived in the borough and in walking distance of the store,” he says. “We’re locals and we did this whole project locally. That’s the way my wife and I think about our community.” Paula Cipar of Morpheus Studio worked with Cohen on the overall design, adding eclectic decorative touches that make the store feel unique to locals and out-of-town visitors alike.

“Our product mix caters to some students, but the majority of our business is local and out-of-town alumni,” Cohen says. “We have customers that graduated a decade ago, even four decades ago, coming back to visit.”

And when they come back, Cohen wouldn’t want to be anywhere but downtown. “Our original store was in downtown Altoona,” he says. “I grew up with five and dimes and local department stores. I remember that vibe, and we have a great vibe here. Some other business owners say locals don’t come downtown, but that’s not really true. You see these new people moving to this town, so we get new locals all the time. These new high rises in town, they’re great for our region. They’re going to draw attention here, and hopefully they’ll draw other investments here. Downtown is one of the best parts of our community.”

Mayor Goreham Looks Back… And Forward

The past eight years serving as mayor of State College have been the most fulfilling of my life. Being mayor has enabled me to participate in the breadth and depth of our residents’ contributions to our community, and the longer I have been in office, the deeper my commitment to State College has become.  

I fell in love with what I now consider to be my hometown 20 years ago when I first ran for Borough Council, four years after marrying professor Jack Matson in Houston, Texas, and moving here. I arrived an ardent environmentalist, deeply impressed by the natural beauty of the area. In fact, my agenda as a new council member was pretty simple: the environment! I was so eager to promote recycling bins along College Avenue that my husband and I purchased the first one and gave it to our Public Works Department.

State College became very receptive to increased environmental action. Within a decade we were buying alternative energy-generated power, reducing our pesticide use on our street trees, and in 2007 State College adopted a declaration of the borough as a Climate Protection Community.

After serving 12 years on Borough Council, I planned to retire with my husband at the end of 2009. In September of that year, however, our dear Mayor Bill Welsh unexpectedly passed away two months before the election, in which he was running unopposed. I was honored when the Borough Democrats selected me to run in his place, and with a phenomenal outpouring of help, I became mayor in January 2010.

Serving on council was invaluable to understanding the mayor’s job and how staff and elected officials work best together. In short, the mayor of State College embodies the hopes, aspirations and concerns of our community.  

My wish for State College during the next decade is to continue fulfilling its potential. Just about everyone in State College has a positive relationship with Penn State, and as this world-class institution becomes a leader in increasingly important research areas and builds significant scientific, social science and artistic partnerships, it is my strong desire for State College to use these opportunities to expand our downtown into one that better reflects and better suits Penn State students and faculty, populations that are increasingly international, urban and sophisticated. The gentrification of State College is barely visible now, but if you look closely, you will see it. Urban professionals and students want to be downtown!

I also hope the borough accelerates its diversity and sustainability efforts. State College has a reputation of leadership in social and environmental issues and is ideally suited to accelerate our commitment to increased diversity and alternative energy — frequently and most effectively in partnership with Penn State and the Sustainability Institute.

Finally, our stable neighborhoods are the heart of the State College community as well as the glue that keeps it functioning well. As our zoning laws are being re-written, our precious livable neighborhoods are due special consideration for the future.

Challenges remain for the next mayor. I certainly will not be retiring from politics and the art of change. You will continue to see me participating in many of the issues I championed as mayor.  
                        ~Mayor Elizabeth Goreham

Looking back on my tenure, I am most pleased with my involvement with:
1. Our “When they go low, we go high” effort when a group of dedicated residents worked hard to articulate what we stand for as part of an “Our Community” initiative, unveiled in July 2012
2. Stopping a high-pressure gas pipeline from coming through neighborhood streets, a real crisis that stressed but did not break our relationship with Penn State
3. Recycling everything, including our organic waste
4. Hosting the first same-sex wedding in Pennsylvania
5. Working on the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza, and the welcoming message that it sends, using photographs of Dr. King’s 1965 visit
6. Reassuring international residents and students of their rights, buttressed by Borough Council’s resolutions and State College Police policy to not ask the immigration status of anyone
7. Facilitating cooperation between Penn State and State College to encourage entrepreneurship
8. Participating in groups to facilitate greater diversity in our community
9. Applauding “Engage Penn State” and participating in Penn State’s ‘All-In’ campaign
10. Fostering increased participation by community members in public meetings and hearing them speak out on the big issues our community, state and country face

new #bites on the block

Frankly Speaking

For more than 20 years, longtime Centre Daily Times and current columnist Russell Frank has been telling residents of State College exactly what he thinks — about them, about the town and even, yes, about Penn State students. This month, a collection of his favorite columns titled Among the Woo People is being released from Penn State University Press. We caught up with the journalism professor to talk about putting the book together and how State College has changed.

What was it like going back through more than 20 years of columns?

It was fun at first to have this sort of trip down memory lane. But it was hard to pick which ones to include. I’ve written about a thousand columns over the years I’ve been here, and we were only going to include originally about 100. So there’s a lot to go through, and I reached a point where I really got sick of my own voice. You start to realize — and I think this is really common for all writers — you fall into patterns of what you are saying, things you repeat. And so in that sense it was sort of useful because I was able to identify actual phrases I use too many times and say, ‘OK, now I have a complete ban and I’m not allowed to ever say that again.’

In the introduction, you write that you found two voices in your columns — the New Yorker and the, well, non-New Yorker.

It goes back to my own personal history. I grew up in New York, but there was a part of me that really wanted to flee that place. I came of age in the 1970s when environmental consciousness was really taking root. The city back then… the air was dirty, the streets were dirty, it was crowded, and I just wanted to get out of there. So part of me is this kind of wisecracking, hardboiled journalist New Yorker guy and part of me is this poetry-loving nature boy, and somehow they are mixed together in this weird way. I think the themes of the columns kind of reflect that.

You have never shied away from writing about tough topics, like the Sandusky scandal and 9/11 — is that an important part of being a columnist for you?

You know, it’s a little tricky because a lot of the tough columns have been criticisms of my employer. Some people said, ‘Aren’t you worried that you’ll get fired?’ But look, if you can’t speak freely here of all places, at a university, then I don’t even want to be here. And in fact I’ve never gotten any blowback from anybody at all — not deans, not administration at Old Main, nothing. Maybe that just means I have no impact and everybody ignores me. [Laughs] But I feel strongly about some of these things and I think there’s a tendency to want to confront these issues and to challenge people’s sacred cows, like football culture and Joe Paterno. You have to be thick-skinned. If you take positions on controversial issues and then you’re dismayed that people write back who strongly disagree, what do you expect?

Living in the Highlands and working on campus with downtown in between, what do you think about the town’s development in the time you’ve been here?

Stand on Fraser where the Target and H&M are, people who have lived here a long time say, ‘Wow, this doesn’t even look like State College anymore. It looks like some city.’ I’ve always complained that there’s not enough here. It’s this little town that needs more things to make it an interesting place, but the things that are coming tend to not be interesting things because they are just chains. Downtown is getting to be boring in the same way that North Atherton Street is boring. It’s not big box stores but it’s just an endless replication of the same retail places that you see everywhere. The other part is the self-fulfilling part… People say, ‘Well, only the students come downtown, so we’re only going to have businesses that cater to students.’ But if you only have places that cater to students, only students are going to come downtown.

You know what’s funny is when you rant people say, ‘So if you don’t like it here why don’t you go someplace else?’ But my contention comes out of a kind of idealism  … it’s like, ‘This could be so great if only….’ And it’s the ‘if only’ that makes you tear your hair and gnash your teeth. Overall I’ve had a very nice life here.

Below Ground Start-Ups

Eclectic Mix of New Ideas Found Beginnings in South Fraser Basement

On the wall of Freeze Thaw Cycles bike shop on South Allen Street, hidden behind hanging bikes and accessories for sale, is a framed patch of 1970s wallpaper. It’s an homage to the store’s basement beginnings at 100 S. Fraser Street.

“It was a great space for us, for us to open a shop and have a downtown spot for cheap,” says Justin Wagner, who signed the original three-year lease for the 550-square-foot space below what is now Dunkin’ Donuts on his 22nd birthday in 2005. “It was a cool spot.”

Downtown State College has plenty of cool basement digs. (Zeno’s Pub, The All-American Rathskeller and Webster’s Bookstore Café come to mind.) But 100 S. Fraser has had the distinction of being the launch pad for several start-ups that have ultimately enriched the community in varied ways. From the substance abuse assistance nonprofit Community Help Centre, to an idea to sell recycled bikes and repair old ones, to a co-working space for entrepreneurs and freelancers, to a day shelter for the area’s homeless, this underground place has brought a lot of life to State College.

“Historically, either through word of mouth or through outreach efforts, it’s been a perfect location for the types of businesses that have gone in,” says Charlene Friedman of the Friedman Real Estate Group, which owns and manages the building. “They’re all a little bit on the edge of some new ideas and out-of-the-box thinking.”

Some say it takes out-of-the-box thinking to see the space for its potential rather than its drawbacks; the difference, for example, between “cramped” and “cozy” is all in the perspective of those using the space. Spud Marshall, one of the co-founders of New Leaf Initiative, says the intimate vibe helped them build a community in the business niche and basement nook they created there.

“It has a real sense of family and belonging, and the space for us embodied that,” Marshall says. “It became this ‘watering hole’ mentality — ‘This is where I go to be known and be comfortable.’ That’s hard to create in big spaces. It was easy for people there to tuck away in corners.”

New Leaf moved in in 2011, a couple years after Freeze Thaw had outgrown it. Both used plenty of paint, elbow grease and creativity to make it their own, the remnants of which are now appreciated by Ginny Poorman and her clients at Hearts for Homeless. The nonprofit pays just $305 per month in rent, an unheard of amount for prime downtown real estate — even if it’s below street level.

“It’s been incredible,” Poorman says. “It gives clients the ability to get to places downtown. It’s also a really good central location for us, for college students to interact with the homeless population here, to come out of the bubble a lot of us live in.”

Poorman says the Friedmans have given her a handful of months in free rent over the four years she’s been there, and that kind of generosity has enabled the nonprofit to purchase a long-term residential facility in Bellefonte.

“Keeping the rent affordable down here allowed us to buy the house,” says Poorman, who recently reopened the downtown day shelter after receiving a Centre Foundation grant for its efforts. “It’s just all around been a good space.”

Pedal Pusher

Todd Miner’s Vamos! Lion Chariots navigate the sites of downtown State College and the Penn State campus.

Some men go for sports cars, low-slung and sexy, eating up the road. Some men go for pickup trucks with big wheels and monster engines with the kind of thunderous roar that rattles windows.

Todd Miner, however, goes for something else entirely.

As owner and operator of Vamos! Lion Chariot, Miner chooses to pedal tourists around town in one of his seven pedicabs, a bicycle-rickshaw hybrid he first saw during a family trip to California.

Miner, a former instructor in Penn State’s Department of Meterology and manager for The New York Times weather page, was ready for a career change. The pedicabs, a blend of battery assist and human power that can be found on campuses and in cities across the country, seemed like a good option.

“Starting and running a new business intrigued me,” he says. “I’d always loved biking, spending time outside and in Happy Valley and meeting new people. It seemed like a good fit.”

He eased into the venture, buying his first vehicle in 2012. He continued working part time at AccuWeather for three more years until he made the leap to pedaling full time. Along the way, he sought as much advice and guidance he could find from area resources, including the Penn State Small Business Development Center. He developed partnerships with Penn State marketing classes and student consulting groups, including one that created a Lion Chariot app.

“Everyone was supportive,” he says. “Friends and family also provided a lot of support and good advice.”

Football season has Miner and drivers going non-stop, and the rest of the year, there’s graduations, homecoming, Arts Fest and alum coming to visit the old haunts, sometimes with grandchildren beginning their college search. Last year, Miner estimates, approximately 2,000 people rode in a Lion Chariot at a rate of, generally, $1 per minute.

The company is getting more and more requests from brides in search of something to make their day extra special. Not only do the chariots make the brides stand out, Miner says, but they’re practical — instead of having to drive to an area, then park and make their way to a site, the chariots can drive directly through campus to any of the landmark spots where the couple may want pictures.

For some of the older alumni who come to town for football weekends, the chariots are both fun and practical. Don Rausch, class of ’58, has never lost his love for his alma mater. “Half my clothes are blue and white,” he says. “Even my car is blue and white.”

But visiting the old haunts has gotten progressively harder over the years, so Rausch and wife, Daryla, hired Miner. “It was wonderful,” Rausch says. “We were able to go all the places we used to go but couldn’t get to. If we wanted to see a building, he would wait out front till we were done.”

It’s all about enhancing the experience,” Miner says. “I like to call it ‘transportainment.’”

Even better, he said, was the fun factor. “Everybody was cheering and we were beeping our little horns,” he said. “We felt like a queen and king. It gives you a wonderful you’re at the front of the parade.”

In the fall, you’ll find spooky Halloween-themed chariots roaming the streets, complete with skulls and spider webs, ghostly lighting, ghoulish soundtracks and, Miner’s favorite, a giant black spider that springs out and over the top of the ride. And forget about Christmas, when riders fight for space with red and green garlands, stockings, giant gingerbread men, presents, snowmen and, of course, Santa.
“It’s all about enhancing the experience,” Miner says. “I like to call it ‘transportainment.’”

During peak times, he draws on a reliable crew of students, middle-aged professionals, cyclists and even a retired PSU professor. He’s never needed to advertise positions because generally, he said, they reach out to him. “They’re people who like the idea and making a few bucks as well,” he says.

“Our drivers do our best to be good ambassadors for the university and town, whether it’s providing an information tour of campus or being part of local events like Downtown’s First Friday,” Miner says.

Dick Geisinger, who recently brought his grandchildren out to tour the campus with Miner, has been using the chariot service since a hip operation impeded his mobility. Geisinger, who is 78 and a season ticket holder since the early ’70s, said Miner goes above and beyond in his dedication to his customers.

“It’s a great experience,” he says. “He picks me up at the Eisenhower Deck and drops me off at the Snyder French fry stand.”

One thing customers agree on is Miner’s winning personality. “As we were riding everybody’s reaching out and slapping his hands saying, ‘Hi Todd, how’re you doing?’” Geisinger says. “It’s amazing how many people he knows.”

“He’s got a heck of a personality,” says Rausch. “It seems like he knows the whole town and they know him.”

Miner is just pleased the riders seem to be enjoying the service he envisioned. “Some people ask if it’s about the destination or is it about the ride,” he says. “We’re all about the ride.” •SCM

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