2018-01-02 / Features

What's the Big Idea?


With a changing skyline, an economy that increasingly attracts entrepreneurs, a university focused on innovation, and an upswell in the arts scene, State College is a town in flux. And all of this energy has us feeling hopeful about the future as much as responsible for it.
To that end, we think now is the time to dream big, to move beyond what we see today and begin to talk about our varied — and collective — visions for what kind of potential our community could reach tomorrow.
It starts with all of us. So we asked several changemakers, area leaders and entrepreneurs to share their visions for State College. We asked them to think outside the box, to give us both their simple ideas and complex dreams for the region we all love.
Their overwhelming enthusiasm for this project — and the dreams they shared — inspired us. We hope they’ll inspire you, too.

Janet Santostefano,
President and Publisher of Centre Daily Times:

I like to think that change creates opportunity. The changes we are currently seeing in State College give us all the opportunity to think about a reinvented vision of the community we know and love. I, and I know many others, envision a welcoming community, ripe with culture, history and charm that is supported by a thriving economy and entrepreneurial ecosystem. We are already taking steps toward this but a big idea or project everyone can rally around would help jumpstart progress. I think public art could be a vehicle for that need, and downtown State College is a great place to pilot the idea.

As buildings downtown get bigger, the new views of town provided by the upper floors of buildings like Fraser Centre don’t represent the warmth and vibrancy of our community. I vividly remember the first time this was pointed out to me. Standing in the Federal Taphouse and looking out over town, it was shocking to see a view that felt so foreign to the town I know; I can only imagine what visitors think. Art could change that negative into a strong positive and source of community pride.  

While this isn’t a new idea, I think the current development downtown presents an opportunity to make it happen. In 2018, I’d love to see us all champion a community project where local artisans and innovators are highlighted with rooftop art installations or green spaces and gardens throughout downtown. As a first and very visible step in transforming the future of State College, art could be used to fuel increased tourism and local foot traffic. Both would be a win for local artisans, restaurants and businesses, and could foster further economic growth downtown. If successful, public art installations could be spread to towns throughout the county, creating a unifying thread and adding to the features we already cherish.

Molly Kunkel,
Executive Director, Centre Foundation:

I dream of State College being a place where all people are able to live out their dreams — a place where everyone is welcome, supported and encouraged to be active and involved in the community.

I dream of State College becoming a community that:

  • Actively reaches out to recent PSU graduates, young professionals, young families and recent retirees, and invites them in
  • Is known for celebrating diversity and welcomes people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and sexual orientations
  • Looks for new ways to become a more exciting place to live, work and play by embracing new opportunities
  • Has many stores that feature local products and crafts, and many restaurants and food trucks that focus on local food
  • Is famous for its wealth of public art and music, family-friendly community parks and a great variety of local outdoor recreation

My dream is a community that is as well known for its great food, art, outdoor adventure and family fun as it is for its great football. I love the State College community and the people who call it home, and I believe that it can be even better if we work together to make these dreams come true!

Christian Baum,
Local Entrepreneur, Co-founder of New Leaf Initiative and the

Would you go on a road trip with a bunch of strangers, with no destination or timeline in mind? Probably not. What may initially be exhilarating would likely turn into frustration as you try to work together for food, entertainment, decision-making and, above all, a destination.

Now, imagine State College as your road-tripping party. We’re all in the car, moving forward — fast! Do we know where we’re headed, what we’re capable of, and what we can achieve along the way?

Without a clear destination, it’s becoming increasingly challenging for State College to navigate our changing economy, bureaucracy, diversity, culture, infrastructure, arts scene and sense of community. So how do we put forth a clear and collective destination that aligns these ever-changing facets and opportunities of our community? By establishing a local and regional brand.

The “brand” of a place is far more than a logo and slogan. The brand is the average of common perceptions and associations people have with that place. By establishing clarity about this identity of place and what it wants to achieve, we can begin to hold ourselves accountable for where we’re going and how we’ll get there.

In order to establish a successful and sustainable brand, an honest and realistic evaluation of State College needs to occur. First, by focusing on what we identify as core values of our region, (e.g. family, education, nature, etc.) as well as identifying the distinctiveness of what makes State College special. This could be identifying something low-key, or as simple as having the confidence to say no to poor development proposals.

I believe State College has an unparalleled amount of untapped potential, and a rare opportunity to position and brand itself to further the well-being of both our local and global communities.
We’re all on this wild road trip together. Let’s set forth a brand and destination!

Charles Dumas,
PSU Professor Emeritus, Artistic Director of LAF Theatre Group and member of State College Planning Commission and Community & Campus in Unity:

The State College community is a wonderful place to live, raise a family and construct the framework for your life’s ambition. It is a relatively small community but because of the university it embraces cultures from around the world. My hope is that we become simultaneously more diverse and more interactive. The Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza is a good beginning. It creates the presence of a noted African-American who visited our community. The Community & Campus in Unity (CCU) takes another step by providing a forum for people in the community to interact with police, members of the faith community and college officials. PSU’s efforts to expand its recruiting to include world communities is a major component. The first annual Central PA Theatre and Dance Fest slated for June 22-24 will bring together artists and performers of the region.

What else can we do? We should reconsider expanding the political realm of our community. This region, with State College at its center, is growing into a small city. We should recognize that reality by politically consolidating our small communities. It is not only a cost-saving measure but would provide a more efficient management of service delivery. We should find ways of growing without destroying the individual character of some of our unique neighborhoods. We must find ways to encourage our young professionals, most of whom trained in our community, to remain here and share their creative contributions. Our community is a particularly attractive destination for seniors. We must find ways to tap into the skills and experiences of our elder citizens.

Finally, in these complex and difficult times, we must find ways to talk to each other, care for each other, and love each other. The great contribution that our country has made to the world is not democracy or capitalism. It is the ability to construct political and social frameworks whereby diverse people can live and work together with discourse and in peace.

Lee Erikson,
Director of Happy Valley Launchbox:

Spud Marshall,
Entrepreneur, Co-founder of New Leaf Initiative
and the

We are nearing our five-year anniversary of opening the, a 20-person co-living home downtown for young changemakers, and in that time we have seen 100+ young people call the space home — from undergrads to self-directed learners to young professionals. And in those few years, countless alumni have chosen to stay in State College upon graduation.

As we began asking them “Why State College?” they responded with quite similar responses: “This is where I’ve felt the strongest sense of community.”

Community: Something so simple has a profound impact on everything from economic development to young professional retention. To achieve this, I envision a region that supports thriving spaces for themed and intentional communities to flourish. I envision dozens of co-living spaces repurposing large properties in town.

The is playing a part in retaining creative young professionals — but we need equally creative housing for these individuals as they step into their mid-20s. Having just turned 30, I joke that I’m one of the few who have lived in State College for their entire 20s. In 5-10 years, I hope that’s no longer something we joke about.

In 2018, I plan to start scouting properties once more. This time, we plan to launch a second co-living home catered solely to young professionals who want to lead positive radical change in the Centre Region. Imagine these residents were all members of Leadership Centre County. Imagine we subsidized rent so we could recruit unique talent to our area. Imagine each resident was matched with an elder in our community to guide them on their changemaking work.

Young professionals so desperately want to see the impact of their efforts. Something as simple as offering to pay their rent is the hook that can transform our young professional demographic, which we all know is sorely lacking in State College. As a town, I hope we can creatively leverage our plethora of large homes to spark a co-living revolution for our region!

Don Hahn,
Mayor of State College:

Now may be the time to dream big. However, such dreams also need to be grounded in reality. Our hopefulness about the future is a direct result of wise decisions of the past. Visions of what kind of potential our community could reach tomorrow must be based upon what our community has achieved already.

Penn State’s reputation as an academic institution has grown steadily since the time I graduated. My dream is that Penn State emerges as an important global education destination where the brightest minds from around the world seek to learn and to teach, and are welcome.

Harold Altman has done a wonderful job depicting the many charms of Centre County. My dream is that other local artists are similarly inspired and find national success in portraying what they love about Centre County in art, music, books, theater, film and television.

State College has been a model of progressive good government statewide. My dream is that our local leaders attain statewide recognition and office and, relying upon the great minds here at Penn State, bring an innovative and sensible approach to government in Harrisburg.  

Penn State Law has been a great addition to the community. My dream is that the State College area also hosts a medical school, a federal court building, the main studio of a major network affiliate, and an expanded airport that will serve as a welcoming and memorable gateway for our community to international visitors and potential investors and employers.

Michael Pilato’s mural “Inspiration” does honor to our community heroes, in addition to being an adored work of art in its own right. My dream is that statues of Martin Luther King Jr., Sidney Friedman and Bill Welch adorn the borough plazas and parklet that bear their names.

Rick Bryant,
Executive Director of Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts:

Downtown State College should be more than a place where undergrads live within stumbling distance of the bars, where alums come for a trip down memory lane, and where mainline Protestants go to church on Sundays. It needs a vibrant commercial, office and residential core.

Downtown should have stores where people can buy housewares and hardware, and clothing that’s not blue or white. Downtown also needs professional offices, for not only do they pull clients downtown, but people who work in offices walk down the block to get a haircut, buy a birthday card, or return a book to the library. Thousands of small, seemingly insignificant activities help to create a vibrant city.

State College needs adults who choose the local brand of urban living too, and it needs housing to accommodate them. Families have re-inhabited lots of urban downtowns and near downtowns across the country; there’s no reason it can’t happen in State College.  

The longest journey — even the longest journey to a more vibrant downtown — starts with one step. What I’m suggesting isn’t as revolutionary as the discovery of penicillin or as far-fetched as flying cars, but it’s a step nevertheless.

We should encourage the Megabus to move its stop to downtown State College. Right now, the Megabus stops in the outer reaches of the Walmart parking on North Atherton Street many times a day to drop off and pick up travelers on their way to and from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City.

Not only is the Walmart parking lot a terrible introduction to State College, but if the bus stopped downtown, passengers could spend money downtown before and after bus trips. In addition, passengers would be closer to CATA, the Penn State campus, restaurants and hotels.

I’m not necessarily proposing that we build a new bus terminal (though I’m open to the idea). I’ve heard that operators like Megabus skip bus stations because they’re costly to maintain and have bad reputations. Instead, I’m suggesting we dedicate some parking spots for the bus, just as they do in Manhattan.

Moving the Megabus stop won’t cure all of State College’s ills, but it would be a start.

Jeff Brown,
General Manager of Comradio at Penn State and radio personality, 93.7 The Bus:

My desire for State College and the surrounding area isn’t a pipe dream; it will be a reality sometime in 2018. It will just need some help to get it up and running.

A few years ago, after everything that happened in Ferguson, Missouri, I asked a few diverse friends of mine (Curt Marshall, Mia Kim and Ron Banerjee) to get together for lunch so that we could discuss our various backgrounds. The theory was that if we could learn more about each other, and our life experiences, we could better understand the actions of others who were “different” from us.

The idea came from a discussion I had with a State College police officer after I had a run-in with two Asian women who had walked out in front of my car and I had almost hit them. The officer asked me to imagine my own daughters leaving State College to live in a land where they didn’t understand the language or the customs, and how difficult it would be to suddenly find themselves in a society that they could not communicate in or understand. Once we know “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey would say, we might see a situation that frustrated us in a different light.

That day, my friends and I were able to get a lot of individual issues and questions out in the open, and we have continued those discussions periodically ever since.

My goal for 2018 is to create a monthly open forum where people from all walks of life can come together and share experiences, concerns, questions and complaints and hopefully find some answers by better understanding the lifestyles and backgrounds of all those who make up this wonderful community. I really feel the need to make this happen, so any help or ideas are welcome!

Will Snyder,
Manager of Art Alliance Gallery Downtown:

My dream for State College is that I could have a solid creative career here and make some marks. When each member of the community can be fully themselves, we will be defined not by a prescribed set of ordinances, policies and regulations, but by the culmination and collaboration of the diverse flavors we each bring.

For me, that means having a design and art studio and creative house downtown, which is open and inspiring to our community. I see the town as my canvas: buildings for artworks, and quaint corners and nooks for installations. Creativity abounding.

Could be messy; artworks aren’t always planned but are a fluid response, with new marks adding to the old. When we’re too scared to make a mark on a white canvas, no art is produced. The first marks can be challenging, scary and not very good. But those marks need to be made.

Deb Nardone,
Executive Director of Clearwater Conservancy:

I love this beautiful place we call home, don’t you? I love that I can be on a world-renowned trout stream in 5 minutes flat. I love the ease of taking my son for a quick hike in the woods after school. I love the breathtaking views of farm and town with the backdrop of our forested ridges.   

Looking toward our future, I envision a community proactively engaged and highly focused on the keystone to our thriving community: a healthy watershed. As we continue to grow from town to city — understanding the value of open space, ensuring access to the outdoors for everyone and a protecting our water supply is key to sustaining our local economy. We must nurture a healthy environment to have a thriving community.

I envision a city center surrounded with productive farmlands with the backdrop of forested ridges and trout-filled streams. Our diverse neighborhoods are connected through trails to hike and bike, with easy access to our outdoor treasures like Millbrook Marsh, Mount Nittany, Scotia Barrens, Spring Creek Canyon and Rothrock State Forest. Our leaders understand the value of open space and the vital role it plays in protecting our drinking water. Our municipalities invest in open space as they would other infrastructure or community revitalization projects.

Our backyard treasures and open spaces grow, ensuring that for every acre developed, an acre is conserved. These treasures play an important role in protecting our water quality, providing clean air and mitigating the impacts from climate change, all while serving as a place for healthy exploration and exercise. These natural places give our community resiliency — and are important treasures to know, explore, love and protect.  

I feel hopeful for our future — and the ability of all of us to work together, proactively conserving our ample beauty and bounty, now and for all generations to come.

Mark Higgins,
Centre County Commissioner

My dream for the future, as seen from 2028: Many years of hard work began to pay off in 2016 and 2017, when Penn State opened the LaunchBox, Centre County government opened three business incubators and local entrepreneurs had opened two more. The influx of startups — from 150 in 2016 to 300 by 2028 — transformed Centre County, resulting in the retention of thousands of young professionals who were eager to make the county their home. To accommodate the increased demand for housing, State College developed a skyline of buildings, all a dozen stories tall.

As State College began to develop growing pains, young professionals ran for local, county and statewide offices under the slogan “Keep the Valley Happy.” After winning with overwhelming margins, the new officials created a regional partnership to help build thousands of dwellings in State College, Bellefonte and Philipsburg, while redeveloping historic structures and retaining popular neighborhoods and attractions.

State College is now known as the most entrepreneurial small city in the United States and Penn State students no longer look forward to leaving Happy Valley after graduation. They start new businesses in one of the many local business incubators or compete for desirable new jobs created by a rapidly growing local business sector. State College and Bellefonte have numerous entertainment and dining venues enjoyed by all ages, including the Nittany Mall, repurposed as an entertainment and experience venue called The Happy Space. The Discovery Space children’s science museum, a young adult-oriented flea market and entertainment venue, and the Centre Region Active Adult Center now occupy space where anchor stores used to be.

The arts, local education options and groups dedicated to quality of life have multiplied due to increased funding and a surge in social entrepreneurship. This is what Happy Valley looks like in 2028 — a thriving community that truly fits its moniker.

Michael Black,
Downtown Business Owner and Board Member of Leadership Centre County:

The tremendous strain of growth is the No. 1 pressure facing State College. So what does my vision of State College look like?

Our future State College starts with strong visionary leadership, collaborative governing and mass community engagement. This means less rhetoric and more action, less status quo and more innovation, less of the same voices and more new voices. It exemplifies more people at the table actively engaged.

Our future State College must have a firm identity that is a reflection of the community at large and that stems from thoughtful assessment. An identity that clearly articulates who we are, what we value and what we aim to achieve. Our potential is limitless. An agreed-upon identity is our own constitution, of sorts, that we can hold ourselves accountable to.

Our future State College reflects a rich diversity that can be seen throughout neighborhoods, schools, businesses and leadership. Our future population is not limited to one definition but will flourish with people of all ages and with a wide range of ethnic, political, age, orientation, religion and life statuses.

Our future State College incentivizes forward thinking and leading efforts. This includes innovative building design, multi-use outdoor venues, pedestrian malls, sustainable energy practices, widely utilized public transportation, cycling and walking trails. Our downtown is a daily destination for art, culture, food and music. A deep dive into what makes a community a “smart town” is a perfect reference point.

Our future State College is a business hub for innovation, technology and service. We attract and facilitate a culture that doesn’t settle but asks difficult questions, explores opportunities with hope and finds amazing solutions. In doing so, we own a paradigm shift from an existing model, where students typically come here, earn an undergraduate degree and leave, to a model where young people earn a degree and remain to work in an existing industry, initiate a new startup, or work remotely, making State College home.

Our future State College is nimble, vibrant and a premier location to live, work, learn and play.

This preliminary concept of a view of a multi-purpose room and planetarium represents a multi-phased approach that will take several steps to develop. Rendering by Ayers Saint Gross.This preliminary concept of a view of a multi-purpose room and planetarium represents a multi-phased approach that will take several steps to develop. Rendering by Ayers Saint Gross.
Eric Barron,
President of Penn State:

At Penn State, I envision an entirely new kind of place of knowledge and inquiry — one that is at the intersection of art and science, and one that draws on Penn State’s collections of artwork and artifacts. I hope that Penn State can build a Cultural District located adjacent to The Arboretum at Penn State. I imagine bringing together Penn State’s full breadth of art and science in galleries, modern educational spaces, a Conservatory and Planetarium.

The centerpiece will be an interdisciplinary gallery for rotating exhibits focused on the artistic and scientific disciplines represented at Penn State. New galleries would provide much-needed space to display our distinguished collections in American art, and it would allow us to display the artifacts that are currently dispersed in more than 20 different museums across campus. It would be a place of art, science and discovery. It would be a resource for K-12 school-age children, college students and visitors of all ages. It would make State College an arts and sciences destination.

Located at the edge of campus with the mountains as a backdrop, it’s one of the most beautiful areas on our campus. The Arboretum already draws more than 150,000 visitors each year, and we can enhance the experience through added exhibits and activities. In addition, it would help expand the economic and intellectual potential of this region.

This is an ambitious vision, and one that could benefit our region in profound ways for generations. It’s dreaming big, and it will take partners who share our sense of opportunity and promise. But Penn Staters are always ready to take on new challenges, and I believe that the time has come to bring a true Cultural District to our community.

Ben Wideman,
Campus Pastor and leader of 3rd Way Collective:

My vision for the future of State College is twofold. The first part has to do with creating imaginative ways for people to belong; the second is lifting up our creative efforts already underway.

We all crave a sense of communal belonging. I imagine physical spaces for people to connect across our town’s diversity. It would be incredible to have a centrally located community connecting point that offered an international food court that also highlighted our local food movement; provided spaces to enter conversations or interactive programs; offered creative transportation help with things like a bicycle co-op, electric car charge stations or public transportation vouchers; housed information on how to connect with social, religious, economic and cultural resources in our community; and empowered people to move out and create more spaces on their own. Perhaps it could even provide rooftop space for a community garden, or indoor space for the winter farmers market.

We must continue to highlight the quirky and wonderful aspects of State College, emphasizing what makes us unique. We can do this by lifting up our little-known entities that are already working at this “belonging” effort across campus and community. Organizations like Abba Java Coffee House, Community Diversity Group, Centre LGBTQA Support Network, Centre County Affordable Housing Coalition, Centre County Women’s Resource Center, Community & Campus in Unity and many others are already doing this work. We also must lift up creative entrepreneurs and businesses like New Leaf Initiative, The Make Space, Happy Valley LaunchBox, The Makery, Discovery Space, Ten Thousand Villages of Central PA, Friends & Farmer’s Cooperative and many others who are trying to imagine a State College that is known for more than its bars and coffee shops. Perhaps we can shift away from a mentality that strives to keep State College the way it’s been, to a creative sense that we can make State College into something more. I’m excited to see what the future will hold for our town! •SCM

Return to top