2018-02-01 / Features

Ready, Set, Bellefonte!

With a flurry of activity downtown, an influx of young professionals and outdoor recreation projects in the works, is Bellefonte about to boom?
Maggie Anderson | Photos by

Ten years ago, a group of artists took over a dilapidated building. They renovated the place, started putting on exhibits, and slowly brought people to the once-abandoned street. Fast-forward to today, and the area is bustling, with six businesses opening in the past six months and young professionals moving in.

It’s a familiar story of the gentrification of a city neighborhood, but this isn’t New York or Chicago. This is Bellefonte, and it is booming.

When Patricia House started the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County in 2008, the Linn House was in disrepair and Bellefonte “was a lonely town,” she says. “The town had gone into a huge slump, but it still had a couple of key components that give it the potential of being a great destination: the water and the Victorian buildings. The history and geography play a big role, but there was nothing else.”

When Mark Dello Stritto and his wife, Jodie, moved here from Pittsburgh around the same time, they were attracted to Bellefonte for those reasons.

“Everybody is all about the Victorian architecture, and that’s a huge part of it,” says Dello Stritto, president and creative director of Loaded Creative as well as the owner of “But there’s also this sort of cool urban vibe to it. Bellefonte reminded me of places from back home, like our Mount Washington neighborhood, even though at the time there wasn’t a whole bunch of stuff going on.”

Now, when Dello Stritto walks from his office on High Street to pick up his daughter at St. John’s Catholic School, people driving past roll down their windows to say hello.

“What’s happened over the past few years is just the influx of coolness,” he says, ticking off examples like Big Spring Spirits, Wine and Cafe on the Park, Talleyrand Tavern, The Governor’s Pub and Helen Foxx and Co. “All of a sudden there’s stuff happening and that’s what’s getting people jazzed, to actually see things going on in town.”

“All of a sudden there’s stuff happening and that’s what’s getting people jazzed, to actually see things going on in town.”  —Mark Dello Stritto

Mark Dello Stritto. Photo by Matt Fern.Mark Dello Stritto. Photo by Matt Fern.

Melissa Hombosky is particularly jazzed. She and her husband, Troy Weston, moved to Bellefonte in 2002 after they graduated from college.

“I always say that we just forgot to move,” she says. “Our intention was not to stay here. We wanted to move to a bigger metro area and just kind of forgot.”

They started a website design company, 3twenty9, that they still run out of their Bellefonte house. Hombosky remembers struggling to get friends in State College to come to their house for a party, even though it’s only 12 miles away. Hombosky has long been a champion of Bellefonte, and that led her to run for borough council, which has opened up a whole new understanding of the town for her.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s happening and what has brought us to this point,” she says.

“Certainly number one is how fast State College is changing. It’s more and more expensive to live there. Businesses can’t afford to be there. Since I’ve been on council for the past two years, we have had a really high occupancy rate in our storefronts in downtown Bellefonte. Number two, there’s always been grad students here but now young professionals want to buy houses here. You get half the house for twice as much money in State College. And number three is you have businesses that are willing to take a chance and open up here, businesses that are not just the same old but new and different ones.”

Shops like Dam Donuts and Bone Bar & Boutique have quickly become part of the fabric of High Street, fitting in easily beside longtime coffee shop Cool Beans, multiple antiques shops and, of course, Italian restaurants, of which there is an inexplicable density in Bellefonte. And coming soon, what every historic downtown needs: an old-fashioned candy store.

Chuck Kormanski, who worked for nearly 28 years as assistant manager at Mattress World, plans to open Pappy Chuck’s Candy Store this spring. He’s deciding between two locations, weighing foot traffic and parking proximity for each. Both are in downtown Bellefonte.

“What is great about Bellefonte is that there is a strong group of entrepreneurs who are interested in not only making sure that their business is doing well, but that everybody is doing well,” he says.

“There’s a realization that strength in numbers is what’s going to be important.”

Those numbers have a strong force behind them in Belle Key, a nonprofit that operates Bellefonte’s Main Street program, similar to State College’s Downtown Improvement District.

“We have a lot of new, young, enthusiastic shop owners, which I think has helped create a more positive vibe downtown.”   —Mayor Tom Wilson

Bellefonte Mayor Tom Wilson. Photo by Matt Fern.Bellefonte Mayor Tom Wilson. Photo by Matt Fern.

In 2014, the Borough of Bellefonte was designated as a Keystone Community by the Department of Community and Economic Development through the State of Pennsylvania. It means that Bellefonte gets access to training — and, importantly, a higher funding priority — for projects that aim to revitalize its downtown district.    

“We’re trying to work with the business owners to bring them all together so that we can join forces to really make downtown a place where people want to be,” says Shannon Wright, Keystone Community Coordinator.

In December, Bellefonte held its inaugural town-wide First Sunday event. “It’s an extension of the Bellefonte Art Museum,” says Wright. “For almost seven years they’ve had 200-300 people in that museum every first Sunday of the month, but then people leave the museum and the stores aren’t open.

They just go home. We’re trying to capitalize on what they already have.”

Though the first Sunday in January was bitterly cold, people still came out to enjoy downtown Bellefonte. A social media campaign focusing on the recently opened State Burger Co. got the word out.

“People say things like, ‘Bellefonte would be better if...’” says Dello Stritto. “But if you actually do something like sit on boards or a committee and make the town what you want the town to be, you get that snowball effect. So now the people benefiting are like, ‘Oh, I want to do something.’ And it builds.”

Bellefonte Mayor Tom Wilson, a lifelong resident of the town, has seen that effect, too. “One of the things that has entered into this resurgence of downtown is the business owners who are older, who have always done it this way, we’re starting to see less of that,” he says. “We have a lot of new, young, enthusiastic shop owners, which I think has helped create a more positive vibe downtown.”

It’s that vibe that attracted Erin Carey, who opened her floral shop on High Street last year. “I moved here in May but I had already signed on to take the space because I was so worried that somebody else would take it,” she says. “A lot of other business owners have reached out to be welcoming or to buy a flower arrangement. People have been really supportive.”

Her corner shop is right down the street from other Bellefonte businesses but also looks out onto Talleyrand Park, a sparkling green gem at the center of the community.

“One of the assets that Bellefonte has that most small towns would find difficult to create is Talleyrand Park,” says Kormanski of the 3.5-acre open space that includes a gazebo, walking paths, playground and a winding section of Spring Creek. “It’s used every day. My grandchildren and I go there on a Sunday afternoon on occasion, and that park is packed.”

It’s that kind of resource, the abundant natural variety, that Mayor Wilson would like to see Bellefonte build on.

“The outdoor recreation industry at the national level is an $887 billion industry in the United States, and it creates 7.6 million jobs,” he says. “In Pennsylvania alone, outdoor recreation generates $29 billion in annual spending.” That includes boating, biking, climbing, skiing and hiking, and it’s about bringing people who do those activities to places like Bellefonte.

“When cyclists go on vacation, they spend the second most of any type of active sport vacationer,” says Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins. Golfers spend the most but typically stay at resorts, where their spending is concentrated. “Cyclists are going to stay at a B&B, they’re going to go to State Burger Co. or The Blonde Bistro for lunch, they’re going to go to a brewpub for dinner.”

To that end, Bellefonte’s mayor and the county’s commissioner are excited about the completion of a project many years in the making.

“The idea is to join the bicycle trails from the State College Borough to Milesburg,” says Wilson.

“With the opening of Spring Creek Canyon, it created a preferable route — you’re following the stream the whole way up, through Fisherman’s Paradise, through the canyon, to Rock Road and beyond.”

The Bellefonte to Milesburg Greenway Trail isn’t set in stone — residents can attend a meeting on Feb. 22 from 5-7 p.m. at the Bellefonte Borough Municipal Buildings to hear more about the project and offer input.

“The trail will go right along the stream, probably from the Gamble Mill to the municipal park in Milesburg,” says Higgins. “And that will allow the rest of the trail, all the way up to Wellsboro, to become much more possible.”

“A lot of other business owners have reached out to be welcoming. People have been really supportive.”   —Erin Carey

Erin Carey. Photo by Matt Fern.Erin Carey. Photo by Matt Fern.

And though Bellefonte has a lot going for it, challenges lie ahead as well. The historic buildings that are such a boon can be prohibitively expensive to maintain and update. The town’s growth is slow enough that no one is concerned about people being pushed out due to rapidly rising housing prices, but, as Wilson points out, there’s not actually much room in which to grow.

“We have the Armory property, and we’re trying to get that sold and get that on the tax rolls,” he says.

“And same with the waterfront property. Services keep going up, but we can’t grow. It’s not like we can annex Benner Township.”

Real estate agent Melissa Corman Sieg agrees. “If we could find some investors to develop the waterfront area [adjacent to Talleyrand Park], I think that would really go a long way toward the continued resurgence,” she says. Sieg has seen evidence of change in the housing market: “It’s not necessarily that the housing prices have gone up, but I’m seeing the market stay busy. Typically in the Bellefonte market as far as residential real estate, once you hit September/October and through the winter, nothing moves. But this year, it’s been busy.”

And Higgins thinks it will only get busier. “Bellefonte gets a little overshadowed, of course, by State College,” he says. “But the population of Greater Bellefonte at this point is 31,300. So if the zip code 16823 plus Milesburg was its own standalone town, it would be the fifth or sixth largest town in west central Pennsylvania.”

Higgins says since the 1940s the population of Centre County has been growing by 1,500 residents a year “like clockwork.” The U.S. Census estimates that by 2020, the Greater Bellefonte area population will be approaching 35,000.

“Bellefonte was the most important town in west central Pennsylvania from about 1850 to 1910,” says Higgins. “During that time frame literally almost every other governor of Pennsylvania came from Bellefonte. Not just somewhere in Centre County — Bellefonte. So Bellefonte was hugely important, but then the Great Depression hit and things changed and the gravity moved toward State College. Now I think the gravity is starting to move back a little bit to the north toward Bellefonte.”

A lot of people are primed to help Bellefonte reclaim its place in the spotlight, including House, who wants to keep art at the heart of the community.

“It’s about collaboration and collective,” she says. “You have to collaborate with people and bring them to an area of proximity and you start building energy about that area. But getting people involved is what really makes this work. You have to have an experience, so you remember to go back. You have to create a memory.” •SCM

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