Mar 11, 2015 08:52AM
● By Erica Shames
Lewisburg is designated a River Town.
In 1999, when Linda Sterling conducted the research for a Main Street Grant that led to the development of the Lewisburg Downtown Partnership, she found a 1974 comprehensive plan in which the Borough of Lewisburg identified the downtown as an “asset that must be protected.”
That’s where the story of Lewisburg’s evolution begins.
“People weren’t thinking about keeping a core community intact in 1974,” Sterling noted. “But Lewisburg really values its community, downtown, heritage and architecture—and they work to keep it.”
Define and attack
Sterling, the former Mifflinburg main street manager and president of the PA Downtown Center, was a stay-at-home mom when she received the phone call from former Lewisburg Borough Councilwoman Yvonne Morgan that got the ball rolling.
“‘There’s 13 vacancies downtown,’ Linda recalls Yvonne saying. ‘We need to come up with a plan to revitalize downtown Lewisburg. Will you meet with us?’”
Sterling was hired as a consultant to guide a task force comprised of businesspeople, Lewisburg Borough Council members and Bucknell University personnel through community meetings to first define the issues and then implement strategies to attack them.
“Number one on the list was a lack of collaboration between Bucknell and downtown,” said Sterling. “Second on the list was the vacancies; and third was the need to develop a town-wide marketing plan to position Lewisburg as a destination.”
to the Lewisburg Downtown Partnership’s last capital campaign, in 2013, in
which these statistics were touted: LewisburgPa.com generates 12,000 unique
visits a month and serves as the cornerstone for the LDP’s marketing efforts; the
LDP’s Facebook page has 7000 followers and 200 people follow it on Twitter; a robust email marketing campaign is in place;
since 2004, the downtown has boasted a zero percent vacancy rate; and last
year’s holiday shopping season—dubbed since ___ as Miracle on Market Street for
the business-helping-business philosophy borrowed from the movie Miracle on 34th
Street— was heralded by the business community as “the best yet.”
The process unfurls
Clearly, Lewisburg is a vibrant place, but how did it happen? The impact of Bucknell’s investment in the downtown cannot be ignored. In late 2007, Bucknell proposed a project called the Lewisburg Core Community Initiative that included a total investment of $26 million in downtown, with about $12.5 million from the state; about $5.6 million from Bucknell; and the remainder from federal grants. An estimated 130 full- and part-time jobs would be relocated downtown.
“In 2007, talks began in earnest at the LDP board table about boosting the economy,” shares Dennis Swank, associate vice president for finance at Bucknell and a member of the LDP Board. “Then-president Brian Mitchell and vice president for community relations Charlie Pollock, president of the LDP Board at the time, both understood the role a vibrant downtown plays in promoting and supporting the university.”
In 2010, Barnes & Noble at Bucknell University opened, bringing an anchor to the downtown for the first time since the 1980s when Brozman’s Department Store and JJ Newbury moored Lewisburg on opposite ends of the 700 block. The bookstore draws 350 people a day downtown.
Bucknell purchased The Campus Theatre, which had struggled to make ends meet for years, and embarked on a total restoration. It reopened in August 2011. A not-for-profit continues to own and operate the theatre business and has worked to bring changes to the amount and breadth of programming that helped double theatre attendance in less than a year.
In March 2012, the university completed its restoration of the DeWitt Building, a three-story downtown structure that retains retail on the first floor, and brought a business incubator to the second floor and the Small Business Development Center to the third floor. The university opened a satellite gallery to its Samek Art Museum in one of the retail spaces.
Bucknell purchased a building on the outskirts of Lewisburg and traded it with the Federal Government for the downtown Federal Building. The university restored the 1930s property to pristine condition, and moved 60 full-time employees to the previously vacant second and third floors.
“Bucknell made a pledge to the borough and county that any Bucknell business venture not directly involved in education would pay taxes, even though the university is tax-exempt,” shared Swank. “The bookstore project alone is expected to generate more than $70,000 each year in county and local taxes.”
What’s on the horizon?
As a result of a recent strategic planning session, the LDP started a business expansion committee to work closely with Bucknell’s Small Business Development Center. The goal is to identify opportunities for economic development, particularly to boost and support entrepreunurism and harness the power of Kimber, the high speed Internet pipeline that runs through the state.
Sterling’s reputation as a successful downtown organizer has spread. She was invited to join the board of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce, whose recently drafted new strategic plan emphasizes the importance of strengthening area downtowns.
“Linda Sterling is one of the true gems of the Susquehanna Valley,” explained GSVCC president and CEO Robert Garrett. “Her tireless efforts on behalf of ‘Main Street’ have been recognized statewide and nationally.”
The GSVCC’s efforts have already begun. Along with the leaders of Sunbury Revitalization, Inc., the chamber recently embarked on a strategic visioning process for the greater Sunbury area. With its standing committee, Downtown Affiliates—made up of the Main Street and Elm Street managers of Bloomsburg, Danville, Lewisburg, Mifflinburg, Milton and Selinsgrove—the GSVCC drafted a strategic plan for all Greater Susquehanna Valley downtowns.
“Our historic and emerging downtowns in the valley serve as the anchors for our diverse retail sector and growing service industries,” underscored Garrett. “Main Street is the economic generator of the 21st Century. Thank-you for recognizing the importance of downtowns. We view Susquehanna Life magazine as a fantastic partner in helping us realize our mission of ‘advancing the prosperity of commerce, culture and citizens in the Greater Susquehanna Valley,’” lauded Garrett. “
To the river
Part of Lewisburg’s identity stems from its riverside location. So, perhaps the last piece of the puzzle is for Lewisburg to capitalize on its recent designation, by the Susquehanna Greenways River Towns Project, as a River Town.
Working to capitalize on this potential is the Lewisburg Neighborhoods Corporation’s River Team, headed up by Samantha Pearson. The LDP is one of several partners on the team.
“The LNC is following up on the priorities that emerged from a public meeting about River Town planning last November,” shared Pearson, Elm Street manager and executive director of the Lewisburg Neighborhoods Corporation. “These include a desire to connect the rail trail to the river, improve the riverfront with park amenities, and pursue north/south connections for the future.”
With input from the broader community, not just from within the bounds of the municipality, Pearson believes the committee will gain a new perspective. And the river town designation is huge.
“Getting designated as an official River Town opens up some funding avenues for further planning, “ added Pearson. “In turn, this will position us to pursue implementation funding eventually.”
Over the past 16 years, Sterling has learned a lot about what makes Lewisburg successful. “We’re an authentic place,” she said. “We know who we are and we protect that. It’s a place people want to be.”
In short, people want to come to a place where they can be involved and feel connected.
“When the partnership started, we made a habit of listening to what people wanted, getting them involved and asking them to help make things happen,” Sterling added “We’re the organization that brings people together to get stuff done. The fact that we build connection—it’s not very sexy, but it’s what matters.”