The “Spark” in Danville
Jun 03, 2015 10:34PM
● By Erica Shames
One Danville resident describes the vibe in Danville as a “spark” that’s igniting enthusiasm among residents. It’s arising, she says, from new shops and restaurants and spruced up storefronts that both improve the appearance of, and heighten the experience of being, downtown.
But it’s impossible to ignore the boost in morale that arises from intangibles like talk of a new arts district—and even the decision of Drs. David and Andrea Feinberg, Geisinger’s new first family, to choose Danville as their home.
Taking the reins
Since 2008 when Jim Wilson became executive director of the Danville Business Alliance, a market position statement for a utopian version of Danville has been formulating. “The town’s target market is middle-aged adults, empty nesters and young professionals,” said Wilson. “The emphasis is on ways to entertain them and provide diverse shopping opportunities. We’re certainly making inroads in those respects.”
In the past two years, 29 businesses have either moved in to, relocated to or expanded an existing business in, Danville. “There is an increased optimism that we have something here that’s special and attractive,” explained Wilson.
Elite Feet is a Montoursville-based sportswear shoe store that recently opened a second location in Danville. “They cater to the active crowds that flock to the Rivertown Race Series events,” said Wilson. “It’s taken the economic recovery, as well as renewed optimism on the part of businesses, to think that Danville may have a part to play in their futures.”
Playing a role
The DBA also is proactive in hand-picking businesses to populate the downtown. Wilson approached Liz and John Furia about opening a restaurant similar to the couple’s Lewisburg success story, Elizabeth’s An American Bistro.
“We felt this would be good for Elizabeth’s, good for John and myself and good for the community,” said Liz Furia. “A number of our customers expressed a desire for a restaurant in Danville—it made sense for us.”
E Tu Bistro is not simply a copy of its Lewisburg counterpart. “We wanted something more modern and up-to-date with an urban feel,” explained Liz. “The food is also distinctive – more casual, smaller plates. The proximity to the Farmer’s Market allows the staff to connect to fresh ingredients.” Tables out front and a deck in the back will allow for outdoor dining this summer.
The arts have a place
In addition to improved shopping and dining options, an important goal is the creation of an arts district. A town with a rich artistic community is a better place to live, the thinking goes. And that was the philosophy behind the start-up of the Danville Arts Council two years ago by Scott Richardson, a LCSW employed by Geisinger, and Jen Gurski, assistant principal of Danville’s cyber school. The arts council recognizes the need for more art, a more artist-focused community and a place where kids can get introduced to and explore the many facets of art.
“From there we reached out to various local artists, community leaders and area art lovers to form the Danville Arts Council,” said Richardson. “It’s been a collaborative effort ever since.”
Current priorities include establishing name recognition, promoting local artists and creating events to increase awareness of and involvement in the arts.
“Our longer term goals include implementing a stand-alone, signature event—perhaps an independent film festival—and the eventual establishment of a permanent gallery in downtown Danville,” said Richardson.
A collaborative event with Bucknell’s Samek Art Museum, dubbed Art in Bars, was a first step. “We’re always looking to expand our audiences, so quite literally moving the [Samek Art] museum beyond Lewisburg was a great opportunity to do so,” explained Greg Stuart, public programs and outreach manager for the Samek. “The premise was to view these works of art from our collection in a new and unexpected way.”
The promise inherent in the renovation of the former Capitol Theatre—potentially into a performing arts center—ties into the envisioned arts district. Ted Strosser, lead architect in the renovation of Lewisburg’s Campus Theatre, co-chairs the DBA’s Economic Restructuring Committee. “All of us involved have our own personal vision and excitement about it,” noted Strosser, who recently relocated his architecture business to Danville from Lewisburg. “We’re trying to hold back because we want the community to speak up.”
The committee is relying heavily on the experience of Rob Steele, executive director of the Community Arts Center in Williamsport, who was instrumental in that facility’s renovation. The DBA has applied for two grants to help with planning. “Basically, it’s a two-pronged planning approach,” explained Strosser. “One is architecture/preservation/conservation related and the other is a business plan.”
Another pivotal point was construction activity encouraged from a study dubbed the upper floor initiative. The research project undertaken by Penn State assessed the financial viability of turning what was equivalent to 30 floors of unused space--60 to 65,000-square-feet—into living space. Eleven apartments—including those created by Strosser and the Furias—have been created and rented.
“The upper floor study has given people the confidence to take the leap,” said Strosser. “It’s not just a planning study that’s on a shelf somewhere.”
Jim Wilson concurs. “These spaces had not been used in decades. Now we have young professionals—some connected to Geisinger—living in them. They are shopping downtown, helping to drive the economy. And we have buildings that have been returned to the tax base. It’s a huge plus for the downtown.”
Certainly part of the renaissance can be attributed to Geisinger’s decision to create new office space, which in 2009 brought 100 Geisinger employees downtown. “We deal with space constraints on the Geisinger Medical Center campus in Danville,” assessed Frank Trembulak, executive vice president and COO of Geisinger Health System. “It was in our best interest to construct a new office building on Mill Street.”
“This was a pivot point,” explained Wilson. “It’s had a significant impact.”
Trembulak also recognizes the reconnection. “Our employees who work in the Mill Street office building patronize the downtown eateries and merchants,” he said. “They also have the ability to visit these locations before or after work hours.”
Wilson can envision future collaborations between Geisinger and the downtown taking many forms, including increased volunteerism and funding on Geisinger’s part. “We hope there will be an opportunity for us to engage the new administration with our vision for the downtown,” added Wilson.
While unaware of any collaborative discussions currently in progress, Trembulak stressed the Geisinger/DBA connection. “Geisinger is a member and supporter of the Danville Business Alliance, which has and continues to do a lot for the downtown area.”
Where are we headed?
For longtime residents, the changes taking place in Danville are particularly striking. Jean Knouse, owner of the children’s clothing store Kiddie Korner for eight years and executive director of the Danville Area Community Center for the past 24, wears many civic hats. This former school teacher has served on DBA committees, the Iron Heritage Festival committee and the Danville Area Community Foundation. “It’s wonderful to see new stores and restaurants opening their doors,” she said. “Everyone clamors for them, citing variety as the key [for them] to shop and dine downtown.”
Knouse is excited about plans for enhanced lighting on Mill Street and the relocation of Edith’s Kitchen from Catawissa to the corner of Mill and Lower Mulberry streets. “It will bring foot traffic, people from other communities and general interest to this end of Mill Street,” she said. “A community is like a multi-pieced puzzle; the more unique pieces you have, the more fun it is.”
What is there to do around here?
The Danville office of the Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau is downtown and it’s increasingly common for people to drop in. “The Danville Welcome Center frequently receives visits from people moving to Danville or from new patrons of our expanding stores and restaurants,” said Rachael Brown, marketing director. “Danville’s vibrant downtown has not only encouraged business growth, but also events for locals and visitors to enjoy.”
For the second year, the National Club Softball Association will host its Final Four Softball Tournament at Hess Recreation Area; Old Forge Brewing Co. is collaborating with the Montour Area Recreation Commission for its first 5K Beer Run; and Shade Mountain Winery is hosting Wine & Art Classes. “There’s something for everyone in Danville’s growing downtown,” confirmed Brown.
The Danville Heritage Festival, taking place July 18, is a new event created by Van Wagner, musician/historian/teacher. “This will be a unique celebration of our region’s heritage,” explained Wagner. “It will be centered around the Hess Field complex and feature living history demonstrations, speakers and live music. All events will be free and open to all ages.” For more information, visit www.DanvilleHeritage.com.
“The Danville area has an amazing history,” continued Wagner. “The knowledge and talent of local historians, performers and musicians is unparalleled. The community wants to celebrate this heritage. Please mark your calendar and be part of this exciting new chapter in celebrating our amazing story. On July 18th, Danville is where you belong.”
Increasingly, people do feel they belong in Danville. But Strosser is quick to point out there is much for which to be grateful. “Two years ago when Old Forge was looking for a new place, there were whispers it might not be downtown,” he recalls. “Luckily they saw the value in relocating and staying downtown. It could have gone the other way.”
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