Kalen Sowul grew up in Montandon, a small town just outside of Lewisburg. He went away to college in Florida, then spent a few years in Lancaster. Six years ago, his hometown beckoned and he accepted a job as technical director at Bucknell University‘s Weis Center for the Performing Arts. Sowul enjoyed his work, and giving back to the local community, but was having trouble finding a community of peers.
“I was on the fence about whether or not I wanted to stay in the area,” he recalls. “I wasn’t going out and meeting new people.”
Then he discovered the Greater Susquehanna Valley Young Professionals (GSVYP), an 80-member group working to connect professionals aged 21-45 (“or those young at heart”) for networking, professional development, recreation, lifestyle and volunteer opportunities. Within a year, Sowul was so engaged that he had taken a position as co-chair.
Organizations like this are just one part of the larger economic development puzzle in the Greater Susquehanna Valley, a region with a host of natural and strategic assets. With improved infrastructure, strategic collaboration, accessible business services, and a growing number of cool places to socialize, the area’s stakeholders are building towards a bright future.
To highlight those efforts, Keystone Edge is teaming up with the Pennsylvania Economic Development Association (PEDA) and the Team PA Foundation to host Gather Up: Susquehanna River Valley, an opportunity for people from around the region to talk face-to-face about what makes the area an exciting place to live and work, and an enticing option for young professionals looking to flex their talents. RSVP to join us on May 17 at Rusty Rail Brewing Company in Mifflinburg.
If You Build It
Betsy Lockwood is Project Development/Grants Manager at SEDA-COG
“We live in a rural area, but we’ve got Harrisburg within an hour drive, State College within an hour drive, New York City within a three hour drive. So we’re really centrally located,” she says. “We have seven universities or institutions of higher education located in the immediate 11-county region. When you see universities, you also see more diversity, you see better access in terms of restaurants and museums.”
Those universities generate entrepreneurial activity as students and professors build research projects or launch startups, generating high-tech, high-paying jobs. One of SEDA-COG’s goals is to help connect those nascent businesses — and other companies in fields like hospitality and energy — with development tools.
We have seven universities or institutions of higher education located in the immediate 11-county region. When you see universities, you also see more diversity, you see better access in terms of restaurants and museums.Betsy Lockwood, SEDA-COG
“There are a number of organizations, probably 20 off the top of my head, that provide free services to entrepreneurs and people who are looking to start small businesses,” says Lockwood. “It can be anything from human resources to manufacturing. I think we need to do better as a region advertising all these free or low-cost resources.”
She is also excited about a number of large projects in the area, including an old coal-fired power plant that was converted to natural gas, the organization of a regional natural gas cooperative, and a massive transportation development: The $670 million Central Susquehanna Valley Transportation Project
“I think that’s going to be a big draw to manufacturers and logistics companies and warehouses,” she says.
Another enticing feature is quality of life — this is an affordable and beautiful place to live.
“We have a lot of great natural assets,” explains Lockwood. “We have hiking and biking trails, we have the Susquehanna River, which has been a great draw for tourists. The Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area
Get It Together
Amber Depew moved to the Susquehanna Valley not for an opportunity, but for family — her husband grew up in Mifflinburg. Originally from Carlisle, she went to college in Lancaster County, then spent a few years working in downtown Harrisburg where she was a member of the Harrisburg Young Professionals. When she came to the area, she immediately looked for a like-minded group.
“Having just moved to the Susquehanna Valley, I was looking for community,” she recalls. “I found that through the Greater Susquehanna Valley Young Professionals (GSVYP). My family still lives in the Harrisburg area, and while it’s only a short drive away, I feel like the people I’ve met through this organization have become my family. Finding that was key to making sure that the Susquehanna Valley had everything I needed to feel comfortable living here.”
Every week for the past two-and-a-half years, Depew, who works as director of corporate communications for UPMC Susquehanna, has shared a list of local events via the group’s FacebookInstagram accounts using the hashtag #WeekendsIntheValley.
My family still lives in the Harrisburg area, and while it’s only a short drive away, I feel like the people I’ve met through this organization have become my family.Amber Depew, co-chair GSVYP
The center of the social scene for members is undeniably vibrant downtown Lewisburg. There are a plethora of bars and restaurants, including favorites Brasserie Louie and the Bull Run Tap House, a single-screen art deco movie theater, live music, and other enticing cultural events. GSVYP also makes an effort to host gatherings across their coverage area, planing happy hours at Old Forge Brewing Company in Danville, hikes at R.B. Winter State Park or kayaking trips down the river.
In addition, they use their organizing muscle to partner with community development initiatives, including The Improved Milton Experience (TIME), a nonprofit group working to revitalize downtown Milton.
“The area has gone through a little bit of a tough period in the past 15 years,” explains Sowul. “They’re doing a great job trying to make that a place where people want to hang out. They started Milton Beer Fest last year that we helped out with. It was a great success, and they’re doing it again this year [June 9].”
The overall goal of GSVYP is to show people that this is a great place to build a life. It’s affordable — both Sowul and Depew rave about the homes they were able to buy in the region — welcoming, and convenient.
“At Bucknell, I feel like some of the younger folks that come through are using this as a stepping stone to another position,” explains Sowul. “It can feel a little bit lonely outside of work sometimes. It’s not a big metropolitan area, so trying to find and network with folks that are our age and at the start of professional careers can be tough. To create an outlet to do that is imperative to keep folks in the region. There are very talented individuals, and you don’t want to lose them.”
Making It Big
One GSVYP favorite is Rusty Rail Brewing Company in Mifflinburg. It’s a marvelous example of a transformative business in the Valley, and the perfect host for Keystone Edge’s upcoming event. Housed in a historic factory, the brewpub draws thousands of people every weekend to sample its suds and enjoy a meal.
Owners Paul and Eric John bought the building — which had been used as a cabinet factory for over 50 years — in 2006. In the years since, they have also built cabinets there, both for their modular home company Ritz-Craft Corporation (a third-generation family business) and for outside clients. For a long time, the other side of the building sat vacant.
“They were trying to figure out what to do with it,” recalls Rusty Rail General Manager and cofounder Rich Schrader. “At one point, the idea had been thrown out of doing a brewery or brewpub.”
Overall, this building, and the manufacturing that has come out of this building, has always been a part of this community. We’re proud to carry on that tradition and embrace that heritage.Rich Schrader, Rusty Rail Brewing Company
Rusty Rail opened in 2015 and currently employs 150 people. It has grown to encompass multiple event spaces, a growing wholesale business, and third floor guest suites.
“I wrote the original business plan, but I had no idea — and I’m sure Paul and Eric would say the same thing — that this would be what it has become,” says Schrader. “For instance, when we started to wholesale beer, we thought we’d do draft sales and slowly get into the wholesale market. And that went from small draft sales to a six-head Meheen bottler that could do a case a minute, to a 3,000 bottles-per-hour bottler. We started with just our backyard in Pennsylvania, to the whole state and New Jersey, Ohio, Maryland, and moving out into New York soon. All of that in three years.”
Meanwhile, the restaurant, which originally greeted 350 diners per day on the weekends, is now feeding 2,000 while also hosting weddings, programming live music and welcoming overnight guests. Future plans include a general store, an outdoor pavilion and 11 additional hotel rooms.
All of this has been a huge economic boon for Mifflinburg, and also a point of pride.
“We don’t have a big hospital, or a university, or a [company like] IBM,” explains Schrader. “Our town is known for the buggy museum, farmers markets’, and little shops. Overall, this building — and the manufacturing that has come out of this building, whether it’s buggies [in the early 20th century], cabinetry or beer — has always been a part of this community, and has supported this community. We’re proud to carry on that tradition and embrace that heritage, provide jobs and a place for people to go.”
Join Keystone Edge, PEDA and Team PA for Gather Up: Susquehanna Valley at Rusty Rail Brewing Company, 5 – 8 p.m. Thursday, May 17. Click here to RSVP
This content was created in partnership with the Pennsylvania Economic Development Association (PEDA).
LEE STABERT is editor in chief of Keystone Edge.