Downtown Altoona gets a boost

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Like many small cities, Altoona (population 45,000, making it Pennsylvania’s eighth largest city and the nation’s 908th) has faced challenges in its downtown.

But new projects show signs of revitalization. In recent months, Pennsy Properties announced plans to build a $1.5 million, three-story, multi-use structure on a vacant lot at 11th Avenue at 15th Street. And Curry Realty plans to transform two buildings nearby on 11th Avenue.

Located on the site of the former Downtowne Drug building, the Pennsy project “will be the first new private-sector construction on 11th Avenue in recent memory,” says Steve McKnight, president and CEO of the Altoona Blair County Development Corp. (ABCD Corp). 

The former Viponds store in downtown Altoona

ABCD Corp. prepared the site for development in 2016, acquiring and razing the building, which had been vacant for 12 years. Now Pennsy plans a 12,000-square-foot structure with ground-floor commercial and six-to-eight market-rate apartments on the upper floors.

Meanwhile, the Curry developments incorporate adaptive reuse of two buildings. The original location of Altoona’s Sears Roebuck & Co. and later J.C. Penney last housed Vipond’s Appliance store, which closed more than a decade ago. A few doors down, the former Chalk Box was the original location of Kranich’s Jewelry. Plans call for office space inside and exterior renovations to both structures.

“The new investments in recent years are being driven by next-generation entrepreneurs and business owners,” says McKnight. “Coffee shops, breweries, flower shops, bakeries, apartments and destination eateries have defined the investment trend in the past 24 months.”

“These next-generation leaders see main-street locations and buildings as both primary living and business options,” he continues. “They are not necessarily shunning the traditional strip-mall mentality, but at least in our experience, when it comes to where they are putting their money and time, it’s firmly in higher density, downtown or main-street locations. This is a great trend for the community as that is where the capacity exists and the investment is needed.”

The new investments in recent years are being driven by next-generation entrepreneurs and business owners.Steve McKnight, ABCD Corp.

The primary economic driver for Altoona is the “eds and meds” sector. Starting more than 20 years ago, Penn State Altoona expanded educational and administrative services in its key anchor buildings along 11th and 12th Avenues. UPMC Altoona purchased and renovated a former mall-retail complex for use as a medical complex, augmenting their main-campus hospital site just a few blocks away. Together these two employers invested more than $60 million into the urban core, while also driving foot traffic and visibility to downtown, and attracting new private-sector interest.

That said, attracting investment capital remains the main challenge for continued downtown revitalization.

“Many adaptive reuse projects are complicated and cost overruns are pretty much the norm,” says McKnight. “These financing gaps can stall an investment or keep it from happening altogether. We need to create or find patient capital…to help reduce risk and incentivize investors to jump in.”

ELISE VIDER is news editor of Keystone Edge.

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Region: Southwest

Development, Features, Johnstown/Altoona, Made in PA