This story originally appeared on PAWilds.com/blog.
Located along the I-80 Frontier of the Pennsylvania Wilds, Philipsburg was founded by romantic renegade Hardman Philips. The Centre County town thrived as a result of booming coal and lumber industries, as well as manufacturing. But like many small communities across the state, Philipsburg started to see hard times as its major industries declined.
“Philipsburg’s hardy beginnings are deep-rooted in the people who live there today,” says Eric Kelmenson, president of the Philipsburg Revitalization Corporation (PRC). “[They] embrace the town’s history and are optimistic about its future.”
The revitalization organization, a nonprofit that restructured within recent years, can be credited with many of the current efforts to make the town thrive once again.
“We’ve brought on new board members from diverse backgrounds,” explains Kelmenson. “And we’ve had a breakout year organizing successful events, establishing a partnership with the borough, filling previously vacant storefronts with great businesses, and generally speaking, restoring hometown pride.”
It’s a focus on community that’s proving successful for them. They work mainly to put on events that bring people together and encourage economic development.
“We’ve got ambitious goals and a real challenge for us as a volunteer-based organization is to find the funding, time and energy to carry out our vision,” he says. “It’s tough. A big goal over the coming years is to be in a financial position to hire a full-time Main Street manager. It’s a lot of work organizing events, writing grants, fundraising, staying up to date on social media, bringing in new businesses, and overseeing our amazing volunteers.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
According to Kelmenson, 2020 is going to be a big year not only for Philipsburg, but for the PRC as well.
“A number of previously vacant historic buildings and Victorian houses are currently being renovated,” he says. “As more space becomes stabilized, more creative energy, business and people will come to town.”
We were looking for something affordable with character, and Philipsburg delivered.Staci Egan, local business owner
Smith + Front, an art studio, shop and gallery, opened downtown in 2019. Staci Egan, who owns the business with her husband David, says that when it came to choosing space for their business, they were priced out of nearby State College.
“I had seen a video by the PRC and decided to reach out,” she recalls. “We were looking for something affordable with character, and Philipsburg delivered.”
The PRC itself recently acquired two buildings on Front Street, the community’s main thoroughfare.
“These buildings have sat vacant for years and we are beyond excited to begin renovating them,” says Kelmenson. “Our end goal will be to provide three affordable housing units and three incubation spaces to the community.”
The projects check several boxes for the organization.
“First, it allows us to kick off our efforts to remediate blight,” he explains. “Zombie property is a real problem depriving our schools of funding, creating health hazards, and hindering new business creation. It’s increasingly a focus for the PRC.”
Second, the project will spark needed creative and entrepreneurial energy downtown. And finally, it will become a revenue generator for the organization.
The downtown Philipsburg properties will provide affordable space to artists, startups and others who will contribute to Philipsburg’s renaissance. However, the area as a whole has been a hub for entrepreneurship in recent years.
Not only is the Philipsburg community home to DiamondBack Truck Covers, one of Centre County’s biggest success stories, it’s also home to an incubator that is part of a multidirectional strategy to spur revitalization on a county level.
Over the last three-and-a-half years, the Philipsburg Business Incubator has had four tenants. It also serves as a feeder system for the PRC and the Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership.
I think if Philipsburg can bounce back, other small towns that have also experienced decades of disinvestment can, too.Eric Kelmenson, PRC
“It differs from the other Centre County incubators because only private offices are available,” explains Centre County Commissioner Mark Higgins. “There are three office suites available — two with one desk and one with two desks. A small kitchen and conference room are available as part of the monthly fee. On-site computer support is available at additional cost.”
“Philipsburg is a vibrant community,” says Higgins. “There was a time when Philipsburg was a regional employment magnet. Even today, more people from outside of Philipsburg work there than Philipsburg residents who leave to work in other local towns.”
In recent years, Philipsburg has had the most INC 5000 companies in Centre County. The town’s affordable industrial, distribution, and warehouse space help grow the 150 new startups founded every year in the county.
Owner Josh Helke says that many more people are staying in the area after they graduate from nearby Penn State University; and like Egan, residents and businesses are moving to Philipsburg because the cost of living is more affordable.
“There is also a bustling creative community downtown, and an amazing energy about the downtown,” he says. “[There’s] lots of emerging excitement about the potential for biking, hiking and other outdoor endeavors here.”
A PERSONAL CONNECTION
Kelmenson, who also is the owner of Reframe, a real estate development company focused on historic preservation and adaptive reuse, says that a few years ago he wouldn’t have imagined himself living in Philipsburg.
“Long story short, I fell in love with a hauntingly beautiful and dilapidated building that had sat vacant for years,” he recalls. “It’s been an adventure ever since.”
What started as a pursuit in historic preservation and business took on deeper meaning as Kelmenson built relationships in the community.
“Philipsburg is a fascinating little town once you dig in, and many of the people I’ve gotten to know I now consider family,” he adds. “I think if Philipsburg can bounce back, other small towns that have also experienced decades of disinvestment can, too.”