CLEARFIELD – Representatives from the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) discussed community and industrial growth in Clearfield during a “DCED on the Road” town hall meeting Tuesday night at the Florian Banquet Hall.
DCED Secretary C. Alan Walker said he wanted to bring representatives from his office to Clearfield to help the region, which has lagged behind the rest across the state. He also wanted to encourage municipal officials to be more aggressive in seeking out state funding for various projects in the Clearfield area.
Eight years ago, Walker said he was a part of a Vision 2020 group. The group developed a vision of what Clearfield would be like in 2020 and studied the educational system, healthcare system, downtown Clearfield, recreation, arts and neighborhoods. Walker said the group identified ways to improve each, focused on downtown Clearfield and applied to become a Main Street community.
Earning the Main Street designation has helped with the revitalization of the downtown, according to Walker. He said 39 storefronts have undergone façade improvements and two blocks of Third Street have new street lights and sidewalks as a result of a Growing Greener initiative.
Further, he said Clearfield received an RCAP grant for the new YMCA addition. The grant, he said, matched dollar-for-dollar what was raised in the community. He said they raised $2.5 million and developed a $5 million project that now fits in well with the architecture of the downtown.
Then, Walker said the Clearfield Community Pool renovation project became a focal point. He assisted by going to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) for grant funding for the Clearfield Swimming Pool Association. This grant, he said, awarded $500,000 for the community pool project and matched the local effort. By May of 2014, he said Clearfield will have a new, youth-oriented swimming pool that will be as nice as any outdoor pool in the State College area.
According to Walker, Borough Operations Manager Leslie Stott also got grant funding for new playground equipment at both Kurtz and Upper Witmer parks. He said she’s currently looking at a streetscape project in downtown Clearfield and waiting to hear about a $3 million grant through the state Department of Transportation (PennDOT). If awarded, Walker said the grant funding would be used to “redo” Second, Market and Front streets with a new concrete and brick scheme.
As part of the project, he said the new street lights would match the existing ones. He said Stott also had the foresight to keep all of the old street lights, which would be installed at the Clearfield Driving Park to provide better lighting there.
Walker said he understood the importance of saving the Ritz Theater and Super 322 Drive-In, which must convert to digital by the end of the year. He said there’s currently a great local effort helping the Ritz Theater, and it’s raised slightly more than $20,000. Walker said they’re currently looking for a low-interest loan or a combination of a loan/grant to help the theater.
He presented a newspaper portraying the success story of a WaterFire event on the Shenango River in downtown Sharon. During the cultural and arts event, a series of bonfires were floating in the middle of the river. The event, he said, brought 40,000 people into downtown Sharon.
Walker said at Vision 2020 meetings, the group concluded the West Branch of the Susquehanna River was Clearfield’s greatest asset and an opportunity to revitalize the culture of the community. He said Clearfield has a $6 million RCAP grant for the Clearfield Borough Riverfront Redevelopment Project that will connect the Market and Nichols Street Bridges into a one-mile loop around the river in downtown Clearfield.
Clyde Holman, deputy secretary for the Office of Community Affairs and Development, said Walker was passionate about the Clearfield community and Pennsylvania. He said they came to Clearfield to see how they could better serve its people, and he opened the floor for a question-and-answer session.
When asked about plans for developing arts programs from the state level down, Walker said unfortunately during a recession, funding for arts is the first to get cut. He said Clearfield has a very good performing arts theater, but it’s struggling, and the building was nearly lost because property taxes had gone unpaid. Walker said the theater got enough for one payment to stop the foreclosure.
According to him, so far as the arts, it will likely be up to local communities until the government gets back on its feet and can help with some of those programs. He said the sign of a “true, well-rounded and cultured” community is how it supports its arts and library.
Walker then specifically solicited for questions on industrial development, which he believes will need the most help in Clearfield. He said the Shawville Power Plant will close in April of 2015. The closure, he said, will result in the loss of at least 80 jobs at the power plant, as well as impact the coal industry. Walker estimated Clearfield will lose half of the coal industry that remains.
He encouraged municipal officials to really focus on diversifying the economy in order to avoid becoming a one-industry struggling town. “We have a choice of which way we want to go,” he said. “We can either embrace the future, or look to the past and say, ‘Oh we were great at one time’ and let it go on and become a retirement community.”
Clearfield, Walker said, still has great assets that have yet to be used and developable land along Interstate 80. He pointed out PennDOT’s District 2 office is now a three-story, steel structure located in Clearfield’s Industrial Park. However, Walker said municipal officials need to go after what they want aggressively, because it’s not going to come to them.
Walker was asked by one audience member about the possibility of converting the Shawville Power Plant to natural gas. He explained the state didn’t have any control, as any decision related to the plant’s future use is up to its owner. So far as his knowledge, Walker said the owner believes it wouldn’t be worthwhile, as they would still have to build an entirely new plant for the conversion.
Because of the recession and electricity being used more efficiently, there isn’t any demand to build a new power plant, he said. He added the chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) has advised him that there will not be any demand for the construction of a new power plant in Pennsylvania until 2025.
Then, Walker was asked about the possibility of making gas from coal. He explained there have been inquiries, and they have the knowledge and technology. However, he said it’s not competitive, and the price of gasoline would have to be much higher for that to happen. Instead, Walker anticipated that gas and petroleum products would eventually be made from natural gas in Pennsylvania, which is much more competitive.
According to Walker, the United States is on the verge of an energy revolution. If it has the right leadership, he said it could be energy independent by 2025. He said companies, which relocated to China, India and Mexico, are inquiring about coming to Pennsylvania because of the energy advantages.
One audience member noted many people have switched to natural gas vehicles and pointed out there aren’t many fueling stations. Walker said the DCED offers a program to assist with paying for the construction of a public natural gas fueling station. In Clearfield County, he said the demand isn’t there yet but it would eventually get here. Walker said it would be up to the local officials to take the initiative to have one constructed, and Sheetz has indicated it would if there’s a demand for it.
Before the town hall meeting closed, Chris Renaud, director of planning and development for the Clearfield Revitalization Corp., asked DCED officials if they noticed anything missing during their walking tour of downtown Clearfield. Holman told Renaud the CRC has been doing a great job, and a lot depends upon the circumstances and environment of a downtown. Holman said further discussion could be done outside of the town hall meeting to give the CRC ideas and suggestions of places to visit.