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DCNR secretary tours Renovo area, pending revitalization

BOB ROLLEY/The Express Renovo and area municipal officials, community volunteers and others stand at Fifth Street and Ontario Avenue at the site of a new boat launch to be built along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in Renovo.

RENOVO — Over the last several years, Renovo officials and volunteers have been building alliances and ideas, writing grants and building even more partnerships, all with the goal of revitalizing their town, and Friday saw one of the payoffs of their collective hard work: A visit from state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Cindy Dunn.

An old railroad boom town, Renovo has been struggling to find a new identity in the fallout of its industry moving elsewhere, has suffered from numerous floods and a stagnant economy, leading to blight.

But Renovo has persevered as a community, and now is working to redefine itself as a hub for ecotourism.

As Secretary Dunn pointed out, the question that Renovo has had to ask itself is one that is asked in Harrisburg as well: “What makes Pennsylvania different? What puts our state at a competitive advantage?”

Dunn’s answer, as Renovo’s, is the forests, rivers, mountains, and parks that make up Pennsylvania’s wilderness in a world increasingly civilized.

It was part of a tour of Renovo by state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Cindy Dunn, shown above speaking at an earlier luncheon at The Sportsman’s Restaurant.

“People underestimate the true specialness of their area — a beautiful borough at the base of a mountain, next to the river. Not every place has that,” Dunn said, mentioning the “mile after mile of flat sameness, suburbia and urban sprawl” endemic to many other states.

Dunn’s day began as guest speaker at a “Lunch and Learn” event sponsored by the Clinton County Economic Partnership and Dominion Power, which has extensive resources in the area and leases thousands of acres from the state for its energy and distribution network.

Dunn told the more than 60 people attending that DCNR is focusing on maintaining its current strategic initiatives — marking and cutting timber, maintaining support staff across Pennsylvania’s 121 parks, and continuing to pursue scientific development and research. At the same time, the DCNR is also developing initiatives centered on youth community interaction and development, as well as a renewed focus on water protection and quality.

One of the ways the DCNR is attempting to gain the interest of youth is through the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps, a sort of modern day Civilian Conservation Corps.

One of these programs is set for Renovo, and will last six weeks over the summer, involving upward of 12 teen-agers. The agency is looking for a local program leader.

BOB ROLLEY/The Express Renovo Councilwoman Kari Kepler, at right, provides information to DCNR Secretary Cindy Dunn in Renovo Borough Hall on Friday. Next to Kepler is Bill Scott, Renovo engineer with Bassett Engineering, with Councilwoman Ann Tarantella to his right and borough Secretary Marsha Davis next to Tarantella.

“We advertised it on social media on a Thursday, and all of the slots were full on Saturday,” Dunn said proudly. “These kids will be working on public lands, building bridges, clearing trails, and killing invasive species while learning skills that they will carry forward with them in life.”

Dunn emphasized the importance of today’s youth developing an appreciation for the outdoors, stressing that they will be tomorrow’s legislators and commissioners.

“Outdoor exposure is critical for for children’s development,” Dunn commented. With kids spending an increasingly large amount of time on screens of various types, extra effort is needed for them to build an appreciation for the outdoors — effort the DCNR intends to apply.

As for water quality, the DCNR is planning on spending the period between Earth Day and Arbor Day focused on the development of water resources. Numerous programs are being launched to plant trees to help clean up water, especially with regards to preventing run-off. Dunn recounted a story of paddling down the river and seeing a kingfisher, noting that it was a far cry from years previous where the West Branch was clear and dead.

“It’s one of the best turn-around stories in Pennsylvania,” Dunn expressed.

At right is the unique “Welcome to Renovo” sign along Route 120 on the east side of town.

That’s what Wes Farringer, a DCNR grants coordinator, said at a brief gathering in Renovo borough hall after the luncheon.

When it comes to Renovo and its neighbors, Farringer said, “The great story to tell is that of the partnerships being built here.”

That story was briefly outlined by Councilwoman Ann Tarantella, who talked about the “new local leadership.”

“Everyone works together — all of Western Clinton County,” she told Dunn.

The interconnectedness of the municipalities surrounding Renovo was cited as one of the major causes for Renovo’s pending revitalization, as it has reflected very positively upon the community and has helped secure crucial funds for the town.

The municipalities of Renovo, South Renovo, Noyes and Chapman Townships “help each other,” Tarantella said, by meeting and talking and including volunteers with the widely known PRR – Preserve, Renew and Revitalize Western Clinton County.

“It isn’t like it used to be,” she said.

Councilwoman Kari Kepler said officials and PRR volunteers developed a 10-year plan to address utility and road infrastructure, tourism and blight, basically what she called “a template for change.”

She credits PRR and council with being catalysts, along with the Susquehanna Economic Development Agency Council of Governments, or SEDA-COG, and the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership (SGP), among others.

Kepler rattled off a list of projects and grants the new council has worked on, starting with money for a new police cruiser, then $750,000 to rebuild the water, sewer and gas-line infrastructure under and near Ontario Avenue and nearby streets with the help of the SEDA-COG. The borough won a sizeable grant from Pennvest to upgrade its water lines, and a $200,000 DCNR grant for a boat launch and riverfront access at Fifth Street and Ontario Avenue. Just this month, Kepler said, the borough applied for a Peer grant to assist with River Town planning as part of the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership’s River Town program.

Renovo, South Renovo and Noyes Township last year earned a joint River Town designation.

Lock Haven University helped with a study and recommendations into the 16th Street Park.

There’s talk of building a waterfront walking path from the boat launch to the high school.

A multi-modal grant is in the works amounting to roughly $400,000 to help with transportation infrastructure.

The borough and its partners are also keenly interested in seeing the DCNR find a way to connect the Bloody Skillet and Whiskey Springs ATV Trails – something that could have significant economic impact on Renovo as a hub for ATV tourists.

DCNR is studying that possibility as the two trails are among the most popular in Pennsylvania.

“There’s great momentum going on here,” Trish Carothers, the SGP’s River Towns coordinator, told Dunn.

Upon hearing it all, Dunn declared, “You don’t see this level of cooperation (among municipalities and organizations) in the state that often.”

This attention from DCNR builds upon Renovo’s desire to reinvent itself as a place to visit, stay over, eat, outfit yourself, and get out into the wilds.

Clinton County Comissioner Paul Conklin, who was in attendence, noted that “partnership and vision — you don’t see that in every community.”

The commissioners see the commitment locally so “we just step away … and let them run with it,” while providing any resource needed.

Adding fuel to the revitalization efforts is Bechtel Development Corp.’s plans to build an $800 million, natural-gas fired electric generating station in the old abandoned railyards here.

Bechtel recently announced the start of that project has been delayed to next April 2018.

Tarantella said, “they’re coming” and the delay has to do with the plant’s connection to the overall power grid.

Bechtel also has pledged to donate money to the borough for public safety and the boat launch.

The power plant will need a water intake for cooling off of the Susquehanna River, and that’s been planned for the foot of Fourth Street.

Talk also centered around the Greater Renovo area’s ability to house upward of 800 workers to build the power plant.

“That will work itself out,” promised Dan Harger of the Clinton County Economic Partnership, as many of the workers will commute, many will find campgrounds and others will do what it takes to find housing to work here.

In all, there was an estimate that upward of $7 million in grants and financing are approved to revitalize Renovo in advance of the power plant’s construction.

Burt these improvements come at an uncertain time with regard to the state budget and funding for the DCNR, Dunn said at the luncheon.

Asked about future funding, Dunn replied, “I’m as scared as I’ve ever been.”

She explained that, while Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget is tight, it is operable and would not require any furloughing of DCNR employees. The current budget proposal by the House, on the other hand, would require furloughs, and “as a public servant, I can say that it would show. You would see, if not whole state parks shutting down, you’d see a lot of things with staff shutting down — campgrounds and swimming pools.”

Dunn is hopeful that the Senate’s counterproposal will help provide the DCNR with enough of an operating budget to stay afloat at its current funding level.

Despite these concerns, Dunn expressed her optimism that the area will continue to regrow.

“The work of the local officials is critical and the vision that I see coming out of this area is phenomenal,” Dunn said. “You have lots of friends in Harrisburg and a bright future, and the DCNR will be very happy to be part of that success.”

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