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A tail is wagging the dog

By STEPHEN POORMAN

This is a tale of the “tail wagging the dog.” It’s a saga about PennDOT versus the City of Lock Haven. Once upon a time, Lock Haven had no beltway, so PennDOT went to City Council and said, “We’d like to put a highway through Lock Haven. We’ll make it one-way down Church Street and one-way up Main Street and it won’t cost you a dime.”

“Do it,” says City Council. Viola! We got a highway … right down Main Street.

Later the beltway arrived, bypassing downtown, and eliminating the original need.

But the city fathers are now disgruntled because PennDOT told them they weren’t allowed to erect a four-way stop sign at Main and Hanna Street where residents say the traffic speed is increasing. And everyone but we seniors seem to have forgotten about the favor the city once did for the state.

Hell yes, the traffic speed is increasing. It’s a damn highway! Next comes tax dollars with attempts to save downtowns given the pressure of malls, parking meters and the internet that erodes the fabric of small towns.

Former Mayor Rick Vilello once raised a suggestion: “Lets return Main Street to two-way traffic to slow the speed and make it more conducive to shopping.” Oh my God Mayor, have you lost your mind, they said? Why that’s change! “We can’t do that … it’s not our street anymore.” Mayor Vilello’s visionary motion died, without a second.

I recently spent a day in Corning, N.Y., and Lewisburg, Pa. The slow two-way streets and stores were packed with activity and there wasn’t a black barrel trash receptacle in site. With a much lower census, fewer university students and a slightly higher median income, Lewisburg is light years ahead of our small town. The beauty and vitality of those towns is superior than Lock Haven. And you deserve the same because you actually pay for it.

Unfortunately, 70% of your money goes into the pockets of people and not for all of the potholes and beautification projects.

The night City Council voted to dump it’s maintenance expense onto the state it ripped the heart out of your downtown. It was just a mistake. And at the time, I’m sure there were many unknown factors and issues to consider. But that time came … and that time went.

Just look around. What other small, rural Pennsylvania cities contend with a highway running down the middle of Main Street that is a danger to pedestrians. Most Pennsylvania university cities enjoy a two-way Main Street, which lures students downtown.

So after I screamed around about our highway, Lock Haven explored radar, erected a pedestrian warning sign and enacted an ordinance to cite drivers for loud noises. It’s all nice, but only a mask on the real problem.

As long as Main Street is a highway, all of the efforts to return the charm of Lock Haven are futile. If you live, visit or work downtown, then you must admit that it’s become a dangerous raceway. The fast, loud traffic chases both shoppers and apartment dwellers out of the central business district and we’ve now had four people struck by cars. Failing to foster business only causes the homeowners taxes to rise. In the 1960s, retail revenue was $18 million between Jay and Mill Street, and it kept your property taxes down.

So, what will it take to actually fix the problem? It will take council members acting in YOUR best interest to go to legislators and say, “Hey, you’re thwarting our efforts to revitalize our downtown, so get your highway the hell out of our city.”

Council should represent the best interest of their constituents and taxpayers. Who cares about PennDOT? Break a contract if need be. But will they do that? I predict they are lethargic. Instead, they’ll tap dance around the problem, blame the loss of revenue on a dozen other factors and ignore the nexus of the debacle.

The four-way stop is just one-more band aid on the real injury. And it’s comical that a State highway department desk clerk in Clearfield is telling your 7 elected officials what they can and can’t do in their own town! The city has leverage. The state will listen to a city. Only the city can fix this problem.

And eventually they will. When friends ask why I spend time to study city business, I tell them about my list of issues that I’ve raised over decades. And eventually, after allowing people to forget where the suggestion came from, the city adopted all but a few. Eventually, the city will change the two-way traffic. But what will be left with the town when they get around to it? They just tore Bellefonte Avenue to shreds. Over time, what will our architecturally-significant downtown resemble?

As a young 25 year old, former Williamsport Mayor Steve Lucasi invited me out for a hamburger to thank me for opening a store in his city. I asked, “Why can’t Lock Haven make the improvements we see here?”

He said, “Steve, you will need 3 B’s to make things happen up in Lock Haven.” What are they I asked?

He said, “Brains, Backing… and you can guess the third one.”

City Council has the backing. It’s the other two they seem to lack.

Come on boys and girls. You can do it. Get in the car. Go to Harrisburg. Raise hell. For once in history, tell them you’re going to erect the damn stop signs anyway and make them pay to return your traffic to its original flow. And tell them you want Bellefonte Avenue roadwork started this year. You work for us, not them. We voted for you so do your job. This is still our town. Because this is clearly the tail wagging the dog!

I hope this Viewpoint has merit because, notwithstanding the fact that I learned much about developing much of the real estate and retail growth on Main Street, I had the honor of serving on the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Retailer’s Association in Harrisburg. I still interact with potential developers and tenants.

But elected officials aren’t exposed to problems faced by small business owners or landlords who need to fill vacant space — which ultimately generates tax revenue. It’s their job to understand the playing field, to represent you and to fix your neighborhood problems.

Stephen Poorman is president of a business consulting firm bearing his name. The opinions in this op-ed are the writer’s.

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