The Streets Are AliveJun 30, 2021 03:10PM ● By Linda Roller
There’s not much about 2020 that any of us want to make a part of summer 2021. But in Lock Haven, a little piece of creative socializing in pandemic times is continuing, to the delight of many businesses and people who live and visit this quaint river city. To allow for social distancing and keep restaurants and music alive, the city worked with PennDOT and the Federal Highway Administration in summer 2020 to close a portion of a state highway that runs through the center of town, creating a “pop-up” pedestrian mall and outdoor bistro. This year, starting in May and running through September, several weekends have been set aside to close the streets and allow all the food, music, and fun to spill out into the center of the city.
For the Lock Haven business community, this is simply “business as usual,” creating new ways for the local merchants to serve the community. Since the 1930s, Lock Haven has had a business association dedicated to creating and enhancing Main Street shops. As it is for many such entities, the effort was uneven. Progress waxed and waned. But by 1998 there was a real push for new local businesses, according to Rick Vilello, then Lock Haven’s mayor.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. By then, the businesses on the boulevard outside the city were established and had changed local buying habits. Downtown needed new direction. The Lock Haven Vitalization Team began working hard to bring events and new businesses to the downtown. By 2004, the Vitalization team applied for membership in the Main Street America Coordinating Program through the Pennsylvania Downtown Center. This state organization helped with creating a structure that had been successful in many other communities. Through that program, the team, with the leadership of its first director, Maria Boileau, was able to apply for grants and become a non-profit organization. By 2005, they were ready to take downtown community development to the next level. As manager from 2005 through 2012, Maria was tireless in working with the business partners in Lock Haven, pursuing state and local grants, increasing the membership of the downtown organization, and fundraising.
“It was exciting to see the community’s investment and involvement,” she says.
One of the first things that the team did was make the downtown area more inviting. Grants were made available for upgrading buildings’ exteriors. A mural was painted on Vesper Street and tied into the Hometown Heroes banners that lined the Main Street on new, elegant lighting that is charming to see by day, and transforms the downtown at night into a bright, inviting area. Rick Vilello and current mayor Joel Long were the instigators of the downtown streetscape’s projects, which took years to develop. As Rick comments, “This stuff doesn’t happen overnight.”
But it takes more than a beautiful Main Street. There must be things to do. Downtown Lock Haven created and promoted events like Haven Holidays, River Town Clean-Up, Welcome to the Neighborhood Programs, Community Days, and The Best of Clinton County Summer Festival and Parade to kick off the summer season, just as visitors were arriving to enjoy all the outdoor activities in the area. There were even promotions for the businesses that filled the downtown area, like Small Business Saturdays, a Holiday Window Decorating Contest, and for extended hours enabling businesses to take advantage of the newly lighted and updated street. It took time and effort, but the downtown area was beginning to see new businesses and attract people in the evenings. The work was paying off.
And then, a global pandemic shut the doors of small businesses and cleared the streets.
Angela Harding, who has long been active with the Vitalization Team and had become a county commissioner, took the reins as president of the board of directors of Downtown Lock Haven while the doors were still closed, in May 2020. “The pedestrian mall was 100 percent the City of Lock Haven,” she says. It was a bold move, and a way to support the businesses and to, somehow, give a feel of a community social life that the pandemic had ended. The city and Downtown Lock Haven made the appeals, created the plan, and got the agreement from PennDOT and Federal Highway Administration to close State Route 150. And as the doors opened a bit by the middle of June 2020, the plan was in place.
As Angela states, “Without the foresight to make a plan, Lock Haven might not have weathered this social and economic storm.” The socially distanced venue did help the businesses, particularly the restaurants that were in danger of not surviving. And it brought the community together. Angela says that COVID-19 actually had a small silver lining in that “it gave people a new appreciation for the small business in their community and made people want to be here and support the local merchants.”
The worst days of the pandemic are hopefully over. But Lock Haven folks know a good thing when they see it. The city has decided to keep the pedestrian walkway in the center of town for several weekends in the summer through September. Main Street from Jay to Vesper will be closed to traffic at 3 p.m. Friday to 10 p.m. Saturday, July 9 to 10, July 30 to 31, August 13 to 14, August 27 to 28, and every weekend in September. The Grove Street stage will be filled with performances, and even more concerts will be at Triangle Park. The farmer’s market, started in 2020, will resume on Friday evenings. And the street with benches, tables, and people will be a perfect place for events like Best of Clinton County, LH JAMS and Art, the Hometown Hero Banner ceremony, and the Labor Day Regatta. See you there!