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Where Do We Want Bellefonte to Go?: An Oral History of This Town's Future, Part 1

Whereisbellefonte

ADDRESS
Bellefonte , Pennsylvania 16823

By Serge Bielanko

Community, it would seem, is a word more worthy than the overused cliché it has been exploited as. Actual community is intangible, something in the ether. Community means standing the test of time without buckling under pressure. Tried and true communities weather more human storms than one could ever imagine they might survive.

And then guess what happens?

Yep.

They survive.

Even in their ugliest moments.

Even when they are sad and confused and not sure what tomorrow might bring, they somehow persevere. Often, by gathering strength from their neighbors, from people they didn't even realize they were so connected to all along. The community rises. The town lives on. The community divides or dissipates? The town dies. Pennsylvania is loaded with towns that were once booming through better times. Those places have known better days, yet they continue to move forward, stumbling perhaps, but still around. Some will find their footing. The people will help it.

The others? Well, they'll continue to fracture and float away, flooded off by modern currents that proved too much. You know the kinds of towns I'm talking about. We've all driven through them. They're sad, desolate, and probably never coming back.

Bellefonte seems different though. This town appears to be on the upswing in a lot of ways.

But let me ask you this: what future do you envision for your community, for this town, for Bellefonte, Pennsylvania?

Or maybe what I'm really asking is: what future do you wish for her? Not necessarily envision… but wish.

That second question is the sort of polarizing one, I suppose. You aren't going to ask, say, an old farmer who's been working away at the fields on the edge of town for 50 years, and a young school teacher who moved here from some bigger city to teach our 2nd graders, to name their wish and get the same answer, are you?

Neighbors, coworkers, classmates; we park next to each other at kid's Little League games; we see each other by the Oreos in the snack aisle at Weis; in a community we live together, more or less, and deep down you know it; and yet… we vary. We are the same, but different. So when it comes to this elephant-sized question about what we hope to see happen in a place where we spend our lives, well, it's like: we all want Bellefonte to be everything she can possibly be, but that's never going to happen the exact way we hope or want, right?

So then what? I'm not sure.

One thing I do know though. Nothing stays the same. That much is certain. Life is moving along, usually faster as we go, and even when we try with all of our might and soul to throw it into some kind of ramshackle reverse, we simply cannot. The same goes for villages, cities, towns. Change is coming. To close your eyes and bite your lip a bit and say that you want Bellefonte to go back to how she used to be in 1944 or 1996 or whenever is to lie to yourself. And quite frankly, it's the lazy way out of the question.

Honestly, if that's your answer then I'm pretty sure you're more or less turning your back on Bellefonte by wishing her backwards when you know it isn't possible.

So I ask you again, with all due respect.

Where do we want Bellefonte to go?

It's your future. You tell it.

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"If it works, do not fix it. The status quo is comfortable; change is unknown and feared."

Michael I. Flickinger, CEO of Bellefonte's Greybeard Technology LLC,  is talking about the members of this Bellefonte community who maybe feel resistant to the kind of altering of the mental and physical landscapes that comes with progress. And he understands in a way.

Not everyone is comfortable with change. Change, he points out, is scary as heck.

"Although there is some blight in the town, in my short time here, I see minimal changes occurring to rectify some of the area," Mr. Flickinger explains. "I like the incremental changes happening. I also feel that local organizations, such as the Chamber, the Bellefonte Women’s Club, etc, are supporting many events to draw in people. I do understand those naysayers based upon the aforementioned reasoning, but I also feel that these people are needed because they are citizens of the community. It is difficult to turn these people over to the so-called light, but if you get some half way that is still a win."

This is a perfect voice to start with, I figure. As a small business owner in town, Mr. Flickinger has got a real vested interest in where things are headed. And yet, as someone who hasn't been kicking around here forever, he's also got a fresh pair of eyes to take in what's happening.

"I do believe that Bellefonte is headed in the right direction," he concludes. "I believe that the people and businesses are working hard to support the various activities of the borough."

Straddling the line between recognizing so much good happening around here and noticing that certain things still need work seems a sensible way to kick things off, don't you think? This series can't just be a rah-rah rally for the people who recognize and believe in the power of change for Bellefonte. It HAS to consider that some people- maybe even MANY people are downright terrified by what they simply cannot see or know. I love Mr. Flickinger's insight because he seems to grasp the reality here.

It's easy to chuckle at folks like that if we don't sense their apprehensions ourselves.

But it's probably the worst mistake any community can make. Turn your back on one group, you might as well turn your back on them all.

That's the whole point of community.

Duh.

"...if you get some half way that is still a win."

Exactly.

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"Change is inherently difficult but failure to change is the death of any organization. Change requires risk and the fear of loss is often a greater motivator than the possibility of a reward. Trying something new can be risky."

Nicole Summers words are steeped with street-savvy wisdom. As Executive Director of the Bellefonte FaithCentre, 110 W High St, for the last 11 years, Summers has seen a lot. She knows that this town isn't all Victorian architecture and history, that there are people here in urgent need. Real people; families hurting; kids who could use a hot meal or a jacket. The Faith Center's thrift store, food bank, and outreach programs have been a vital part of Centre County's attempt to help residents in need for a long time now.

So Summers' voice is another welcome one at this table. Her job is helping others. She knows things about this town that many residents might not always know. Or even want to know. Which means I was intensely curious about where she hopes Bellefonte is headed.

"Bellefonte has a blend of socioeconomic groups that, I think, is a little atypical of most communities. We have low-income housing just a few blocks from $400,000 homes," Summers notes. "We have rows of beautiful, historic homes yet over 50% of the children in Bellefonte Elementary School are eligible for free or reduced lunch. I think that this mix is one of the reasons why the Bellefonte community is very generous to local charities. Those who are well-off will see those who clearly aren't on a daily basis and may even likely know them. We don't have the insulation of a gated community."

In other words, we are together. We are many of us different in certain ways, but we are all here, and we are all in this together. In this town, in this life. Us, them, YOU… together.

But what about the future? Can a very old but smallish town survive these kinds of differences in the long run?

"I do think Bellefonte is on the right track," she continues. "Rather than trying to transform ourselves into a sleek, manicured community, it seems we are attracting artists and small business owners and embracing the beauty of our older homes and buildings," Summers explains. "Trying something new can be risky. I am the director of a local charity. Changing things up and launching new fundraisers is scary and sometimes keeps me awake at night but if we don't embrace expansion or change or the untried, we are going to be stuck in a constant holding pattern. I also suspect that every generation has viewed the one following it with trepidation."

Amen.

Then she adds one last thought that makes me smile.

"Even little things, like fashion trends, can be perplexing. As a Gen-Xer, I personally never understood the man bun. And it took me a while to decide I would wear skinny jeans. I'm now comfortable with both - probably just in time for styles to change into something that will initially strike me as absurd."

Oh yeah, point taken.

Change seems so wrong at first.

Until we put our guard down and see the light.

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"German, Indian, Thai, Mexican..."

I like the way Beth Whitman thinks.

In the middle of her answering all my rambling questions about the future of Bellefonte, she takes a moment to address something that… well… needs addressing. And that's the lack of variety in the restaurant scene here. I'm totally with her on this one too, by the way. Sure, sure, Bellefonte has burgers and Italian and Chinese and yes: those are the Holy Trinity, don't get us wrong. But what Whitman and I are advocating for cannot be cast aside as petty or incidental here.

Because a growing town walking headlong into the future needs variety.

Why?

Because more choices bring about more people who dig choices. And do you know what type of people dig choices?

Okay, I'll tell you.

More choices- in almost any capacity when it comes to small towns- brings exciting people. Interesting people. Folks with big ideas- or even little ideas- but ideas galore. People dreaming of an Indian buffet also dream other things. Like how to maybe move here and improve our lives with their talent and spirit. It might seem like a stretch, but I think it's often true.

Creative minds are enthralled by the notion of a Mediterranean joint opening downtown. They want to experience just a touch of the big city here in the small town. Is that really such a horrible notion? Does that honestly make you scared, this idea of having a little more 'cosmopolitan' touch down on High Street? Will it be the beginning of the end if a cool authentic Mexican taqueria flings open its doors right smack dab in the middle of town one of these days?

I hope it doesn't. I sure hope that doesn't scare you. But if it does, I guess you're not alone. That's what we're on about here, you know? This gulf between those of us who want Bellefonte to embrace change as a way of staying alive and those of us who think that most change will be the ruination of everything this town ever was.

Back to Beth, though. Beth Whitman. She might know a thing or two about change. And not just with the much-needed addition to some fresh menus on these streets either. After all, according to the website for her business, Inspired Holistic Wellness, 111 S Spring St #3, injuries and pain from an auto accident back in 2004 led Beth on a long, inspiring journey that ultimately resulted in her becoming both a Medical Reiki Master Karuna AND a Reiki Master Teacher.

Trauma and hurt might run a lot of people down. But some use it to their advantage, huh? Those are the ones we should probably pay close attention to. Especially when they're waxing poetic about where they want Bellefonte to be headed here in this 21st Century.

So I idd just that. I asked her.

Is Bellefonte on the right track heading into the next 10 or 20 years?

"Yes. Downtown Bellefonte Inc is a group coming together, offering fresh ideas that honor the history but engage the young professionals and families in the community. Volunteers are at the core of the movement," Whitman muses. "We are not all that different from other small towns. We have the same opportunities and struggles. What helps us stand out is the connection to the underground railroad, Victorian-era history, and our depth of volunteers committed to the town's continued revitalization."

Okay, sure. But why do you think some people are often resistant to change and progress?

"Change is scary for many," she continues. "It all comes down to fear. If we could find a way to bring them into the loop and help them understand that their voice is heard and they are seen, the change might be more palatable for them."

Still though.

"That being said, you can not please everyone and those with the ability to imagine a brighter future have an opportunity to shine a light where others can not yet see."

It's a point I'm hearing time and again from a variety of Bellefonte people. YES: change is scary. And YES: it's natural to be wary of anything we do not know or completely understand. But at what, these same people typically add, do we realize that our unwillingness to embrace progress is way more debilitating to a town like this than any new faces or ideas or Vietnamese lunch spots could EVER be.

Is it fear? Is it straight-up all about being downright afraid of change,end of story?!?!

"It is not about fear or being scared," Whitman offers. "What I see as a significant opportunity is to find a balance between respecting history and implementing the future. Many buildings are in a significant state of disrepair and that makes it very challenging for business owners to stay in the downtown area. It is also challenging to bring the merchants and service-oriented businesses together to generate momentum for events like First Sunday. Recruiting new retail business that offer something other than antiques. Too many different organizations and groups with similar names and niche projects make it very confusing for new arrivals to integrate into the community without a guide/coach."

That's food for thought, isn't it.

Maybe Indian food?

Maybe Thai?

When it's tomorrow we're discussing, well, the possibilities are quite endless indeed.

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