Historic hotel helping revitalization of downtown Philipsburg
In 2007, attorney Faith Lucchesi and a group of investors she represented toured the dilapidated building that was once home to the iconic Philips Hotel in Philipsburg, Pa.
When the group reached the grand ballroom on the seventh floor, Lucchesi, a Philipsburg native, recalled suddenly feeling the urge to try and stop the deal from being finalized. Aware of the Philips Hotel’s historical significance, Lucchesi knew that the property had “too much potential for it to be converted into Section Eight Housing,” which was the intention of the investment group.
After failing to convince her clients to change their plans, Lucchesi -- who possessed almost no prior experience in real estate -- and her husband Tony DeBoef bought the building from the group of investors in 2008.
Now after nearly four years and more than $2 million in renovations, Lucchesi and DeBoef have returned the grandeur that once made the Philips Hotel one of the premiere destinations in central Pennsylvania.
While restoring the hotel has been an arduous process, Lucchesi says “it’s definitely been a rewarding experience to help preserve such a significant part of Philipsburg’s history.”
The efforts by Lucchesi and DeBoef are indicative of the community-wide initiative to bring prosperity back to a Philipsburg, as residents and local business owners have worked with regional, as well as national, programs to breathe life back into the downtown main street.
Philipsburg, however, is just one of many small towns across rural Pennsylvania where community members seek to reverse the steady economic decline that has transformed the downtown of these communities. Slowly, many of towns are beginning to regain some of the luster lost over the past 40 years.
Trying to survive a changing economy
Like many small towns across the state, Philipsburg has fallen a long way from the halcyon days, when its population was well above 3,000, and its main street was an artery of economic and social activity.
This decline, which bottomed out in the in 1980s, was due in large part to the loss of two major manufacturing plants in the area, which had been a major source of employment, according to Dr. Albert Luloff, a professor of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
However, Philipsburg was not unique.
The loss of manufacturing jobs was a trend that affected communities in rural Pennsylvania collectively during the latter half of the 20th century. Between 1979 and 2005, the manufacturing sector’s share of Pennsylvania’s total employment fell from 25 percent to 13 percent, as jobs were exported and factories shut down, according to the Keystone Research Center, an independent Pennsylvania economic think tank.
Without the abundance of jobs provided by the manufacturing sector, Dr. Luloff explained, rural communities across the state were unable to retain residents and consequently sustain substantial losses in population.
These losses are concentrated in western Pennsylvania. According to a 2009 report completed by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, the rural population in the western half of the state declined by three percent since 1970, while the rural population in the east actually increased over 20 percent during the same time period.
The regional discrepancy – referred to as the “two faces of Pennsylvania” by Dr. Luloff – is due to the decline of manufacturing in western Pennsylvania and the increase of suburban sprawl in the east during the 1970s, he said, which is “precipitated a very protracted period of decline, and is something that’s likely to continue.”
Philipsburg has been at the center of the downward trend.
Over the past 30 years, Philipsburg’s population has declined from 3,533 in 1980, to 2,770 in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.
The population loss is one of the fundamental causes of Philipsburg’s economic downturn, says Dr. Luloff. “It’s a simple matter of there being fewer people to contribute to the local economy.”
Beyond a shrinking populace, a perpetual shortage of jobs also makes it difficult to for the Philipsburg to retain younger residents, explained Dr. Luloff.
“Younger residents are simply going to follow the jobs,” he said. “And that’s why Philipsburg and, other small towns in Pennsylvania, have aging populations.”
Between 2000 and 2010, the median age of Philipsburg has increased from 39.2 years to 43.5, according to the Census Bureau. In addition, the 2010 Census shows that 20 percent of Philipsburg’s population is above the age of 65, eight percentage points higher than the national average.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Dr. Luloff said. “The tax base has declined over the past twenty years in rural communities, therefore, the town has limited resources to fix the existing infrastructural problems, which means bringing people and economic activity back is a difficult problem that can only be solved with a community-wide effort.”
The state steps in
Over the past 20 years, the Pennsylvania state government has made revitalizing rural communities a high priority, through the creation of programs like the Pennsylvania Downtown Center and the Department of Community and Economic Development.
These initiatives, which provide grants, and other incentives, to towns and businesses, have engendered community-wide efforts to reinvigorate stagnant economies across rural Pennsylvania.
Philipsburg’s Main Street Program is at the forefront of this campaign.
Founded in 1999 by the Philipsburg Revitalization Corporation with the help of state funding, the Main Street Program was created with the intention of directing state grants to local investors who had either just started a business or were looking to get one off the ground, according to Emily Gette-Doyle, the Main Street Program manager.
In 2005, the Main Street Program was incorporated into the Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership (MVEDP), an initiative intended to bring economic prosperity back to Philipsburg and other communities in the Moshannon Valley, made up of western Centre and eastern Clearfield counties.
Since the Main Street Program became a part of the MVEDP, it has expanded beyond directing public grants, although it still remains a big part of the initiative, Gette-Doyle said.
“[The Main Street Program] has become comprehensive approach to downtown revitalization,” she said. “We provide guidance to potential business owners and also connect them with property owners in the downtown.”
The Main Street Program also assists existing local business in the downtown by using social networking sites like Facebook and traditional forms of advertising to promote events on the main street as well as the individual businesses themselves, she said.
In addition, Gette-Doyle said the Main Street Program has been working with other organizations, like America Unchained, headed by the American Independent Business Alliance, and American Express’ Small Business Saturday. These relationships, and others like them, have been really beneficial for businesses in Philipsburg, as well as similar communities around the state, Gette-Doyle said.
“These types of programs are trying to steer people in the community back to the downtown and make them realize that shopping local really can make a big difference in our local economy,” Gette-Doyle said. “They really help [the Main Street Program] show people that it’s our friends and neighbors who own businesses downtown, not some faraway corporation.”
In the 12 years since the program began, according to the Main Street Program’s economic data, there has been over $2.5 million in private investments in Philipsburg’s downtown. These investments have led directly to the opening of 27 new businesses, which include new restaurants and stores like the Retro Eatery and Universal Furniture.
“We are really seeing a lot of positive changes in the downtown area,” Gette-Doyle said.
“You’re really starting to see people shopping at malls less and going into the downtown more and giving these local businesses support.”
A prominent starting point
The Philips Hotel is at the center of Philipsburg’s downtown revival.
An impressive, seven-story structure with an Art Deco brick façade, the hotel stands prominently above the low-lying storefronts that line the streets of downtown.
It is certainly a reflection of town’s past prosperity.
Built in 1921, the Philips Hotel was home to a number of local politicians and served as a place for coal barons and businessmen to stay during trips to Philipsburg in the 1920s and 1930s. Lucchesi said that the Philips Hotel also was at the center of the town’s social scene.
“Every Thursday night, there would be a dance party held in the grand ballroom,” Lucchesi said. “People would come from towns across central Pennsylvania just for the dance party here at the Philips.”
“It’s really what made the hotel famous,” she added.
In 1965, amidst a declining economy, the Philips Hotel went out of business, and starting in 1980 the building was used an assisted living facility, which operated until 2005.
When Lucchesi and her husband bought the hotel in 2008, Lucchesi says that the building was severely dilapidated.
“Another six months and you wouldn’t have been able to save this building,” Lucchesi said.
“The structure was nearing a point where it would have been cost prohibitive to open it up again.”
Now, nearly five years later, the investment Lucchesi and her husband have made have returned much of the ambiance back to the Philips Hotel.
The expansive dining room is framed by ornate moldings and a ceiling that is over 20 feet high, creating a luxuriously spacious atmosphere. And on the top floor, the grand ballroom is the defining feature of the hotel, most certainly a venue that approaches the definition of elegance. Its glistening dance floor, elaborate woodwork and a breathtaking view overlooking the Moshannon Valley demonstrate why such optimism surrounds the totel.
In addition to hotel rooms, Lucchesi says portions of the building are going to be developed into office and condominium space, according to “shifts in market demands over the next couple of years.”
The building is “going to have a big impact on the downtown,” Gette-Doyle said. “It’s exactly the type of development we need in the downtown.”
Lucchesi says that the hotel’s relationship with the Main Street program has been very beneficial “as we continue to make a name for ourselves as a place for people to eat, live, work and come together.”
Apart from the business standpoint, the renovation of the Philips Hotel has also been a rewarding process because of the people from her childhood and teenage years that she has been able to reconnect with since returning to work in Philipsburg, Lucchesi said.
“It shows the communal bonds that form within small towns,” she said. “There’s definitely a common thread that brings everyone together and that’s the strength of towns like Philipsburg.”
(Milton Lindsay wrote this story for Comm 462.)