Vibrant Rural Communities: Lewistown, Pennsylvania

This case study was researched and written by Parrish Bergquist, NADO Research Foundation Graduate Fellow.

In the mid-1990s, Tom Grbenick with the SEDA-Council of Governments (SEDA-COG) received a call from a banker who wanted to discuss revitalizing downtown Lewistown, Pennsylvania. Following their conversation, Grbenick initiated a downtown planning process, but merchants showed little interest in the initiative. Changing tacks, SEDA-COG led a regional planning process to explore relevant issues in Lewistown Borough and five neighboring municipalities whose residents consider Lewistown their hometown. Grbenick recalls, “What was the key issue to emerge during the regional planning process? Concern about the demise of downtown Lewistown.” Grbenick and his staff at SEDA-COG channeled that interest into a downtown visioning process, aided by support from local legislators, and this time captured the enthusiasm of downtown merchants.

Two companies donated land to allow for the extension of Montgomery Avenue, offering a much-improved entryway into one of Lewistown’s major parks (click to enlarge) (source: DLI, Inc.).

Supported by a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, SEDA-COG, the Lewistown Borough, and other stakeholders organized a downtown revitalization task force. They drafted a strategy and prepared a successful application to the Pennsylvania Main Street Program, which provided funding for five years of downtown revitalization. In 1998, Downtown Lewistown, Inc. (DLI) was formed to spearhead redevelopment efforts, and in 2000, the partners adopted Coming Home: The Charter Plan for Downtown Lewistown. In 2007, Lewistown joined the Pennsylvania Elm Street Program, which targets residential neighborhoods bordering downtowns. The program operates under the principle that vibrant neighborhoods surrounding downtowns contribute to the central business district’s vitality.

Since revitalization efforts began, public and private entities have re-used vacant structures, renovated public and private buildings, redeveloped former industrial sites, improved public spaces, and attracted new businesses to a transformed   downtown. Revitalization began with the conversion of a closed department store into the Mifflin County Regional Business Center, a project that demonstrates Lewistown’s success at forging public-private partnerships. Working with DLI’s predecessor organization—the Greater Lewistown Corporation—SEDA-COG developed a study and proposal for the 54,000 square-foot building’s adaptive re-use.  Tenant leases funded the operations, with Lewistown Hospital committing initially to lease 10,000 square feet of space for off campus mental health services along with Penn State and Cooperative Extension Service. Later, Mifflin County located various offices in the new center. By 2003, over 100 employees worked in the building, which has maintained about 95% occupancy (data source: DLI 2003 Annual Report).

Public and private investment has continued through the years, expanding the available office and commercial space available in downtown Lewistown. For example, a private developer invested $2.5 million to convert an abandoned warehouse into the Community Partners Allied in Social Services (COMPASS) building. The Mifflin County Industrial Development Corporation (MCIDC) helped finance the project with tax-exempt industrial development bonds. The building houses about 75 employees, working for a variety of drug abuse, rehabilitation, and community health organizations. These workers enjoy easy access to Lewistown’s riverwalk, parks, and downtown amenities (see DLI 2009 Annual Report).

A private developer–using financing from tax-exempt industrial development bonds–invested $2.5 million to convert an abandoned warehouse in to the COMPASS building, which houses about 75 employees working for a variety of community organizations (source: DLI, Inc.).

The County also obtained $1.9 million from the State of Pennsylvania to rehabilitate its historic courthouse, and $15.4 million to build a new correctional facility. According to DLI’s Executive Director Jim Zubler, the expansion of office space downtown has created a consumer base for downtown businesses: “Employees frequent downtown during lunch hours, utilizing the facilities of town.” From 1999 to 2009, Lewistown saw 150,000 square feet of vacant space filled and four “’white elephant’ buildings” rehabilitated. Two hundred new jobs were created and 35 new businesses opened (and remained open) in the downtown (DLI 2009 Annual Report).

Public funding has contributed to Lewistown’s revitalization, but the Borough has done an exemplary job of matching government dollars with private investment. For example, the Design Challenge Grant Program funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development helped fund façade improvements for downtown commercial buildings. Over ten years, the program provided over $75,312 for 32 projects, matched by $556,890 of private investment.

The Design Challenge Grant Program helped pay for facade improvements at 5 East Third Street in downtown Lewistown. The Program provided over $75,000 for facade improvements downntown, matched by $633,202 in private investment (source: DLI, Inc.).

Helping to foster a vibrant and livable downtown environment, the Borough and County have directed $3.4 million in local, State, and Federal funding for streetscape improvements, $300,000 for a new street expansion project, $130,000 for the first segment of a riverwalk with provisions for bike and pedestrian trails, $1.5 million to upgrade street running railroad track including rail stabilization, water line replacement and street reconstruction. They have directed $1.1 million in the construction of a new community center and $30 million in new upgrades to the waste water treatment facility meeting Chesapeake Bay regulations serving the Greater Lewistown area (source: Jim Zubler, DLI, Inc.).

Local residents and businesses have contributed to these projects.  For example, local property owners paid the engineering costs for the Monument Square streetscape improvement project, and Omega Bank, now First National Bank, donated land for the riverwalk project. Two companies donated parcels of land that allowed the Borough to create a new street offering a much-improved entryway into one of its major parks.

One cornerstone project reaching completion is Mann Edge Terrace, a 31-unit elderly housing project set to open this fall on a former brownfield site in the “Elm Street” neighborhood. MCIDC, working with the multi-county SEDA-COG Housing Development Corporation, channeled $5.5 million in private tax credits, federal, and state funds to a former manufacturing site immediately adjacent to the downtown.  Zubler notes, “We’ve enjoyed good success through joint interworking of the public and private sectors, helping to provide the incentives, and helping to see projects through.”

Zubler credits Lewistown’s revival to public entities’ support and to a strong private-sector investment culture. Anticipating a tight fiscal future, he believes the community must devise creative ways to foster investment and cultivate public-private partnerships. DLI’s organizational structure provides a good example. Throughout the Main Street and Elm Street Programs’ implementation, the State of Pennsylvania, local governments, and businesses have provided significant financial support to DLI. With the exhaustion of Elm Street Program funding in 2013, the full budgetary burden will fall on local entities. To meet these new challenges, DLI is transitioning into a new county-wide organization, and it has already secured pledges from local governments, businesses, and industry groups to support its operations.

Fountain Square Park will serve as the anchor for the East End, a residential neighborhood near downtown where Lewistown is focusing Elm Street Program revitalization efforts (source: DLI, Inc.).

Zubler believes that the new organization will build on two decades of comprehensive but focused community revitalization. Returning to the program’s genesis in regional planning, the new organization’s county-wide focus will make Lewistown and Mifflin County competitive as a complement to nearby employment centers. Zubler says, “If we continue to revitalize the community one house, block, and neighborhood at a time, it will be a very good day going forward.”


This is part of the NADO Research Foundation’s Vibrant Rural Communities series of case studies, which describes how rural regions and small towns across the country are growing local and regional economies and creating stronger communities. This series shows how communities can leverage a wide range of tools and resources to build on their assets, protect their resources, and make strategic investments that offer long-term benefits.

This project is based in part upon work supported by the Federal Highway Administration under Agreement No. DTFH61-10-C-00047. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.


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Regional Development Researcher Andrew Coker joined the NADO team in March of 2023 after spending two and a half years as the Regional Economic Resiliency Coordinator at West Central Arkansas Planning and Development District. Andrew holds a bachelor’s degree from Hendrix College and a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

At NADO, Andrew conducts research on the newest economic and community development best practices from Economic Development Districts across the country. He helps produce easily digestible information on complex regional issues through case studies, tip sheets, and research reports. Andrew also hosts training and professional development opportunities including conference sessions and virtual webinars for member regional development organizations.

Andrew is one of our Missouri-based team members and enjoys reading and training for his next triathlon.

Jack Morgan came to the NADO team in 2022 after seven years with the National Association of Counties (NACo) as a Program and Senior Program Manager. Prior to NACo, Jack was a Policy Analyst for Friends of Southwest Virginia. Jack holds a bachelor’s in geography from Emory & Henry College and a master’s in geography from Appalachian State University.

As a NADO Senior Program Manager, Jack leads capacity-building and peer-learning work supporting energy communities in economic transition, regional resilience, and recreation economies. He also helps with the EDA-Austin training program Emerging Leaders.

Jack is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) and is a member of the American Planning Association (APA) in the Regional & Intergovernmental Planning division. He also serves on the Emory & Henry College Alumni Board.

Taking road trips, reading non-fiction, and indulging in top-notch barbecue and coffee round out Jack’s days. He loves maps, mountains, and of course, all things sports.

Karron Grant joined the NADO team in 2023 as Administrative Specialist and is the first face (or voice) you’ll see or hear when reaching out to NADO. As Administrative Specialist, Karron manages our database and coordinates NADO event operations. He ensures members’ needs are met, contact information stays current, and NADO’s office is running efficiently.

Karron came to NADO after four years in the classroom teaching at The New Century School and Old Mill Middle North where he received the Patriot of the Year award. He attended Towson University and the University of Maryland Global Campus and holds a bachelor’s in international studies and humanities.

Visiting art galleries and museums, playing basketball and bowling, and taking in movies and music are some of Karron’s interests and hobbies.

Deputy Executive Director Laurie Thompson has been with NADO for 25 years. Laurie helps keep the NADO and NADO Research Foundation wheels turning through management of the daily operations of the Research Foundation, securing financial resources and overseeing grants management, and helping execute NADO’s Annual Training Conference each year.

Laurie holds a bachelor’s in public affairs and government from Mount Vernon College and a master’s in health services administration from The George Washington University. Prior to NADO, Laurie spent time as a Field Specialist and an Eagle Staff Fund Director at First Nations Development Institute.

When she’s taking a rare reprieve from her NADO work, Laurie enjoys traveling domestically and internationally to visit friends and family.

Jamie McCormick joined the NADO team as a Policy Fellow first in 2019, then moved into her current role as Legislative Associate in 2021. As Legislative Associate, Jamie keeps NADO members apprised of any policy and regulatory issues and communicates NADO’s policy priorities to federal stakeholders and partner organizations. She is also the first stop for members with inquiries on policy issues. The planning and execution of NADO & DDAA’s annual Washington Conference is also managed by Jamie.

Jamie holds a dual bachelor’s in political science and international relations from The State University of New York College at Geneseo and a master’s in international development studies from The George Washington University. In addition to her roles at NADO, Jamie also worked as a Legislative Assistant for the Northeastern Retail Lumber Association.

Outside of her NADO work, Jamie is an active volunteer with the VOLO Kids Foundation and a fundraiser for YMCA youth programs. She is also NADO’s resident baker regularly providing treats for those in NADO’s D.C. office. Traveling, taking her pup on walks, and hiking in the northeast keep Jamie busy. 

Brett Schwartz began at NADO in 2012 as a Research Fellow after earning his J.D. from the University of Baltimore School of Law. The following year, he was promoted to Program Manager and has now been leading as an Associate Director since 2018. Brett is responsible for managing NADO’s Economic Development District Community of Practice (EDD CoP), as well as researching and monitoring the latest trends in regional economic development and resilience, including best practices for the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS). With more than a decade of experience on the NADO team, Brett is a dynamic relationship builder helping connect and build capacity among the national network of regional development organizations.

Brett also holds a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a master’s from Trinity College Dublin, as well as a certificate in mediation training. He’s a member of Catalyst Grantmakers of San Diego and Imperial Counties and was a participant in the 2021-22 Field Trips to the Future Cohort.

Brett is one of NADO’s West Coast team members residing in San Diego, CA where he enjoys spending time outdoors, attending concerts and festivals, and soaking up life as a parent of two young children.  

Communications Manager Katie Allison joined the team in 2023 to lead the strategic communication efforts of NADO. Katie creates and develops print and online materials, communicates NADO’s updates to members via weekly emails, and maintains content for and NADO’s social media channels. She also works with different departments to generate new ideas and strategies to effectively describe and promote the important work NADO is doing for EDDs and RDOs across the country.

An experienced nonprofit communications professional, Katie has worked for organizations in western North Carolina for nearly a decade. She holds a bachelor’s in communications from Wingate University where she was a four-year student athlete. Katie has also completed Vision Henderson County, a comprehensive leadership development program that promotes informed and committed civic volunteerism.

Katie stays busy trying to keep up with her two young sons whom she enjoys exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains with. Traveling to new and favorite places and cheering on the Atlanta Braves are some of her family’s favorite pastimes.

Senior Program Manager Ciara Ristig has been a member of the NADO team since 2021, and helps with NADO’s EDD Community of Practice, EDD staff capacity building and other grants on a range of subjects, including equity and solar energy. Before NADO, Ciara worked as a Planner for the County of Santa Barbara and an Assistant Project Manager for REM Consult. Ciara holds a bachelor’s in urban studies and French from Bryn Mawr and a master’s in urban studies from Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris.

When she’s not traveling, you can find her outrigger paddling and serving on the board of the Blue Sky Center in New Cuyama, CA, near her home base of Santa Barbara.

Carrie Kissel has been a member of the NADO team since 2005 when she began as a Research Fellow. She later moved into the roles of Program Manager in 2006, and then Associate Director in 2011. Carrie holds a bachelor’s in anthropology from Ball State University and a master’s in public anthropology from American University. As Associate Director, Carrie oversees NADO’s work in rural transportation and rural wealth creation. She provides technical assistance and support to rural regions on transportation and economic development issues and develops training and peer exchange events on transportation issues and rural wealth creation as an economic development strategy.

Carrie is a member of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and secretary of TRB’s Rural Transportation Issues Coordinating Council. She is also a member of the American Anthropological Association and the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.

Reading, gardening, hiking, and kayaking are a few of Carrie’s hobbies, and she organizes and facilitates a DEI/social justice-focused book club in her community.

Melissa Levy has worked at NADO as a Regional Development Researcher since February 2023 and is the Principal Consultant at her own firm specializing in wealth-based economic development consulting. With a career spanning nearly 30 years, Melissa brings a breadth of knowledge to her role as a Regional Development Researcher. Melissa provides in-depth research, coaching, and training on regional economic resilience, rural wealth creation strategies, and economic development.

Melissa is a North American Food Systems Network trained AgriCluster Resilience and Expansion (ACRE) facilitator and a WealthWorks coach, facilitator, and trainer. In addition to her professional work, Melissa serves on the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Council, on the board of the Hinesburg Community Resource Center, and on the Hinesburg Economic Development Committee.

A true outdoorswoman, Melissa enjoys cross country and downhill skiing, paddleboarding, hiking, biking, and kayaking, as well as yoga, and teaching Tai Chi.

Program Manager Krishna Kunapareddy began her role with NADO in February of 2023 after 14 years of service at Boonslick Regional Planning Commission in Missouri. Krishna manages NADO Research Foundation’s Planning and Environmental Linkages and Center for Environmental Excellence projects. In addition to researching and writing, Krishna also conducts virtual workshops on innovative tools and techniques related to transportation planning.

She holds an undergraduate degree from Andhra University and a master’s from JNT University in India, as well as a master’s in city and regional planning from the University of Texas at Arlington. Krishna is also a certified Smart Cities Academy Practitioner and holds the Location Advantage certificate from geographic information system software company ESRI.

In her spare time, Krishna volunteers with Mentors4College helping high schoolers better plan for their post-high school paths. She is also a dedicated advocate for documented H4 Dreamers.

Krystal DeLeon joined the NADO team in October of 2020 as Database & Grants Manger, but in January of 2022 transitioned to her current role as Operations Manager. Krystal keeps NADO running through behind the scenes work of invoicing, solving any database issues that may arise, producing membership reports, and much more. Her organizational skills and thorough knowledge help the NADO team operate more efficiently across all departments.

Prior to NADO, Krystal was the Conference Services Coordinator for State Services Organization. She is a Certified Meeting Professional (CMP), a licensed realtor, and holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Liberty University. When she’s not keeping NADO’s operations in order, Krystal enjoys running and rock climbing, and adventuring with her husband and son.

Senior Program Manager Bret Allphin joined NADO in April of 2022 bringing with him a wealth of knowledge after a 20-year career with Buckeye Hills Regional Council in Marietta, Ohio. In addition to his bachelor’s in political science and master’s in public affairs, Bret is licensed Geographical Information Systems Professional (GISP). He is NADO’s go-to team member for all things mapping while also supporting members with transportation and economic development technical assistance services.

An avid sports aficionado and former collegiate athlete, Bret enjoys cheering on his Cincinnati Reds, hitting the trails on his mountain bike, and improving his golf game whenever possible. Bret is an involved community member in Marietta dedicating much of his spare time to serving on local nonprofit boards.

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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.

Joe has thirty-one years of experience having served in city, county, regional, national association, and government management since 1991. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Analysis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a candidate for a master’s degree in Public Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.

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