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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