Barletta takes walking tour of Shamokin
SHAMOKIN - U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-11) says he remains a mayor at heart.
As the Republican congressman walked along Independence Street with city Mayor George Rozinskie and other community leaders Friday afternoon, Barletta said he understands the battles the small city is facing because he's been there before; he was mayor of Hazleton for 10 years.
He caught himself turning to answer when others said, "Mayor," although they were addressing Rozinskie during the 90-minute walking tour of downtown businesses. Barletta said his Washington staff bought him a hat with the moniker emblazoned on the front.
"I keep it in my office so when I go to vote, I understand how my vote impacts places like Shamokin," Barletta said. He added, "I can never take my thumb off the pulse of communities like Shamokin, so I don't lose my way in Washington."
Can't leave without a Coney
Barletta's visit to Shamokin started at Original Italian Pizza on Independence Street, where he ate lunch with Rozinskie, Councilmember William Milbrand, City Clerk Steve Bartos, Brush Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce director Whitney Fetterman, Susquehanna Bank branch manager Deb Yeager, FNB Bank manager and chamber board president Pamela Burns and Barletta's district director, Joe Gerdis, and director of communications, Tim Murtaugh.
After lunch, the group walked east on Independence Street and stopped at Coney Island Lunch, where the congressman ordered one "up" with no onions. While he has eaten similar food at Jimmy's Quick Lunch in Hazleton, it was the first Coney dog he's eaten in Shamokin.
"There was no way I was leaving without eating a hot dog, even though I just had lunch," he said.
In the 80 minutes that followed the Coney snack, the congressman visited Susquehanna Bank on East Independence Street, The Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy and State Farm Agent Greg Klebon on North Shamokin Street, Bader's Fine Furniture on North Liberty Street and Beverly's Flower Shop, Assisted Home Care and VNA Health System on West Independence Street.
"I was impressed with many of the business owners who have been in business for 40, 50 years, continuing even through this bad economy," Barletta said. Coney Island has been in business for 95 years, Bader's has been owned by the Shebelsky family for 60 years and Beverly's has been in business for 43 years.
Sharon Wichurowski, a cook at Coney Island, said patrons have left the area or passed on, and it's important that jobs return so the younger generation can stick around.
"You can see our town is dying. We need the work. We need to bring things back," she said.
Sherri Shebelski, owner of Bader's, told Barletta she was happy he voted to restart the government after the federal shutdown, and said the struggling economy has made owning a small business difficult.
"I told him I look it as a challenge rather than a struggle," she said.
The congressman told her she was thinking along the right lines, to conserve and don't give up.
"It's a great thing," she said. "They (Congress) need to see what small town life is like."
Beverly Katalenas, owner of the flower shop, told Barletta to stick to his principles.
Tom Bradley, owner of Medicine Shoppe, said the city mayor sometimes comes to visit, but it was nice for Barletta to come into town and talk to the people.
Barletta said he feels the pain of the city's struggles and can understand how difficult it is to operate without funding and help from Washington.
Many of the problems places like Shamokin face are the same - lack of funds, blight, absentee landlords, aging infrastructure and a diminishing taxbase, he said.
Barletta, who had to cancel a visit to Mount Carmel last week and planned to visit Sunbury after Shamokin Friday, said he needs to listen to the people and their challengers.
"I want to get to know everyone, the local businesses, the local community leaders, and the people, and let them get to know me as well," he said. "Build that relationship so I can help, because we really need to work together as partners."
Barletta's district lines were realigned to include Shamokin and other local municipalities for the 2012 election. The new district borders became effective this year.
Visit means a lot
Milbrand said Barletta's visit means a lot to council and the people of Shamokin.
"We're not just stuck in little Shamokin and they're down there in Washington forgetting all about us," he said. "It makes them (the residents) feel like we're actually more than a dot on the map."
He and Barletta spoke briefly about blighted properties and lack of funding and what solutions could be implemented.
Barletta said a block of houses in Hazleton was purchased by the city, torn down and replaced with new houses built to revitalize the neighborhood.
"That's what he did as mayor of Hazleton and it worked well," Milbrand said.
Rozinskie also mentioned blight and economic revitalization to Barletta.
"He's glad to help us any way he can," he said.
Mayor walks tour
The mayor was forced to cut his time short due to pain from a fall down a flight of 15 stairs at his home three months ago. He spent almost three weeks in the hospital.
Dressed in a suit and tie, Rozinskie walked along for most of the tour, but headed home after visiting to Bader's.
His next medical check-up is in November, he said.