Shamokin officials, business owners weigh in on city's future
SHAMOKIN - The city's 150th anniversary celebration is underway, and not a moment too soon.
Shamokin is teetering on bankruptcy, some infrastructure is falling apart, its tax base is eroding and social ills appear as prevalent as ever.
Its woes are not unique. Municipalities across Pennsylvania are struggling to balance budgets, pay bills and meet the rising costs of pensions and health benefits. But its woes are real, and the city's fiscal solvency remains very much in doubt as it enters a state-run financial recovery program.
A simple stroll through Shamokin makes it evident that jobs are hard to come by, poverty and substance abuse are gripping more and more families and blighted properties overwhelm a landscape where proud owners struggle to keep it together and code and police officers struggle to keep up.
It's been a tough go for Shamokin in 2014, and the same could be said for the city in any number of years past. At 150 years old, now's as good a time as any for city officials, employees and residents alike to shrug off the albatross for a few days, breathe easy and enjoy a celebration for once.
"After 150 years we're still going, and we'll be going another 150," Mayor William D. Milbrand said. "We can still hold our heads high. Even though we're in trouble, we're going to come out of this."
Shamokin was accepted in June into the Act 47 program, the 21st active member, after the state agreed it met the standards for a financially distressed community. Its application for a $1,163,500 interest-free loan is still pending. The loan is needed quickly: Shamokin is predicted to run out of money by mid-August, and more than $811,000 in bills from 2013 are outstanding.
A financial adviser will be named this summer to help craft a long-term recovery plan. The plan will be made with input from city and state officials. It could include any number of directives, from cutbacks and layoffs to raising all existing taxes to the highest allowable amounts. It could be painful, Milbrand admitted, but he pledged to the city's taxpayers to do whatever it takes for Shamokin to come out of Act 47 stronger than when it went in.
But if Shamokin is going to have any sort of future, Milbrand said new revenue sources must be found. Revitalization is necessary, he said, and it should start in the downtown and spread out - clear lots for new storefronts or single homes. There are plenty of old buildings that could be targeted for demolition, but it will take commitment, and money, from government and private investors.
"If we're going to survive, we need to revitalize this city and we need to make it more attractive for people to want to live here," Milbrand said.
Councilwoman Barbara Moyer has faith. She sees volunteers with the fire companies, with Citizens for a Better Community, with Manna for the Many, as examples of the good in people who still call Shamokin home.
These types of people continue to seek ways to improve the city as best they can, something that can be passed from one generation to the next.
"It's the people of our community. That's the universal thing that hasn't changed in the last 150 years," the first-term councilwoman said of Shamokin's positive aspects.
When it comes to the city, she said its residents can be proud of at least two local landmarks - the American Legion Building and the Lawton W. Shroyer Memorial Swimming Pool.
The Legion buildings needs work, she admitted. After nearly 90 years, upgrades are necessary. A makeover seemed on the horizon but when talk of grant funding turned into a $2.8 million loan, plans were ultimately scuttled last year.
Moyer has a soft spot for it. Her great uncle, Wayne Bowman, was active after World War I in helping veterans receive benefits. She recalls visiting the Legion building with him, and with others. She continues those visits, specifically to the public library on its first floor.
As for the pool, it's a recreational opportunity in a city where some say there's little of that. She credited employee Larry Strausser with laboring yearly to keep it operational. The cost can be a strain, she said, but it's not worth giving up. It's a gem, she said, and one she hopes will remain for years to come.
In life there are highs and lows, and it goes for people and places. Shamokin's at a low, fair to say. Challenges are plenty. Moyer thinks they can be met over time. As to the highs, anniversary events could be seen as upward movement.
"I think the 150th is a reflection of the upside," Moyer said.
Need a plan
Small steps, that's what it will take. Small steps in the right direction. It could take 20, 30 years, but recovery is possible.
So says Malcolm Farrow, former councilman, current housing authority member. He's co-owner of a family business, Farrow Funeral Home, that's been around since 1876. It's nearly as old as Shamokin itself, which was incorporated as a borough in 1864 and as a city in 1950.
Farrow believes that for Shamokin to shed its existing debt and avoid such debt in the future, nitpicking is necessary. Scrutinize every dollar spent. Sure, it'll be an annoyance, but he calls it a necessary evil. So, too, will be cutting expenses. That could create enemies.
"It's one of those things you just have to do, and you have to keep at it constantly," Farrow said.
A plan is a necessity, and one is expected from the city's enrollment in Act 47. Chart a course, stick with it and bury partisan politics along the way.
The dress factories that had employed thousands in Shamokin are remembered fondly by those old enough to have worked there, or whose relatives did. They're long gone. Industry in this square-mile city is next to nil.
Across the country, manufacturing and warehouses - the types of industries that employ thousands - have set up shop in industrial parks next to major highways. But Farrow believes small industry, the types that employ 50, 100 even, can thrive in a small place off the beaten path. A small place like Shamokin. There's rail links, a good water source. It's possible, but it will take public funding for redevelopment and private investors.
"Shamokin's future, I think it has a future," Farrow said, pointing to the turnaround of Jim Thorpe. "But you need an idea of what the future should be. We haven't done that. Nobody's really codified with what they think we can do and make it grow."
The 'M' word
Six letters, when strung together, will start a conversation like none other in Shamokin: merger.
Shamokin and Coal Township overlap in culture, in demographics and in challenges. The latter's surely aren't as pronounced, and Coal Township has its collective head above water. It also has more potential with its own industrial park, albeit with just one tenant, and space to build single family homes. But the costs to run municipal government - pensions and health care and police and street department equipment - are trending upward in the 17866, too. Mutual savings could result as services are streamlined: one police department, one street department. One.
Of all the questions a merger would bring, "why" is the greatest, as in, "Why would Coal Township want to assume Shamokin's debt?"
It shouldn't, Farrow said. Tom Kearns, longtime operator of Harry's Fine Food in the city, agrees. Both see merger as a natural fit. Both identify many hurdles to leap to make it happen. And both agree a tax structure could be created to prevent township residents from assuming the city's burden.
But if either community is going to thrive in the future, they said there's a better chance of it happening if they come together as one.
"Politicians are missing the best opportunity to set the area up for the future," Kearns said. "It's time this area looks to the future, and you do it by combining Shamokin and Coal Township."
They called a merger a "jointure" back in the 1960s when Shamokin and Coal Township high schools were combined. Animosity still exists, in part because of a football rivalry long dead. Even so, bad feelings have been passed down to generations that know only of Shamokin Area, but look warily across the border into the other side of town.
Farrow and Kearns, interviewed separately, both laugh at the idea that football would still be a wedge in this community nearly 50 years after the final game between the two old schools.
"To hang onto that kind of vitriol that long is just amazing to me. It's one of the things that I think keeps us from reaching our full potential," Farrow said.
'Fell in love'
Kearns still labels himself an outsider. He moved here 50 years ago, the year of the famed centennial celebration. He was 16 years old and arrived from New York City.
"I fell in love with (Shamokin), if only for the fact that, hell, they were partying all the time," Kearns said from behind the bar at Harry's, taking a break before the dinner crowd arrived.
He went to Our Lady of Lourdes, fell for and married his wife, Barbara, and worked at her family's restaurant before the two became co-owners 25 years ago - or if we're measuring in Shamokin celebrations, the 125th anniversary.
The sesquicentennial, 150 years, is now. Kearns looks at a community where the middle class has eroded as jobs disappeared, and senior citizens and people at or near poverty remain on fixed incomes. There hasn't been much going for Shamokin, but there's been a turn, he said.
On the horizon, even if in Coal Township, is the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area. It won't bring a bevy of jobs, but it's something.
"The AOAA is the first positive force where community leaders have a vision. Even if it's just a tourist attraction, at least it will bring people here," Kearns said.
Locals could benefit by taking risks to capitalize on the tourism. Investment could follow.
Someone who has invested already is local Realtor and former appraiser Joe Bressi. He and family operate Earthday Campground and two rental homes on 123 acres outside Gowen City. The property rests between the AOAA and state game land. Bressi originally wanted to subdivide the land. When the idea of the AOAA gained momentum, he held off.
Bressi bought Jack Martin's realty business in 1984. A decade before that, he was a Coal Township commissioner. It's hard to believe for someone who wasn't around then, but he said blighted properties was an even greater problem locally 40 years ago. The township worked with the state to raze buildings, got upward of $40,000 to do so.
But blight is still an issue that needs addressing.
Bressi suggested tightening the screws on absentee landlords. Too often, he said, out-of-towners snatch up dilapidated homes from tax sale, sight unseen. If they figure renovations are too costly, they let it sit until local government again inherits it for back taxes, and it's again up for tax sale.
A better buyer would be a local, someone interested in getting a rundown property cheap and demolishing it to make room for a new garage or a larger backyard, he said.
A better buyer, yet, would be an informed buyer. Entering a property available at tax sale is forbidden. Bressi said that should change. At the least, a building inspector should be allowed to enter an available property to assess the cost to bring it up to remodel, or simply bring it up to code.
Bressi himself once bought a home from tax sale. He spent 1 1/2 years working on it. It needed a new roof, new electrical and heating systems. It was a white elephant, costing him more to remodel than it was worth.
"I think it's the responsibility of the government to educate these buyers because they don't know what they're doing," Bressi said, adding that regulations should also be put in place to allow Northumberland County to be choosy in who's buying at tax sale.
In addressing blight in the city, Bressi said officials should concentrate more on demolition than rehabilitation.
Code officer Rick Bozza and police Cpl. Bryan Primerano have frequently targeted property owners of rundown homes with some success. Problem is, there are too many targets. Bozza has also worked with city council to choose five properties for demolition with grant funds obtained in conjunction with the county's housing authority.
Kearns noted that Bozza is working hard, doing the best he can. He suggests code and police keep an eye on the small stuff, too, violations for broken windows and other nuisances that could keep small problems from getting bigger.
Shamokin took such a step two years ago when it enacted a new ticketing system for nuisance violations - high grass, garbage piles - with fines that start as low as $25.