Legislator examines downtown upgrades

By:  David Thompson

Job creation and development can be a difficult thing to find in Pennsylvania and the nation during a tough economy, but following a brief tour Tuesday of Williamsport's downtown, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said he saw a lot to be positive about.

Casey briefly joined with city and state officials for the tour, which included stops at the city's Trade and Transit Centre, the new Marriott Hotel, and the Kohl's department store.

"It's particularly difficult in a tough economy to create jobs and opportunities in the central core of the city," Casey said. "When you see it happen, it is very positive."

Casey took a similar tour in 2009, but the Williamsport he saw then was a far cry from what it is today. None of the places he visited Tuesday existed then.

Casey said much of the area's growth can be attributed to the development of the Marcellus Shale, but no progress can occur without leadership and public-private partnerships.

Leadership and partnerships are evident in Williamsport and shows that prior federal investment in the area was money well spent, he said.

"When you have the federal government playing a role to invest in transportation, buildings and infrastructure while state and local officials are working together, that combination can be very fruitful," he said.

The tour ended at the proposed Trade and Transit II site and there was a reason for that. City Mayor Gabriel J. Campana and other city officials took the opportunity not only to showcase the city's recent accomplishments, but also make a pitch for more funding for the transit center expansion project.

According to William E. Nichols Jr., city director of administration, city officials are seeking about $5 million in public funding to be used toward the estimated $25 million project.

The project includes the demolition of a parking garage adjacent to the Trade and Transit Centre and the construction of a four- or five-story parking deck with a possible four of five stories of market-rate housing built on top of it, Nichols said.

The project will provide additional capacity for transit buses, parking and residential units, he said.

"The purpose (of the tour) was to show the growth and progress in downtown Williamsport and to talk about future growth in downtown Williamsport and throughout the city," said Campana. "(Casey) was very instrumental in securing the federal funding for some of these project."

Campana said he hopes to gain Casey's support to transform and develop underused industrial properties and "other initiatives the administration is looking at over the next four years.

The tour allowed local officials to tout the increase in development activity in the city, including projects by hotel owner George Tsunis and developer Matt Shauers, both of whom have made significant investment in the downtown area, Tsunis by building hotels and Shauers by transforming large swaths of run-down property.