Completion of I-99 should enhance Northern Blair Economy

(Editor?s note: The following compilation is the second in a three-part series detailing the Interstate 99 highway project. In part one, staff writer G. Kerry Webster provided an insight on the project. Today?s installment explores the financial benefits and positives this 33 mile stretch of highway will bring. Tomorrow, Daily Herald correspondent Mark Nale will examine the environmental impacts involved with the project.)

During the 1970s, Tyrone faced its share of tough times. Westvaco laid off over half its workers and threatened closure in 1971. The company took out a full page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal featuring a ?Town for Hire? to promote Tyrone as a place to locate a business in case the paper-making facility would close. The mill stayed open and Tyrone was temporarily spared. That was until 1974 when the first phase locally of what would become Interstate 99 would be completed.
Before 1974, the only way to get from Altoona to State College was through downtown Tyrone. Pennsylvania Avenue and 10th Street was filled with local businesses. Tyrone had a jewelry store, women?s and men clothing stores, many restaurants, McCory?s, Widmans and even two car dealerships within the borough. The economic fortunes of Tyrone started to change when the Tyrone Bypass was completed. People could hit the four lane highway in Bald Eagle and exit in Grazierville. The bypass started a downturn in business in Tyrone that has lasted nearly 30 years.
Don Baney, the owner of Baney?s Flowers and Gifts was one of the businesses that was hurt by the opening of the bypass.
?When the bypass was being planned, people were talking about how much business this would bring to Tyrone,? said Baney. ?The first year the bypass opened, I lost nearly 30 percent of my business. When the road was completed from Grazierville to Altoona, we lost even more. You can be in Altoona in 15 minutes. People started bypassing Tyrone, making it tough for the small business operator.?
The opening of the Tyrone bypass also changed the path of my family. With Route 220 coming down Washington Avenue, having a gas station on the corner of Washington Avenue and 3rd Street was a very good location. For the people traveling north through Tyrone, this was the first stop for gas. With the bypass, traffic avoided Washington Avenue and what was a gas station that supported a family and five employees is now a Pizza Hut.
Nearly 30 years after the start of what is now Interstate 99, there are positives in the future economically. As the final hurdles were crossed in the phase of the highway between Bald Eagle and State College, real estate values have definitely grown over the past four or five years.
?The real estate market has definitely been growing over the past five years,? said Jim Phillips, an agent for Joyce T. Phillips Real Estate in Tyrone. ?You are seeing more and more people moving to our community from State College and it is pushing the market up. Once the plans for the Interstate to connect Bald Eagle to State College, more and more people started to come to Tyrone.?
With the central location, Tyrone is expected to grow because of the completion of the Interstate.
?It is very natural for people to move this way,? said Phillips. ?We are going to continue to pull people this way. With the openings of Graystone Court and Tyrone Colonial Courtyard, it allowed many older residents who were almost trapped in their homes to move into a smaller more manageable place and sell their homes. With more homes on the market, it opens up possibilities for new people to come to the area.?
The new residents of Tyrone are of a younger demographic.
?Many of the new home buyers in Tyrone are between 25 and 35,? said Phillips. ?They are coming here because the price of homes is much less expensive than State College, the taxes are cheaper and when the highway is complete, they are about a half hour from work, concerts or cultural events.?
The price of homes, though much less expensive than in State College has climbed over the past five years.
?A two-story home in Tyrone that cost about $45,000 five years ago now runs between $65 and 70,000,? said Phillips. The same holds true for Tipton and Bellwood. Warriors Mark and Sinking Valley are more costly because there is much more room for growth there.?
The Altoona-Blair County Development Corporation has focused on bringing new business and expanding existing businesses in the county since its inception. ABCD director of corporate services and government affairs Steve McKnight believes the possibilities for Northern Blair County are endless.
?We see a growth in housing and business in Northern Blair County to go along with the completion of I-99,? said McKnight. ?We are focused on building a true regional economy focused on the corridor.?
The completion of the interstate will open up many opportunities along the corridor.
?Once the ribbon is cut, people will begin to see the viability given to Northern Blair County and the economic impact that will come from it,? said McKnight. ?There are eight weekends in the fall that will bring high exposure because of Penn State football. Centre County is being bombarded with growth right now. Tyrone has a great location between two relatively nice sized metropolitan areas. Tyrone will no longer be the town that is being bypassed. It will be the center of two metropolitan areas.?
One aspect that ABCD is counting on is the continued growth of Penn State University.
?Just look at Centre County now. It is nothing like it was 10-15 years ago,? said McKnight. ?The investment in Penn State has made it recognized on a national and global level. There is the possibility of Penn State research parks coming to Northern Blair County and spin off businesses from the university. A 23 minute drive seems like a nano-second in today?s world.?
The commercial impact possibilities that come from the completion of I-99 are endless.
?The increase in commercial possibilities for Northern Blair County will be in the millions of dollars,? said McKnight. ?We have had many national developers come through this office looking for space to place a business park and outlet malls similar to the malls in Hagerstown. When they look at the I-99 corridor for a place to locate their future business, they are all pointing to Northern Blair County. The next phase is how the developers can work with the land owners. If you live along the I-99 Corridor be ready for the offers that will be coming.?
Development in the 21st Century is much different than it was in the 1980s and 90s. Strip malls popped up everywhere with huge parking lots. Today it is much different. When constructing new shopping facilities, they are planned differently.
?The new consumer spends lots of money in places that are pleasing to them,? said McKnight. ?You see green spaces in shopping districts. If you want to see the new way communities are planning for growth, look at Hagerstown and Frederick. They are growing because of the expansion of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Office parks are being constructed the same way. They are build where they are conducive to transportation near retail establishments in places that the developers are confident their needs will be met. The economic impact of I-99 could bring millions of dollars into the Northern Blair County economy.?
There are two major factors that could help or hinder progress when the interstate is completed in 2007 ? elected officials and the community.
?What degree of growth depends on us,? said McKnight. ?We have had a lot of good things laid out because of the elected representation on all levels. One of the reasons we are here is to help attract retail and commercial business to the county. We want to make sure the investments made here are the right investments that will be here for the long term. We believe that we will see a very good result.?
The type of business that would locate to Northern Blair County could be different than residents are used to. There probably won?t be manufacturing jobs that employ over 1,000 people like Westvaco once did.
?We?re looking at developing business parks that house businesses employing between 35 and 125 people each,? said McKnight. ?There has been a microchip manufacturing company that has inquired about our region because of the quality of water that we have here. We are making an effort to attract co-sites. These are offspring sites that simultaneously exist. These co-sites are mini-operations of larger corporations and are a contingency backup. After 9/11, many companies in the Beltway are looking to place co-sites. We are 150 miles away from Washington and a perfect place for these sites to start popping up.?
With the type of businesses mentioned as possibly locating to Northern Blair County, there could be thousands of new jobs over the next several years.
?We are hoping to put together business parks that could lure in high paid professionals,? said McKnight. It is possible in the next 10 years to see more than 1,000 jobs in the northern part of the county alone and that is not counting additions to Penn State.?
ABCD is calling the new region, the I-99 Innovation Corridor. The plan is to set the tone for new business, give existing operations the opportunity to move forward.
ABCD?s vision of one economic region along I-99 is coming true according to Phillips.
?You are starting to see a rebirth because of I-99,? said Phillips. ?You can see State College already starting to move towards Warriors Mark and Bald Eagle. Warriors Mark is moving toward Tyrone. Altoona is moving toward Bellwood. We need to provide the utilities that will help facilitate these businesses moving here. The people who I have sold homes to like the rural setting and down-home lifestyle that our community provides and they also like the idea of being 15-20 minutes away from shopping in Altoona and less than a half hour from cultural events and concerts in State College.?
The Tyrone Bypass was one of the first completed segments of what is to become Interstate 99. Almost 30 years ago the bypass started what many believed was the death of Tyrone. Now, with the completion within sight, the highway may help Tyrone grow into a larger and more prosperous community.