Slate Belt Ris­ing fi­nances ex­te­rior re­habs in 4 bor­oughs in hopes of spurring neigh­bor­hood re­vi­tal­iza­tions

The Morning Call (Sunday) - - BUSINESS CYCLE - By Kayla Dwyer

Jeff and Judy Travers have had lit­tle time — and money — to worry about the lit­tle things be­fore they be­came big things.

Their home on Northamp­ton Street in Ban­gor is the only house they ever bought to­gether. In 1986, they were at­tracted to the charm of a nearly 100-year-old home. They had two kids al­ready, and they would have two more.

So what if they were buy­ing from a used car sales­man? In­ter­est rates weren't what they are now, and it felt like houses were go­ing quickly enough that they needed to steal this one. It passed in­spec­tion.

While rip­ping up the bath­room floor a cou­ple sum­mers ago, Jeff — a ca­reer in con­struc­tion be­hind him — dis­cov­ered night­mare af­ter night­mare. As­bestos in the heat­ing sys­tem. Elec­tri­cal wiring sur­round­ing the plumb­ing sys­tem. Joists miss­ing in the sec­ond floor.

“I guess if you had a big money pot, you'd just get these things taken care of,” Judy said. “But we raised our kids and just moved on.”

Out­side, the frame­work be­neath the porch was rot­ting, and wood-pan­eled walls fac­ing the street were tear­ing apart at the bot­tom. But Jeff had re­tired, and Judy, since 2015, had been deal­ing with treat­ments for her stage 4 lung cancer.

“I just couldn't fig­ure out a solution,” Jeff said.

“And then this came along.”

‘It brings up the stan­dards’

On the sur­face, $8,000 worth of im­prove­ments to the ex­te­rior of the Travers' home may not seem like a solution, both for the home and for the neigh­bor­hood. But it is a cat­a­lyst — one that Slate Belt Ris­ing, a six-year re­vi­tal­iza­tion ini­tia­tive that launched last year, hopes in­spires other prop­erty own­ers to spruce up their own en­vi­rons and turn the neigh­bor­hood into a more at­trac­tive, and thus eco­nom­i­cally vi­able, place to live.

Slate Belt Ris­ing, a pro­gram of the Com­mu­nity Ac­tion Com­mit­tee of the Le­high Val­ley, se­cured the con­trac­tors

and the loan for fa­cade work for the Tra­verses, for­giv­able af­ter five years as long as they con­tinue to live in the home.

Around them, the ex­te­ri­ors of sev­eral homes are sur­ren­der­ing to the el­e­ments, green over­growth hid­ing the mis­shapen con­crete steps that lead up to them. Fac­ing newly con­structed du­plexes on one end of the street is an un­oc­cu­pied du­plex with boarded win­dows and chipped pan­el­ing.

“This is what a lot of peo­ple as­so­ci­ate Ban­gor with,” said Stephen Rei­der, di­rec­tor of Slate Belt Ris­ing, who grew up in neigh­bor­ing Roseto.

The goal is to change that as­so­ci­a­tion with a simple domino ef­fect: tar­get res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial prop­er­ties for low-cost fa­cade im­prove­ments and pro­vide the in­cen­tive for oth­ers to fol­low. Of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge, though, that such a domino ef­fect — in a low pop­u­la­tion-den­sity re­gion such as the Slate Belt — is not so simple. Def­i­ni­tions of suc­cess are dif­fi­cult to pin down, and im­prove­ment will take time to mea­sure.

In the short term, the Tra­verses say it seems to be work­ing on their street.

“Peo­ple are stop­ping — the land­lord next door said, ‘You're mak­ing my front porch look terrible,'” Judy said.

“It brings up the stan­dards a lit­tle bit,” Jeff added.

The CACLV has em­ployed this the­ory in Al­len­town and Beth­le­hem, with no­table suc­cess stories in Al­len­town's Sev­enth Street cor­ri­dor and Hayes Street in Beth­le­hem.

Com­mu­nity devel­op­ment pro­grams have in­jected a lot of money into test­ing the the­ory: Up­side Al­len­town an­nounced a starter pot of $190,000 for fa­cade im­prove­ments this year; the Com­mu­nity Ac­tion Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion of Beth­le­hem se­cured more than $71,000 for fa­cade im­prove­ments on Hayes Street alone, not in­clud­ing sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars of pri­vate and pub­lic fi­nanc­ing for full re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion work. Slate Belt Ris­ing has $150,000 a year to spend in base op­er­a­tions across four bor­oughs — Ban­gor, Pen Ar­gyl, Wind Gap and Port­land — and five pro­gram tenets, of which hous­ing and fa­cades is just one.

The ques­tion is: How much is needed?

“In ar­eas like the Slate Belt, where peo­ple are go­ing to no­tice when some­one paints the front of their house, so long as you have enough … then more peo­ple will jump on that band­wagon — that's where the power is,” said Karen Pooley, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Le­high Uni­ver­sity who teaches courses in com­mu­nity devel­op­ment and neigh­bor­hood re­vi­tal­iza­tion.

“If you get 20 other peo­ple to paint their houses, then you're re­ally on to some­thing.”

The right can­di­dates

Rei­der said his team looks for po­ten­tial projects with high im­pact and high vis­i­bil­ity for the money they have to work with, and for dif­fer­ent neigh­bor­hoods, that can mean dif­fer­ent things.

“It could be as easy as a coat of paint, or as dif­fi­cult as a new porch,” he said.

The chal­leng­ing part, Rei­der said, is find­ing the right can­di­dates. Home­own­ers are only el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive fa­cade grants if their house­hold in­come is not more than 80 per­cent of the me­dian for their mu­nic­i­pal­ity, and if they are not be­hind on any taxes. Rental prop­er­ties are not el­i­gi­ble for the fa­cade pro­gram.

In Ban­gor, 61 per­cent of the homes were built be­fore 1939. More than half the hous­ing units are oc­cu­pied by renters, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. cen­sus, and about 35 per­cent of those who do own homes are con­sid­ered “hous­ing stressed,” mean­ing they pay at least 30 per­cent of their in­come to­ward the cost of hous­ing.

“Peo­ple are ap­pre­hen­sive to do it,” Rei­der said.

Since the Slate Belt Ris­ing pro­gram launched in Fe­bru­ary 2017, Rei­der's team has com­pleted one com­mer­cial fa­cade in Ban­gor, two res­i­den­tial fa­cades in Ban­gor, and two res­i­den­tial fa­cades in Pen Ar­gyl. His team is now se­cur­ing five more com­mer­cial fa­cades and two more res­i­den­tial fa­cades, at least, to com­plete be­fore the plan ends in 2022.

Slate Belt Ris­ing, like Up­side Al­len­town, is a Neigh­bor­hood Part­ner­ship Pro­gram through the Pennsylvania De-

part­ment of Com­mu­nity and Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment, funded by pri­vate part­ners re­ceiv­ing state tax cred­its. The pro­grams are sup­ported in part by fed­eral fund­ing, and Northamp­ton County is also a donor to Slate Belt Ris­ing.

Slate Belt Ris­ing is the only multi mu­nic­i­pal­ity Neigh­bor­hood Part­ner­ship Pro­gram in the state, and part of its mis­sion em­braces that spe­cific chal­lenge: ad­dress­ing the eco­nomic needs of four sep­a­rate bor­oughs while ad­vanc­ing a col­lec­tive re­gional iden­tity that is the “Slate Belt.”

The ap­peal of fa­cade pro­grams is that they are one of the cheap­est ways to im­prove neigh­bor­hoods, Pooley said. The real im­pact, she said, is the gen­er­a­tion of neigh­bor­hood-wide ex­cite­ment and pride.

The spillover ar­gu­ment worked for Charleston, S.C, in the 1980s — an early ex­am­ple of the con­cept, said Todd Watkins, eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor at Le­high.

But this ex­am­ple, and the ex­am­ple of His­toric Beth­le­hem, took decades of sus­tained at­ten­tion — a steady, concentrated ap­proach to sev­eral blocks at a time.

“Given the in­vest­ment lev­els, you can’t hope for much beyond a slow evo­lu­tion,” Watkins said of the ef­forts in the Slate Belt.

With a lot less money, much broader goals and mas­sively greater cov­er­age area ge­o­graph­i­cally, CACLV di­rec­tor Alan Jen­nings knows it’s sim­ply a dif­fer­ent story in the re­gion.

So why do it?

“Be­cause we can,” Jen­nings said.

‘It’s that darn moun­tain’

The Slate Belt towns were built around an en­tirely dif­fer­ent story — one of as­sured sur­vival, ush­ered by the dis­cov­ery of slate early in the 19th cen­tury.

The in­dus­try picked up speed af­ter the Civil War, “and then it ex­ploded like wild­fire,” said Melissa Hough, pres­i­dent of the Slate Belt Her­itage Cen­ter in Ban­gor.

The Slate Belt would grow to ac­count for half of the state’s slate pro­duc­tion. Then it lost work­ers to World War I. The tex­tile in­dus­try — another main­stay — moved south by the 1970s.

“The 1980s were not kind to this area,” Hough said.

Other than a slight re­prieve in the 1990s, she said, the area never re­ally re­cov­ered.

On Broad­way in Wind Gap to­day — where a hard­ware story re­cently closed, where the Cafe on Broad­way re­cently ap­plied for a com­mer­cial fa­cade grant, and where Rei­der plans to dis­cuss a sim­i­lar path for the aging Gap The­atre — cars whiz by in a con­stant hum of traffic.

“The prob­lem is, you need to give peo­ple a rea­son to stop,” Rei­der said.

Macro-level im­prove­ments re­quire macro bud­gets, and mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments are rarely privy to those.

Ali­cia Karner, for­mer eco­nomic devel­op­ment ad­min­is­tra­tor for Northamp­ton County and now Beth­le­hem’s eco­nomic devel­op­ment di­rec­tor, re­mem­bers sev­eral big com­mu­nity meet­ings with many in­ter­ested volunteers dur­ing an early 2000s push for Main Street sta­tus in Ban­gor. The plan fiz­zled af­ter the bor­ough couldn’t se­cure enough money over five years to land the des­ig­na­tion.

“It’s that darn moun­tain,” which for­mer state Rep. Rich Grucela says sep­a­rates the Slate Belt from state money — and at­ten­tion. “The Slate Belt is com­pletely for­got­ten.”

Jen­nings would agree, and that’s why the rea­son­able goal is to just get some­thing started.

“All we’re do­ing is start­ing to get the ball rolling,” Jen­nings said. “Even if you pro­duce peo­ple more in­vested in their com­mu­nity, that’s some­thing.”

Karner said she’s seen an ob­vi­ous in­crease in in­ter­est and ac­tiv­ity in down­town Ban­gor. Link­ing the four bor­oughs is uni­fied sig­nage that can be seen from util­ity poles along the ma­jor roads.

Slate Belt Ris­ing has or­ga­nized re­gional events, like a Road Rally scav­enger hunt in Septem­ber that drew about 80 peo­ple from mul­ti­ple mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties. The HUB, a com­mu­nity youth cen­ter in Ban­gor, re­ceived a ma­jor up­grade from Slate Belt Ris­ing money, in­clud­ing new com­puter work­sta­tions and in­ter­gen­er­a­tional pro­gram­ming.

Across from Duck­loe’s Fur­ni­ture Store in Port­land — a town be­sieged sev­eral years in a row by dev­as­tat­ing flood­ing, keep­ing it from turn­ing into the quintessen­tial river town Rei­der knows it could be — the his­toric Port­land Rail­road build­ing is slated for a com­mer­cial fa­cade grant.

The Duck­loes, who have been in busi­ness since 1859 and still man­u­fac­ture in Port­land, have watched busi­nesses around them leave and build­ings re­main empty.

“Any­thing is bet­ter than what we have,” Barbara Duck­loe Townsend said.

Qual­i­ta­tive mea­sures of neigh­bor­hood pride aside, there are a range of quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sures that can be used to as­sess the suc­cess of a fa­cade pro­gram: home­own­er­ship rates, va­cancy rates, prop­erty val­ues, foot traffic, oc­cu­pancy turnover.

Prop­erty value is key, ide­ally, but it is ex­pen­sive to mea­sure through ap­praisals, Jen­nings said. Va­cancy rate is eas­ier to mea­sure, and that’s what the CACLV does in Al­len­town and Beth­le­hem.

En­cour­ag­ing more home­own­er­ship is a stated goal of Slate Belt Ris­ing — the idea be­hind the for­giv­able loans.

But the rules of ba­sic sta­tis­tics must ap­ply: A smat­ter­ing of a dozen com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial fa­cades, give or take, is not enough data to judge quan­ti­ta­tive suc­cess.

So a pro­gram like Slate Belt Ris­ing — the first in­ter­mu­nic­i­pal pro­gram with this kind of fund­ing to touch the re­gion — must take what it can get: a metaphor.

“It might be a mus­tard seed,” Jen­nings said. “But you know what mus­tard seeds cre­ate: big ol’ trees.”


Slate Belt Ris­ing Di­rec­tor Stephen Rei­der looks over the Gap The­atre in Wind Gap, which he hopes will get a fa­cade makeover. There’s plenty of traffic on Broad­way in Wind Gap, but ‘the prob­lem is, you need to give peo­ple a rea­son to stop,’ Rei­der said.

Rei­der says the for­mer Port­land Rail­road build­ing in Port­land is slated for a com­mer­cial grant. The hope is that this will spur fur­ther re­vi­tal­iza­tion in the river town.


Stephen Rei­der (left) chats with home­owner Jeff Travers fol­low­ing the fa­cade makeover. The $8,000 Slate Belt Ris­ing spent here will hope­fully in­spire more prop­erty own­ers to fix up.


The Tra­verses’ home on Northamp­ton Street in Ban­gor be­fore re­ceiv­ing $8,000 in fa­cade im­prove­ments through Slate Belt Ris­ing.

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