WILLIAMSPORT – In the 1980s, Williamsport’s downtown business scene lay vacant as the rise of the Lycoming Mall took many shops and people off the once-bustling streets.
Years of planning, strategy and help from the natural gas boom brought new life to the city, according to Fran McJunkin, deputy director of the Lycoming County Department of Planning and Development.
The boost from the gas industry incentivised new restaurants, pubs and shops to show up, but as the gas decreased, the desire for new local businesses did not.
“And they are still thriving,” McJunkin said. “We’re beginning to see shops opening up.”
The gas industry’s lull happened about three years ago, said Jason Fink, president and CEO of the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce. The region weathered the dip and “we’ve continued to grow beyond that,” he said.
Local industrial leaders like Frito-Lay, Lycoming Engines or Kelloggs have continued to grow and add jobs. Commercial businesses cropped up throughout the city and Fink said he sees a distinct rise in the local brewery market.
“It’s great to be able to see that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well here in Lycoming County,” Fink said.
When Paula Hedrick and Jenna Locrichio were thinking about opening Little Jets Boutique, they didn’t want to do it anywhere other than West Fourth Street, the hub of downtown. Monopolizing on the many downtown activities, such as First Friday and the Saturday morning growers market is essential to bringing clients to the store, they said.
“I wouldn’t want to do it anywhere else,” Hedrick said. “I might be wrong, but I really have a lot of faith in this area.”
While location is helpful, the motivation for many new business owners is finding something to be passionate about.
Husband and wife duo Jennifer Larsen Winters and Marshall Winters tossed around a number of business ideas before finally landing on The Hatchet House. The goal was to find something fun that they could be passionate about and where they could enjoy spending so much of their time.
“It’s the perfect time,” Jennifer Winters said. “We think, given what’s going on downtown with how much its building up and evolving, that Williamsport could totally use something like this – something different, something fun just to give people something else to do.”
Creating an experience was also what drew Virginia Weigle to close The Christian Light Bookstore, which she owned since 2015, and open The Break Room on Washington Boulevard.
After her husband’s death to suicide a year ago, Weigle knew she needed a way to releave her stress while creating a business she could be passionate about.
“I definitely consider this a passion. I think sometimes I have to take a step back and realize this is also a business and I have to make good business decisions in addition to just really loving what The Break Room is,” she said.
Building a business outside of the downtown hub brings its own set of challenges, Weigle said, primarily the lack of foot traffic. However, having ample space for parking and building an advertising strategy about the unique nature of the business will help, she said.
“You can rage and be angry and get all that anger out and then you can just go decompress and relax,” she said.
As a county planner and local resident since the 1980s, McJunkin is excited to see the growth over the past 10 years.
It’s key for community members to continue to support local businesses and events, she said.
“I have a lot of hope for Williamsport going into the future,” she said. “We have a really great thing going on and I don’t think many people see it.”