This article was originally published on September 17, 2012on the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development website
When you ask Tamaqua residents how they managed to reverse an 80-year slide, they will tell you that they are no different from the folks in other small towns struggling with job loss and population decline.
Indeed, thousands of these small towns across our country have developed strategies to fill downtown vacancies, rehab old buildings and spruce up tired old playgrounds.
But in Tamaqua, they are not just planning these changes; they are making them happen. In the past 20 years, the town of 7,000 has used its plans to seize opportunities and implement an amazing amount of change, including restoring the historic train station, renovating dozens of downtown buildings, opening a new art center and installing historical markers throughout the community.
What is the secret to their success? State Senator Dave Argall, whose district includes Tamaqua, summed it up like this: “What we have learned these last ten years is it takes people, it takes money and it takes a plan.”
Micah Gursky, the executive director of the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership (TACP) and president of the borough council, was born and raised in Tamaqua. “When I was growing up,” Gursky explained, “Tamaqua had a lot of blighted properties. People told their children and grandchildren to leave, to find greener pastures. And they did.”
After hitting its peak population of 13,000 in the 1930s, Tamaqua—a small town in the coal-mining region of eastern Pennsylvania—began a slide in population and job loss that would continue for the next eight decades.
By the 1980s, Tamaqua had lost one-third of its residents and suffered substantial decline. During these years, a newspaper columnist called Tamaqua “the second dirtiest city in America.”
“It shouldn’t take an outsider to point those things out to you, but sometimes it does,” Gursky said.
While admitting it was hard to hear, Gursky also credits the column with spurring the change so desperately needed. “This was one of the things that shook us,” he recalls. “How dare this person say we are the second dirtiest town in the country?” But then Gursky explains that others said, “Look out the window. He isn’t really wrong.”
It takes people and partnerships
When I asked Lauri Price, another life-long Tamaqua resident, how things started getting better, she glanced over at her neighbors and said, “People like them. They made it happen.”
By bringing lots of people to the table and allowing them to shape and own the plans for revitalization, local leaders built a network of doers and supporters needed to drive community change.
"You have to be able to talk about it and get people excited about it. You can’t do it alone. You have to pull in partners.”
“Comprehensive community development doesn’t mean you have to do everything, but it does mean that everything has to get done,” Gursky said. “And it is more than just doing it; you have to be able to talk about it and get people excited about it. You can’t do it alone. You have to pull in partners.”
Tamaqua has worked hard to build these partnerships—with residents, local businesses and even with adjacent municipalities. Two of the projects which grew out of a 1994 planning process called for new parks and a new system of trails that would run through Tamaqua and into adjacent municipalities.
With a population of 7,000, Tamaqua on its own could not support a full-time staff person to implement these projects, and a trail system which crosses municipal boundaries would require inter-municipal cooperation. At the same time, each community was competing against the others to raise resources for new parks.
But Tamaqua built a partnership with neighboring communities to create the Eastern Schuylkill Recreation Commission. Today each community pays $1 per year per resident to support a full-time executive director, who coordinates a collaborative effort to raise resources for new parks in each municipality and who spearheaded efforts to complete the first segment of the Lehigh and New England trail.
It is hard to overstate how important these new partnerships are. The relationships are bringing in needed resources and bridging some deep-seated, historical divides.
“We joked in the beginning that our township supervisors and our borough councilmen used to only meet when they were suing each other at the courthouse,” Senator Argall explained. “That is no longer the case. I am not going to say everything is perfect today, but it is a heck of a lot better than it was.”
It takes money
In addition to raising public resources, the new partnerships have helped leverage millions of dollars in private investment.
One example is an abandoned Hess gas station that, for years, was an eyesore at a key intersection downtown. The community convinced the owners to pull out the pumps and underground tanks and to donate the site to the borough for a new park.
A local foundation then donated $25,000 for a fountain, and individuals sponsored Victorian-style lampposts and benches to complement the adjacent historic train station.
With its strong network of community contacts, Tamaqua was able to develop a design for the park and leverage private resources to construct it.
“We have done so many things, we have been funded by just about everybody,” said Gursky. “The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Borough of Tamaqua, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh, Rural LISC, NEF and the Morgan Foundation have provided the majority of [financial] support.”
Most of these groups, Gursky explained, provide money for bricks and mortar. It has been much more difficult to find resources for building the capacity of local leaders to do this work.
“It has been so rare and very powerful to have funding for the capacity building piece—to train our staff, send them to conferences and exchanges with other towns," he said.
"This was a critical piece of support provided by Rural LISC—the people building part of what we do.”
It takes a plan . . . and it takes action
Tamaqua proves again the power of planning to bring people and groups together to voice their fears and hopes and to set aside past differences and work together to create a vision for the community’s future.
For instance, for years a local group of train enthusiasts had been trying to save the historic Tamaqua train station—hosting hot dog roasts and other fundraisers in a long, slow effort to raise $1 million to pay for restoration.
The planning process in 1994 provided a much needed boost by making the case that this effort was about far more than saving an old building. The plan described the significance of the station’s downtown location, its contribution to the historic district and its connection to the planned trail system.
Incorporating the enthusiasts’ effort into a larger strategy for community revitalization helped raise the resources needed to finally renovate the station, which today houses a restaurant and gift shop.
In 1998, Tamaqua hired its first full-time main street manager. Today, millions of dollars have been invested to renovate more than 70 buildings and bring new businesses to formerly vacant storefronts throughout downtown.
And the work continues. The owners of the Flat Iron building completed a successful renovation that has left its owners so pleased that they purchased the building next door and renovated that, too. And, noting that the Flat Iron’s upper floor apartments are commanding rents far above the market average, a new effort has been started to fill vacant spaces on second and third stories over stores throughout downtown. (View videos of downtown Tamaqua and the upper-floor strategy.)
This year, the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership purchased a former church to develop a new art center. A community meeting generated not only a wide range of ideas for the new art center, but also a group of enthusiastic volunteers. During a visit to Tamaqua last month, I stopped in to view the center’s first art exhibit and enjoy the Thursday night Open Stage event featuring live performances by local musicians.
It is important to note that not all projects require a lot of money.
Early on, residents wanted to install signs to document and celebrate the history of Tamaqua. When they discovered that the typical historical marker process would cost $2,500 per sign, and they would need approval from the state historical commission for the content and location of each sign, they began to look for other options.
“We had just come through the planning process,” Gursky explained, “and we had no money. And we wanted to do a lot of these.”
So they placed an order for signs with a different state agency—the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections—for $110 per sign. While the signs do not look like what they had in mind when they started their plan, Gursky and other residents will proudly tell you that they love the historical markers which now commemorate 40 historical sites throughout the community.
The disinvestment that afflicted Tamaqua did not happen overnight, and residents understand that revitalization will be a long, on-going process. But they have already enjoyed great success and they are determined to keep going.
“If there is any doubt that this process really works, just listen to the folks who were involved,” Senator Argall said. “And there is nothing extraordinarily unique about Tamaqua. This is a process that can be replicated.