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Millersburg entertains development

Creative community is entrenched, but will businesses follow?

Regional players in Millersburg are laying the groundwork to help grow the town as an arts and entertainment destination, including rehabilitating the borough’s old movie theater as a multipurpose center for movies, plays and other events.

However, impediments remain around the northern Dauphin County community.

The area is still perceived by some in Central Pennsylvania as too far to drive or nothing but farmland. Also, the growth of businesses that could serve future visitors is stifled by tightened lending by banks.

The movie theater project took a big step forward when Twin Valley Players received a $750,000 state grant in December to rehabilitate the town’s Colonnade Theater, a historic building that dates to 1919 but sat idle for about a decade.

Dauphin County officials matched the money the following month, and the area theater group plans fundraisers to cover the rest of up to $2 million in expected renovation costs.

The finished product will show movies and serve as a venue for bands, plays and musicals, as well as guest speakers, said Todd Hoover, treasurer  of Twin Valley Players.

Drawing people to those events in downtown Millersburg will hopefully help entrepreneurs open shops such as cafés in the borough’s many vacant storefronts, Hoover said.

The theater project began several years ago with the help of the Elizabethville-based Northern Dauphin Revitalization Project to grow a downtown-style community of shops and venues on Center Street in Millersburg, Hoover said.

The overall vision was crimped by zoning restrictions, he said. But the theater part kept moving forward.

The arts are well entrenched in the Millersburg community, “more than most small towns,” said Carol Laudenslager, secretary of the Millersburg Area Art Association.

The group of nearly 100 members operates from a house in the borough donated years ago by Community Banks, now part of Lancaster County-based Susquehanna Bancshares Inc.

It hosts art lessons in an upstairs classroom and has a gallery for local artists and craftspeople, with some of the items listed for sale, Laudenslager said. Events such as a summer art camp for children are either free or low cost, and the products are usually listed for reasonable prices, she said.

“Nothing is extravagant,” she said. “We kind of market it for the area. We aren’t asking hundreds of dollars for anything.”

Summer events in particular do draw out-of-town visitors to the borough, as does the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art. Many people visit the center and then find their way to the association’s gallery, Laudenslager said.

Named for nationally acclaimed wildlife artist Ned Smith, an area native, the center was organized to help keep Smith’s art collection intact and has grown from humble beginnings in a small borough building in 1993.

It now has its own property and gallery in Upper Paxton Township that it moved into in 2004, said Alexis Dow Campbell, director of creative programming at the center.

The center attracted 20,000 participants to its onsite events and outreach efforts in 2010. Expansion is also in the works, including an outdoor amphitheater and a gallery devoted just to Ned Smith’s art.

The main gallery is often used to display the work of other artists, and currently the collection is stored offsite most of the time. Smith is likely one of the reason the arts are so much a part of Millersburg, Campbell said.

“The die-hard Ned Smith fans wanted to see more Ned,” she said.

Campbell lives in the Harrisburg area and commutes north each day. She sees the long lines of drivers traveling south to their jobs, showing northern Dauphin County’s current status as a bedroom community.

The drive she makes each day remains a barrier for many who think it is too far to travel for entertainment, as well as people who think northern Dauphin County has nothing but farmland.

“We have to kind of fight against that idea.” Campbell said. “It’s something we have to plug away at.”

Still, there is potential in growing tourism in the area because more people, after the Great Recession, are interested in finding things to do closer to home.

But taking nonprofit and volunteer success and turning it into a stronger business community still appears to be an uphill battle.

Many shops and restaurants last only about a year, Laudenslager said.

Ben Scott said there probably are more empty storefronts in Millersburg than when he started at the Northern Dauphin Revitalization Project in 2006. The group facilitates job creation and strengthens business in northern Dauphin County and western Schuylkill County.

Scott, its executive director, said lending requirements by banks today prevent many businesses from getting off the ground throughout the region. Recently, the organization has been trying to finance a grocery store in nearby Tower City to no avail.

To help grow the greater region’s economy and make it a little more self-sustaining, Scott would like to see more manufacturing, mining and agriculture jobs move in.

But Scott said Millersburg is taking a track toward tourism, from its borough recreation board and promoting its riverfront park to the arts attractions in the area. And they could have success if the community gets strongly behind the initiatives.

“They are still in the development stage,” Scott said. “But I’d love to see it happen.”

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