A tale of two towns

The boroughs of New Cumberland and Camp Hill want the same thing: a vibrant downtown. One is farther along than the other, but both say their efforts are working.

Michael Yoder//October 30, 2019

A tale of two towns

The boroughs of New Cumberland and Camp Hill want the same thing: a vibrant downtown. One is farther along than the other, but both say their efforts are working.

Michael Yoder//October 30, 2019

The boroughs of Camp Hill and New Cumberland have long stood as gateway communities to the West Shore and Cumberland County.

Each has seen its local economies ebb and flow with the new realities and struggles of brick-and-mortar retail and restaurant spaces. Each has searched for a cogent strategy to improve its downtown appeal to bring in new businesses, new customers and possibly new residents looking for a place to call home.

Camp Hill and New Cumberland each took steps to revitalize within the last few years with formal strategic plans created by experts adept at helping communities restore their economic health and vibrancy. And while both towns stand at different locations on their path to revitalization, each have cheerleaders working to make their homes better.

Richard E. Jordan III, president and CEO of Camp Hill-based Smith Land & Improvement Corp., said strategic plans are an important first step in starting a movement to revitalize a town, but it ultimately takes motivated people to do the heavy lifting.

“You can make recommendations all day long, but unless you have people willing to invest in the community, they’re just words on paper,” Jordan said.

Camp Hill

On Oct. 24, a group of around 100 people gathered in the brand-new space of Little Black Dress, a boutique shop that has served as a destination spot on Market Street in Camp Hill since 2014. They were there to highlight the completion of the first phase of Neighbors & Smith, a 40,000-square-foot retail and office center spearheaded by Smith Land & Improvement, and to reflect on the successes the borough has experienced since the Urban Land Institute (ULI) of Philadelphia issued its commercial district vibrancy report in 2016.

In that report, the nonprofit educational and research organization outlined a strategy to build a more unified economic front in which business owners worked more cooperatively to market Camp Hill as a shopping and dining destination. The report also discussed ways to improve the aesthetic of the town through better signage, streetscapes and architectural codes.

Sue Pera, owner of Cornerstone Coffeehouse and president of the Downtown Camp Hill Association, was skeptical when the ULI report was first released in 2016. She said she had seen other revitalization recommendations go by the wayside during her 25 years in business and also growing up in the town.

But this time attitudes seemed different, Pera said, as the borough hired Mary Beth Brath last spring to form a main street organization, followed by the creation of the Downtown Camp Hill Association last summer to focus on along Market Street between 15th and 25th streets. The group is working to become a 501 C-3 nonprofit by the end of the year and are organizing regular events to bring more people into town.

The report called for updating existing ordinances, including a nearly 100-year ban on the sale of alcohol in Camp Hill. Local residents and business owners spearheaded an effort to repeal the ban, overturning it with 73 percent of the vote in 2017. Now the borough is poised to open its first brewery. The Millworks, a popular brewery and restaurant in Harrisburg, plans to open a new location on Market Street in March.

“It has been an eye-opener for me, because all of a sudden things began to happen,” Pera said. “You could see it visibly by the day, week, month, year, as things began to change. These things that we were hoping to happen are now happening.”

Pera said a large-scale project needs a catalyst to start the work, and Jordan and Smith Land & Improvement has done that with the Neighbors & Smith complex in the middle of Camp Hill.

The company bought several buildings across the street from its offices in the 1800 block of Market Street in December, 2017. Jordan said it was his father, Richard Jordan II, who envisioned the building project as a way to revitalize the downtown.

Construction started last spring with phase one finished in May. Phase two is underway with an anticipated completion in the spring of 2020. To date, every tenant in Neighbors & Smith is a female-owned business, Jordan said, including: Little Black Dress; One Good Woman, a gourmet tea and coffee shop; Live In Color Boutique, a distressed furniture shop;  and Underneath It All, a lingerie boutique.

He emphasized the importance of Smith Land developing local properties in its own communities, giving special attention to each project.

“We looked across at this block, and we did love the shops that were here,” Jordan said. “We didn’t love the buildings. But we’re proud of what we’ve done, and we’re proud of our tenants and we’re proud of the momentum that is happening along this Market Street corridor.”

New Cumberland

After he retired a few years ago, Donald W. Kibler decided to get more involved in helping his community of New Cumberland get a better economic footing. The current borough council member said he spends an average 30 hours a week working on plans to help bring businesses to town, which has “taken a step back” over the last decade.

Much like Camp Hill, New Cumberland took a hard look at what could be done to make the town more appealing to businesses and customers. A comprehensive report on the town was released in July, created by East Pennsboro Township engineering firm Gannett Fleming.

The report analyzed retail markets to figure out where New Cumberland residents were likely to spend their disposable income and to find ways to stop the leakage of money to neighboring communities with similar businesses.

It also examined the town’s housing stock, including and how it compares to other places in the region. The findings indicated the borough’s home prices are cheaper, and could make it more appealing to young couples looking to buy a new home.

“Our revitalization covers both Main Street and Elm Street,” Kibler said. “The Main Street part being that we’re trying to, as a community, increase our economic stability; not just for overnight or short-term purposes, but to set the stage for 20 years. Many towns in Pennsylvania have decided to take their future into their own hands and try to do something about it so you don’t fall backward.”