Potter County Commissioner Susan Kefover is serving on the board of directors for the Pennsylvania Downtown Center. The Harrisburg-based organization offers technical and educational assistance to help community leaders keep their downtowns vibrant, which is a stiff challenge in an era of online shopping and other competitors for retail dollars. “A thriving community is a long-term asset that must be constantly nurtured, maintained, and promoted. It is a revitalization effort that continues on and on.” This quote from the membership brochure epitomizes the philosophy of the organization. PDC cites design, organization, “place making,” and economic restructuring as the four cornerstones of strength that can work together or at different times in creating a vibrant downtown. Kefover said she accepted appointment to the board to pursue technical assistance, training and educational tools that would help to identify funding, strengthen local boards, and help communities to measure what works and what doesn’t. “When the commissioners hired John Bry as a Circuit Rider for downtown community development, he began empowering local leaders to adapt these principles to fit each community,” she explained. “Part of the goal was to develop a new focus, a united revitalization effort in each community, and begin to build — little by little — on successes.”
During a recent PDC meeting, board members learned of experiences in the small York County community of Delta, where the center’s staff was retained to build community assets to fight against a serious drug epidemic. “It became obvious that providing places to meaningfully connect with youth is important in sustaining a strong barrier against this life-threatening epidemic,” Kefover noted. “At first glance, it would not seem important that our downtowns can be partners in drug prevention. However, places that provide vibrancy, interest, commerce, and interaction meet a core need in all of us that we belong to community, that we are not alone. It was another realization that we are on the right path in all these initiatives; none is too insignificant an effort.”
Over the past two years, Potter County has established specialty courts for those with addiction to alcohol and other drugs, as well as a Women’s Residential Recovery Center. Most recently, county leaders have signed on for a state partnership to develop a pilot pre-trial diversion program for those men and women coming into contact with the criminal justice system. Overarching goal for each of these reforms is to reduce the number of jail inmates by addressing issues such as addiction, employability and life skills. But each reform requires county resources — including funding, personnel and facilities. To coordinate the new initiatives with the resources, Potter County Board of Commissioners Chairman Doug Morley has pulled together the affected parties for strategic planning sessions. Among the county departments directly affected are the Judiciary, District Attorney, Probation, Sheriff/Jail Warden Office, Public Defender and Human Services.
More than one-third of the county’s $9.3 annual budget is dedicated to criminal justice expenses, including $1.4 million for operation of the Potter County Jail, $680,000 for Probation, and $345,000 for the District Attorney’s Office. The county has recently become engaged in the “Smart Justice” concept, an initiative launched by the National Association of Counties (NACo) to prepare counties for changes in criminal justice administration. More information on the Smart Justice campaign can be found here.
Federal and state funding, as well as financial support from foundations, are becoming increasingly available to help counties that are pursuing reforms. Technical assistance is also available. Potter County Commissioner Paul Heimel has been monitoring developments and making contacts through his membership on justice/criminal justice panels through both NACo and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. He was appointed to a state task force charged with developing a blueprint for changes in state laws and funding streams related to the Smart Justice concepts — particularly as they pertain to offenders who are mentally ill and/or have addictions to alcohol or other drugs. Results of that panel’s six-month-long study are now available online here. A formal presentation to Governor Tom Wolf, legislative leaders and Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel is planned for later this month.
Meanwhile, Potter County’s DUI and Drug Court Treatment Team has researched specialty courts in other counties and attended specialized training. President Judge Stephen Minor and Senior Judge John Leete have played significant roles in pursuing the specialty court options for offenders who meet eligibility criteria. Most recently, the county signed on for a National Institute of Corrections training module offered by the University of Cincinnati Corrections Institute for the pilot pre-trial diversion program. For details, click here. Funding for that initiative, which is being pursued on a preliminary/experimental basis, was approved by the Pa. Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
Potter County Tax Claim Bureau (TCB) has been working with property owners who have failed to pay their real estate taxes, while preparing for the annual “upset sale.” That’s a last-resort auction to sell those properties on which taxes for 2013 or earlier have not been paid. It will be held at 10 am on Monday, Sept. 12, in the Gunzburger Building auditorium. A list of the properties that are subject to sale has been posted on the Potter County website, pottercountypa.net (click on Departments/Tax Claim).
TCB has implemented a series of changes to make things easier for those who have fallen behind on their taxes, including a monthly installment option (owner-occupied properties only) and a credit card payment system. Those payments are accepted online only, through the Tax Claim Bureau website at pottercountypa.net. The credit card payment option is limited to overdue taxes (2014 and earlier). Deadline to pay the 2014 and prior real estate taxes by credit card is Aug. 31.
All of the changes have had positive results, according to TCB Director Deanna Johnston. “The number of delinquent properties has been tracking downward in recent years,” she said. “Selling someone’s property due to unpaid taxes is always a last resort and we work with anyone who has fallen behind to try to avoid that outcome.”
Tax Claim Bureau office is located in Suite 111 of the Gunzburger Building, 1 North Main Street, Coudersport PA 16915; telephone (814) 274-0488, Option 1.
Challenges and opportunities are spelled out in a report on the future of Denton Hill State Park, part of a multi-year process to have the park revitalized and its ski resort resurrected. From a long-range perspective, the park’s future appears to be bright as long as the state is willing to invest in it. Officials this week posted initial results of an incremental planning process geared toward developing improved skiing and new off-season activities at the park. The preliminary Denton Hill State Park Master Plan is available on a section of the Pa. Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources website, available here. Later this month, DCNR will select a consulting firm to guide the master planning process. A public meeting to discuss the scope of work is expected to be held before year’s end.
Initial studies found that the state would need to invest about $13 million to repair ski lifts, add lights, replace the snowmaking system, renovate the lodge, add parking and create a snow-tubing park. Additional investments may be required for development of spring, summer and autumn activities. Among options are lift-serviced mountain biking, zip lines, festivals, adventure races, geocaching and destination dining. The plan cautions that the skiing business will need to attract at least 12,500 visits per season to be profitable. Denton Hill has experienced sharp declines in visitation over the past 10 years, much of it due to warm weather but some attributed to skiers going elsewhere.
A local stakeholders committee headed by the Potter County Board of Commissioners is serving as the liaison with DCNR. One of the committee’s partners, the Potter County Visitors Assn. (PCVA), has launched a Save Denton Hill State Park site on the Facebook social media platform and signed up more than 2,000 supporters, with tens of thousands of “hits.” Among other coalition members are the Chambers of Commerce in Coudersport, Galeton and Wellsboro and the Pennsylvania Route 6 Alliance. They’re conferring frequently with elected officials and representatives of the Pa. Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources (both the State Parks and Forestry bureaus).
There is a lot at stake. A study of the ski resort’s impact found that visitors spent more than $2.74 million on their trips in a single year. Stakeholders see the park in bigger terms, suggesting that it be a hub for tourists that could complement local hiking trails, Cherry Springs and Lyman Run state parks, the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum and other local attractions. The partners would like to see not only restoration of ski operations, but development of the park as a year-round asset. DCNR engaged Moshier Studio, a Pittsburgh firm, to study Denton Hill State Park and prepare the initial report that was released this week. There will be no skiing at the park for the 2016-17 season and signs point to the closure extending through the 2017-18 season and beyond.
Another class of Leadership Potter County is being assembled and openings remain. Applications are being accepted by the Potter County Education Council (PCEC) for the yearlong program that develops leadership skills while familiarizing participants with issues, challenges, and opportunities in local communities and the county as a whole. “Strong local leadership is critical to the future of our communities,” said PCEC executive director Kim Rees. West Point graduate Mike Pearson and Penn State Extension director Don Tanner are among partners with PCEC in coordinating a curriculum that is comprehensive and locally relevant. More details on Leadership Potter County is available at 814-274-4877.