Downtown Berwick Enhancement Efforts Moving Forward
Despite recent news about two distressed properties in Berwick’s downtown, there are proactive efforts underway to enhance the central business district. A committee, which is being coordinated by Community Strategies Group and includes representation from the Chamber, is meeting regularly to advance several initiatives. The community was provided an update on these efforts at a recent public meeting.
The Berwick: The Next Step committee meets twice a month to advance recommendations from a report developed in early 2017. The report was funded by several organizations, including the Chamber, to identify ways to enhance the downtown commercial district for the benefit of the entire community. A presentation on the efforts currently underway was delivered by several members of the committee on Sept. 18 at the Berwick Theatre.
Among the recommendations in the report is revitalization of a portion of the riverfront adjacent to the downtown. The area, recently acquired by a private individual, includes a 115 year old train station that served as the original gateway to Berwick. The vision of redeveloping the property includes river access, trail expansion, and retail and dining opportunities. Volunteers are being sought to find train cars built at the former AC&F factory that could also be brought back to the site. A news story about the area recently ran on Fox 56, and can be viewed below.
The report also includes a number of recommendations for supporting businesses and enhancing existing properties. The committee has begun reviewing the Borough’s business signage ordinance and expects to make recommend updates. One of the concerns expressed by business owners is the inability to have signs that are perpendicular to the building, limiting business visibility. In addition to gathering more input from businesses, coordination with PennDOT will be necessary as Rt. 11 through the downtown is a state roadway.
Funding assistance for new signs, awnings, and other building improvements could be available through a program administered by the PA Department of Community and Economic Development. Façade grants have been utilized previously in Bloomsburg and Danville. Up to $5,000 is available for each property and a 50% cash match is required. The committee will be reaching out to businesses and property owners to identify need for a summer 2019 application cycle.
Two other programs to encourage business and property development are being finalized. Included in the federal tax reform legislation that was passed in December of 2017 was the Qualified Opportunity Zone program, which encourages investment in lower income areas. The governor of each state was able to nominate census tracts and Senator John Gordner’s office worked to identify and submit a tract in Berwick, which includes the downtown. The nominations were approved by the federal government in the summer of 2018 and final program guidelines are expected to be finalized by the Treasury and IRS in the fall. The program will allow individuals to defer taxes on unrealized capital gains if they invest in an Opportunity Fund for at least five years. The funds can then be invested into properties within designated zones.
The Keystone Innovation Zone program has existed in Pennsylvania for over a decade with zones already located in Bloomsburg and Danville. New businesses that locate within a KIZ with intellectual property can earn up to $100k in sellable tax credits annually for up to 8 years. The application for a new zone in Berwick, which would include the downtown and BIDA complex, is pending state approval.
In addition to supporting and encouraging business growth, an important component to attracting visitors and retaining residents are opportunities for healthy living. In the spring of 2018, the Berwick Health and Wellness Fund, which is managed by the Central Susquehanna Community Foundation, awarded the Borough a grant to improve communications about the area’s opportunities and resources that support healthy living. The committee is administering the grant and hired a firm to compile the assets and develop marketing materials. These materials will be available to multiple entities in marketing the Berwick community.
The committee’s presentation, with contact information to get involved in these efforts, is available on YouTube.