The Johnstown community is home to attractive neighborhoods and a growing art district, but the city lacks an identity that can be marketed to potential visitors and new residents – and could stand to be spruced up a bit.
That was the assessment offered Friday by Roger Brooks, whose Destination Development Association team spent time in and around Johnstown at the behest of the tourism group Visit Johnstown, in a project designed to help the city’s leaders and planners find a path forward.
Although many positives were noted by the Destination team during a presentation at the Holiday Inn-Downtown Johnstown, they also saw much, too, that requires attention as Johnstown continues to battle negative attributes, such as population loss, crime and drugs, blight and economic struggles – as our Dave Sutor reported.
“Sometimes it takes somebody from the outside to actually say it and be really honest about it,” Brooks said.
We agree, and applaud the team for their “tough love” approach to reporting their observations from touring the community, shopping in our stores, talking with residents and merchants, and studying our heritage.
“Overall, we were really, really impressed,” Brooks said. “Is there work to be done? Yeah.”
Some of what they liked about the Johnstown region:
• Strong neighborhoods – including Cambria City and Westmont, with its “stunning” streets and homes.
Of Cambria City, Brooks said: “A highlight – just the art, the culture there, the care the people take. It was just a fabulous part of town.”
• “Phenomenal” natural setting for outdoor recreation and aesthetic charm.
And what they found troubling:
• Lack of “curb appeal” in the downtown.
This despite the efforts of many to spruce up the city, especially ahead of major events such as next week’s All American Amateur Baseball Association national tournament.
“There’s too much trash on the ground,” Brooks said. “This is not throwing barbs just at the city. This is also property owners, restaurants, that have no curb appeal. They’re just not doing their part to pull people in their doors ... It was mainly because there was a lot of trash and cigarette butts and broken sidewalks and stuff like that.”
• Feel of an unsafe, struggling downtown with “way too many social services.”
He suggested updates such as more outdoor dining and modern parking meters – in addition to removing weeds and debris, and repairing walkways
• Lack of a clear identity – a concept that is attractive and marketable – for the city and region.
The identity crisis starts with a scarcity of clear signage to help visitors navigate the community and find businesses, museums and other attractions.
More broadly, he urged Johnstown residents and leaders to take a strategic approach to identifying and presenting our top qualities – our marketable features – whether that’s art and music, kayaking and hiking, historical events, affordability with amenities.
“For Johnstown, what do you want to be?” he asked. “I don’t even know what its future is.”
The Destination Development Association has visited more than 2,000 communities to do just what happened here – provide an honest assessment from a neutral perspective.
Katie Kinka, a senior planner with the Cambria County Planning Commission, told Sutor the presentation was “refreshing and validating.”
Brad Clemenson, a consultant on community projects and the founder of Lift Johnstown, said he appreciated Brooks’ “candidness.”
We suspect some who saw and heard the presentation were offended at the notion that we’re not doing enough.
But we believe the presentation reflected what community leaders say often – that we need to project a positive vibe to the outside, that we can’t work in silos, that we’re all in this together – but sometimes struggle to put into action.
And we agree with Visit Johnstown’s Lisa Rager, who said area leaders must take Brooks’ admonishments to heart, realizing that the future of our community will be shaped by what we do next.
Do we want more of the same?
Or do we want to work together to forge a brighter, better tomorrow?