Bloomburg recently published an article titled, “Trump Wave Builds in a Steel Town Forsaken by the World Economy.” The author Andrew Mayeda describes how presidential candidate Donald Trump’s popularity is growing in Johnstown, a city with a history of over 25 years of economic decline that began with the closing of most of the area’s steel mills.
Mayeda cites dreadful statistics reflecting the area’s weak economy, including a poverty rate of 34 percent – nearly double the national average – and a median annual household income of $25,376 – about half the national average.
Johnstown and the surrounding region been left behind by the global economy. Other than some small specialty mills, most of the steel industry is gone. Even if a steel revival started today, it would take a generation to rebuild the infrastructure.
Under pressure from environmentalists and formidable competition from large, western state mines, the area’s coal industry is rapidly waning.
The bubble has burst for the Johnstown’s once robust defense industry. Its health depended upon the political clout of the late Congressman John P. Murtha, who was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Today, there remains only a remnant of the defense industry that flourished during the Murtha era.
One thing should be clear in light of the past quarter century. If Johnstown and the surrounding area are to enjoy an economic revival, a radically new approach is required. About two years ago, a number of the area’s concerned leaders, organizations and individuals came together to discuss ways of building community engagement and collaboration.
Their aims are described in Johnstown’s Vision 2025, which centers around three areas of emphasis: a vibrant and open local economy, life-sustaining landscapes and a strong sense of community.
Vision 2025 is a great start, but as with all plans, the devil’s in the details. The vision fails to acknowledge the area’s incredible tourism potential. Geography and history give the Johnstown area great potential for an economic revival built upon tourism.
Johnstown is similar in many ways to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which has become a tourist destination as the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Gatlinburg prospered from a thriving lumber industry during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but with the national park’s opening in 1934, tourism began to quickly rise as the dominant economic force. A visit to its website, www.gatlinburg.com, suggests much about what Johnstown could become.
Gatlinburg offers year-round outdoor recreation, a vibrant downtown with good restaurants and nightlife, and plenty of good accommodations geared towards tourists.
Like Johnstown, it has had to deal with city blight and drug trafficking. The median family income in Gatlinburg is about $11 thousand per year more than Johnstown and its poverty level is only 7 percent. Gatlinburg is still a work in progress, but Johnstown’s leaders could learn much from visiting the area.
Gatlinburg is a gem of the tourist industry, but Johnstown is a diamond in the rough that could prove even more successful.
For warm weather recreation, Johnstown has limitless opportunities afforded by the Laurel Highlands and nearby historical attractions in every direction. Within an hour’s drive one can find at least nine golf courses, fantastic angling, whitewater river adventures and endless hiking and cycling opportunities.
Johnstown has more downhill ski areas and more reliable snow than Gatlinburg.
With Blue Knob, Seven Springs and Hidden Valley nearby, its location is perfect for a tourist hub servicing all of these areas. Europe has many resort towns situated near multiple ski areas.
Besides selling lift tickets and providing transportation to the ski and winter recreation areas, hotels in such towns offer tour and entertainment packages. Tourists want vacation time to be easy. Creative packages combining tours, meals and entertainment sell.
Imagine the possible bus tour packages around Johnstown. How about a history tour featuring Fort Ligonier, Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA), Cambria City historic sites and a ride through the Conemaugh Gap?
Or maybe an Allegheny history tour featuring any or all of places like Old Bedford Village, the Pennsylvania Railway Museum in Altoona, Horseshoe Curve and the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site? Don’t forget the Flight 93 National Memorial!
Perhaps a flood tour featuring the Johnstown Flood Museum, Grandview Cemetery, the Johnstown National Flood Memorial and South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club would be more to your liking.
Maybe you’d prefer a coal and steel heritage tour featuring the Cambria Iron Company Blacksmith Shop, JAHA and the Seldom Seen Mine in Patton. You might include the Quecreek Mine rescue site.
What a shame the Coal Heritage Museum in Windber is closed!
The possibilities for local foot, carriage and bicycle tours are endless. Just encourage creative entrepreneurs to set up shop in Johnstown, give them the freedom to operate, and watch what happens.
To get things moving, start by adding more historic markers around downtown Johnstown and Cambria city.
Then build a bicycle path around downtown, through Cambria City and extending at least to the Conemaugh Gap overlook, making sure the path includes as many of the historic sites as possible.
Next add a zip line from the top of the inclined plane to the opposite side of the valley to bring in the thrill seekers. Let CamTran manage it along with the inclined plane.
Maybe add a downtown trolley bus between major points of interest?
Take advantage of anchor events like the Flood City Music Festival, Heritage Festival and Thunder in the Valley to build a marketing campaign. Don’t forget to incorporate anchor organizations like the Mountain Playhouse, Johnstown Symphony, JAHA, Bottle Works, Jennerstown Speedway and B&L Wine Cellars into the marketing plan.
Somebody please build a microbrewery in Cambria City!
I’ve contended for years Johnstown could be a vibrant tourist center. Such a transformation would require vision, solid planning, a multi-state marketing campaign, and a system of governance encouraging entrepreneurship and investment.
Zachary Hubbard, formerly of Johnstown, is a retired Army officer and freelance writer residing in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.