Efforts to energize the Johnstown region is building momentum – much of it capitalizing on the natural surroundings, assets and offerings that make the community unique, local leaders said during Thursday’s annual Cambria Regional Summit.
And results of a new survey indicate a key segment of Greater Johnstown has taken notice: Future leaders.
According to the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, a majority of the region’s youngest survey respondents – people 18 to 34 years old – said the community is getting better overall compared to five years ago.
Approximately 65% of the the region’s older millennials, those ages 25 to 34, indicated they see improvement locally.
Separately, 91% of their younger peers – 18- to 24-year-olds – had the same optimistic view, although their sample size – 11 people – was far smaller than other age groups, community officials said.
“That’s exciting news, because what all of us here are really doing is working for the future,” Community Foundation Program Officer Angie Berzonski told a crowd of more than 150 area leaders during the Cambria Regional Chamber summit at GapVax.
Thursday’s event marked the 26th annual economic summit the area chamber has presented.
The event focused on the region’s biggest 2019 accomplishments, optimism for the coming year and challenges that remain.
Among 2019’s highlights: 70 new businesses across the region and others seeing growth – Concentrix among them, Chamber CEO Amy Bradley said.
Colleagues cited new downtown development, the upcoming Iron to Arts Trail corridor and an unemployment rate that dropped to 4.2%, the area’s lowest since 1969.
Pitt-Johnstown marketing professors Skip Glenn and John McGrath said the region’s crime rate remains a formidable obstacle. But Johnstown is comparable to or better than many of the fellow “mountain towns” they used as a barometer to measure local progress.
Using a scoring system calculating factors such as cost of living, arts and entertainment jobs, and crime rates, the Johnstown metro area ranked in the middle of 15 similar cities stretching from Tennessee to Vermont, McGrath said.
That put the community behind places such as Burlington, Vermont, and Williamsport – but ahead of cities such as Wheeling, West Virginia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, he added.
“We lost a little bit of ground because of (2018) crime figures and a loss of 300 healthcare jobs in the past few years,” McGrath said. Johnstown gained ground elsewhere, with new environmental figures showing a 30% improvement in air quality, he added.
‘Do more of what’s working’
Glenn urged attendees to play a role in branding the area on the back of its picturesque mountain terrain, rich heritage and historic sites – as well as the growing number of efforts underway to capitalize on those attributes.
He cited the Inclined Plane trails – capitalizing on Johnstown’s unique famed landmark – and the Center for Metal Arts inside a former Cambria Iron building and the community’s 67 festivals as elements that define Johnstown.
“If you do more of these types of things,” he added, “you’ll have a really great quality of life here.”
Whitewater rafting, chili-covered Sundowners and a rich menu of other Johnstown delicacies – pierogi and gob cake included – are also part of the “real Johnstown,” Glenn added.
“You have all of the assets,” Glenn said. “It’s a question of how you tell the story.”
He encouraged the crowd to start immediately, telling the group to post vibrant photographs of the downtown.
He told them to take selfies and tag them #ILoveJohnstown on social media for good measure.
Johnstown Redevelopment Director Melissa Komar, County Redevelopment Director Renee Daley and Michelle Clapper of Johnstown Area Regional Industries highlighted a list of recent startups and redevelopment efforts.
City Economic Development Director John Dubnansky said there will be more to come.
He noted attention is beginning to shift to finding ways to fill Main Street’s second floors, while also offering more of what millennials look for in a downtown – including housing and dining options.
Survey says ...
Local leaders applauded the Community Foundation’s survey findings that showed that the younger age group is already noticing the region’s progress – much of it fueled by the broad, volunteer-driven Vision 2025 campaign.
The Community Foundation invested $4 million in efforts over the past five years and turned to a third-party company, Fourth Economy of Pittsburgh, to gauge community perception in specific areas where targeted investments have been made.
The 937 people who took the survey were asked to compare 12 focus areas – including job opportunities, opportunities for youth and seniors, and neighborhood improvements.
Respondents across the board indicated downtown revitalization efforts, entrepreneurial development activity and workforce training opportunities are improving – and in every case, more than 60% said more should be done to ensure the trend continues, results showed.
The under-35 group noticed those improvements at higher rates, too – more than 75% of them acknowledging downtown progress.
They also saw improvements in blight, job opportunities and youth-focused activities, although Generation X and Baby Boomer counterparts viewed each as “getting worse.”
Crime and drugs (62% view as worse) and a political/civic leadership across the region (40%) scored lower at a time when the city has faced criticism for ineffective governance and in-fighting.
Area residents also cited concerns about the current availability of quality housing.
Community Foundation officials indicated they will use those results to help them determine where to focus future community development funding.
“It’s quite clear that more needs to be done,” Berzonski said. “We’re not shying away from (that).”