- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2008

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) nder the shadows of a steel mill’s rusting carcass, a new Johnstown is slowly taking shape.

Quaint cafes and even an upscale bridal shop have appeared in long-empty storefronts. Downtown lofts are being snapped up. Biotech companies and high-tech firms have set up shop.

Decades after heavy industry died and took much of Johnstown with it this Rust Belt community, known for its devastating floods of 1889, 1936 and 1977, appears to be regaining its footing.

An aggressive city planner, a creative redevelopment authority and tourism officials are trying to turn Johnstown into a postindustrial tourist center with a vibrant downtown.

Since 2004, real estate tax revenues have been flat at about $3.4 million, an indication the city is holding its own after years of declining revenues during the peak of deindustrialization, City Manager Curtis Davis said.

“I don’t know if Johnstown’s found its way, but it’s on a path,” said Dan Santoro, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

Mr. Santoro looks at the city’s massive hospital complex, the growing tourist industry and what many refer to as the pork-barrel economy — an array of defense-related industries lured in by Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat — and he sees the backbone of a new diverse market. Mr. Santoro points to Mr. Murtha as part of a regional leadership that’s helping the economy by dealing with the reality of a smaller Johnstown — down to 22,000 people from a high of 63,000 just 55 years ago.

“The place won’t disappear,” said William Kory, Mr. Santoro’s colleague and a demographer at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. “There will be a dot on the map for Johnstown. It may be a smaller dot.”

In the 1950s, steel companies and mining employed thousands of people. Johnstown produced 2 million tons of steel annually and an additional 23 million tons of coal. Downtown was packed with department stores and restaurants.

But by the mid-1980s, when manufacturing collapsed, Johnstown and other small industry-dependent communities in the Rust Belt were destroyed and forgotten. Lacking the resources, political might and manpower of the bigger cities, these towns fought to attract new businesses while the unemployed left in a mass exodus.

The struggle to reinvent has had mixed results. Cities like Lansing, Mich. and Bethlehem, Pa., where outmigration is slowing and new businesses are opening, have done better than communities like McKeesport, Pa.; Flint, Mich.; and Aliquippa, Pa.; where drugs and crime have added to their woes.

Some towns razed their mills, filling the sites with unfulfilled dreams. Others, like Johnstown, couldn’t afford to demolish their mills, and planners are seeking new taxpaying businesses to fill the eyesores.

Poverty and unemployment still plague these towns. In 2000, the last year U.S. Census figures are available for Johnstown, it had a poverty rate of nearly 19 percent, more than double the state’s.

“What is often missed in the study of American industrialization is that there was a vast heartland that was created that involved smaller towns and cities,” said Walter Licht, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

“They really were responsible for the great growth of American industry and we have forgotten them and these are the communities that are tremendously suffering today.”

To recover, Johnstown is using the few incentives it has available to woo businesses to the financially strapped flood zone.

Richard Idem Somiari exemplifies the new type of businessman Johnstown can attract.He looks at the slow-paced town he lives in today and longs for his Nigerian hometown Port Harcourt, where oil refineries spew smoke alongside peddlers hawking wares from headborne baskets.

But then he recalls the $1.8 million in low-interest loans, grants and aid he received from Johnstown to bring his promising ITSI Biosciences company to the city’s business district. He thinks of the money he is saving running his enterprise from Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands rather than from London or New York.

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