I read with great interest Mike Joseph’s recent article I-99 Redefines Landscape describing the changing dynamics of Port Matilda. I was especially interested because, last year, I was awarded a research grant based on the fact the traffic would be reduced so dramatically in that small borough, and the change could be good, or bad, depending on one’s view of the situation. Personally, I thought it was a good thing. But, I also had some other ideas in mind. One was that Port Matilda could become a really great place to live for your entire life, especially considering its newly revealed serenity and furtive proximity to State College. That idea came with a stipulation though. The stipulation was that Port Matilda would need a new economic engine, and that engine would be associated with caring for elders in the borough. Port Matilda could be an Elder-Friendly Community – a good place to live, and retire.
What a change the town has seen!! Thousands of 18 wheelers, throwing up dirt and rocks while cruising far too fast in high gear. Struggling to get out of low gear, the same trucks would belch toxic fumes, and always scream a whine or a whir, a whup whup whup, stealing quiet during a half century of progress. Now, it’s gone. A stillness known only to the old hills and the endless creeks is resting back on the village. Mr. Joseph was right – this is a redefined landscape. According to Mike’s article, Kenneth Moscone liked the mature natural setting of the town. He stated, “Where else can you go to work surrounded by trees and have a stream flowing through your property?” In this day and age? Indeed!
The character of Port Matilda has changed dramatically. Bald Eagle Valley Road (Route 220) was not supposed to be the vital and energetic transportation artery that it became. The road handled far more traffic than anyone could have imagined. Instead, it was High Street that used to be the real business avenue, connecting Phillipsburg with State College, up and down along the Appalachian Plateau and over Bald Eagle Ridge on what are still some wicked and windy old roads. Remnants of those old hey-day businesses still line High Street, leading to a once bustling commuter rail line and a manner of life that just got away from all of us. (BTW, this could easily be reactivated to join Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian Route in Tyrone, just 16 miles away – any angel investors out there?). But it could be so easy to get that kind of life back, especially in such a great little town with good houses, and a tradition of successful small businesses.
And that is what makes Port Matilda so intriguing. It also makes me question why Geisinger at Gray’s Woods deserves a LEED Gold Certification. Now, that was an abrupt segue!
Almost two years ago, I wrote a blog describing how the health care industry would spend $200 billion dollars in the next 15 years building new health care facilities. At that time, I asked the question “How will we spend this money? The same old way we always build – old energy economy? Or an alternative way that would better serve our existing communities – new energy economy?”
The old way continues sprawling infrastructure and forces us to drive our cars to a campus-type development – ever further over. The alternative is to carefully plan mixed-use development in our existing towns (embodied energy), and allow the new development to increase business activity in the rest of the town. Geisinger chose the old way. They spent 35 million dollars, and were awarded Gold status because they used “features that stress the natural over the chemical, the recycled over the new and the renewable over the finite.” (notice the natural – woods, and the chemical – pavement, below)
But, they impacted forever, most of 52 acres of healthy forest. The chosen site forces every person to drive to their single-use facility. That requires a massive parking lot, a stunning storm-water retention pond, massive, earth-retaining walls (evidently, the land didn’t quite work), extensive mechanical and electrical systems that are served by an on-site utility plant, and the extension or expansion of electrical and data, water, sewer, road and sidewalk infrastructures (old energy). Geisinger built one of what they call their “community practice sites.” (??) Although located in Patton Township, they use the address 132 Abigail Lane, Port Matilda, PA 16870. Wha? This will become important when I lose my cool.
They overlooked (probably never even considered) the town where they get their mail. Imagine the impact of $35 million in a town like Port Matilda, population 650. According to Geisinger’s information site, the two-story building encompasses 64,350 square feet. The new building includes 70 exam rooms, 16 procedure rooms, an expanded imaging center, laboratory services and an on-site pharmacy. Primary care services include OB/GYN, pediatrics and family medicine. Specialty services include cardiology, urology, pulmonology and ophthalmology. They even have an Irving’s Bagels – ummm, Irrrviings!! That is so super sweet!!
That might actually be too much development for such a small town. However, some of the services could be placed in newly remodeled business locations on the old High Street. Larger vacant lots could get new buildings, and have an Irving’s on the corner. Clem’s Barbeque would move into the borough, not out of the county. The point is that it would totally and completely revitalize this town and it would better serve existing residents. The elderly could age in place. It would be a true “community practice site.” (now I get it)
Without the cost of new infrastructure, retaining walls, and site work, Port Matilda’s sidewalks and street crossings could have been improved. Lyken’s would thrive on the corner. Geisinger employees might decide to live in town and remodel a home. At least 650 people would not have to drive to the health center. Existing on-street parking could reduce the size of massive parking lots. Geisinger employees could walk to the post office and get their flipping mail (sorry, lost it!). There would be a reason to extend a CATA bus line to Port Matilda. There would be a reason to extend Amtrak rail from Tyrone. Imagine, health care construction resulting in better mass transportation infrastructure!! I guess I’m really just aching for a train ride from Port Matilda. I could get to Pittsburgh in 3 ½ hours, and read the entire way. As Morrison once reported, “Oh, the productivity! “
Some may argue that Geisinger chose the Patton Township site because of the Route 322 Gray’s Wood interchange and better proximity to State College. But, let’s not forget what Kenneth Moscone implied in Mike’s article. Ken is moving his business (medical devices, right?) to Port Matilda. He stated, “I-99 access and Port Matilda’s location - inside a triangle with points at Altoona, Philipsburg and State College - can attract employees from all three places to keep the business growing.” Seven miles apart, one exchange is just like the other. Except that the exchange Geisinger chose did not save a town.
Don’t get me wrong. I am very satisfied with Geisinger’s effort to build with an eye toward the environment. I am also happy that they are making an effort to place more health centers within, or very near underserved communities. These are steps in the right direction. Really, I think the LEED rating system needs to start with a category like “distance from an existing neighborhood center.” It should be impossible to achieve LEED Gold if you can’t walk to the building.
This all may be very discouraging to residents of Port Matilda. After all, I pointed out an opportunity lost. But, it is a valuable lesson to all of us, in a time when we should start thinking more strategically about the way that we utilize development opportunities. Geisinger could have more impact. They have the power to single-handedly save economically challenged towns, and they should. That would be real gold.