Small Town Rebounds From Rural Decline

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Wyalusing, Pa., entered the 1980s, it looked like the kind of isolated, rural town condemned to fade away. Storefronts on Main Street stood empty. State environmental officials wouldn't allow any new buildings until the town fixed its illegal sewer. A major drug ring was operating from a decrepit downtown hotel.

``It really looked bad,'' recalls David Keeler, editor and publisher of the Rocket-Courier, the local weekly newspaper. ``The business association was talking about disbanding because they didn't know what to do.''

Today, Wyalusing (pronounced why-uh-LOO-sing) sports a Main Street with new sidewalks, new trees and grates, and a street full of shops and offices. Housing values in town are up at least 50 percent in the last five years. Somehow, this small, isolated town (population 692) has managed to buck the national trend of rural decline.

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A lot of factors came together for Wyalusing. But local people consistently point to two key ones: a retired woman who reenergized the community and a restaurant owner who, on his own, revamped a historic hotel.

``The whole atmosphere has changed,'' says Wes Shillings, news editor of the Rocket-Courier.

Sue Cerniglia points out the window of the Main Street floral shop where she works and remembers the bad times.

``You could see the cocaine - you could see them snorting it,'' she says. In 1981, state and local police conducted a series of raids downtown, arrested the owners of a dilapidated hotel, who were convicted of running an illegal drug operation. The hotel was torn down three years later.

Though the drug-dealers were gone, Main Street's problems remained. Local officials opposed raising taxes to fix the sewer system and a troublesome water system. Main Street itself looked dilapidated. ``Everything was a mess: the streets were terrible, the sidewalks were a mess,'' recalls Lynn Westover, who owns the Westover Floral Boutique on Main Street.

Terry Keeney, who owned the historic Wyalusing hotel, had begun to make a name for his restaurant, drawing patrons from as far away as Philadelphia and New Jersey. He had poured thousands of dollars on revamping the inside, but the outside looked so bad that one restaurant critic from Elmira, N.Y., newspaper wrote that he almost didn't enter the place.

``It was the most decrepit building you ever hoped to see,'' Mr. Keeney recalls.

When the local furniture and hardware stores - two longtime fixtures on Main Street - pulled out of downtown in the early 1980s, the business people who were left behind started meeting together in the evenings. They had little money and no direction. So they recruited Bette Wizelman, a natural organizer who had run her own home-health agency and was familiar with getting government grants.

``We were really on a roll as long as she was there pushing,'' Mrs. Westover says. ``She had absolutely everyone working.''

In 1986, the Wyalusing Valley Improvement Project was incorporated. Mrs. Wizelman passed on in 1987, but Mr. Keeney kept the downtown movement alive by pouring $330,000 - an apparently outrageous amount - into the hotel. Some $90,000 went into restoring the hotel's fa,cade - including the rounded steamboat porches.

``It put us all to shame,'' says Leslie Wizelman, Mrs. Wizelman's daughter and an attorney with an office on Main Street.

A local doctor decided to get original photos of his building and restore his storefront. One by one, the other Main Street businesses followed suit. In the spring of 1989, the group hired a contractor, who redid the sidewalks in front of businesses that agreed to pay his tab.

No one could really justify the cost of doing it, but every single business anted up its share. Locally-run Peoples State Bank, which was celebrating its 75th anniversary, decided to donate more than $15,000 to put in new street lights on Main Street. A civic group donated the money for new trees and grates. The electric and telephone companies agreed to reroute their overhead wires. New local taxes allowed the town to fix its sewer and begin work on its water system, which should be completed next spring.

Local people seem proudest that they accomplished the feat without any government money. ``The community just kind of all works together,'' says Maxine Meteer, marketing coordinator for Peoples State Bank and secretary of the improvement project. ``That's how you do it.''

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