The City of Altoona has systemic problems resulting largely from an economy that shrank over the last half-century, as businesses, jobs and residents moved to the suburbs.
The city Planning Commission hopes to do something about those problems through a new comprehensive plan, which it will develop over the next 15 months under guidance of Environmental Planning & Design of Pittsburgh.
The planners will build on recent city finances, looking at the challenges of running a government on short funds and at the city's overall economy, constructing a vision that matches what residents want for Altoona - one that's practical, given the money limitations, and one reflecting sustainable changes, Planning Director Lee Slusser said.
"It's almost laughably ambitious," Slusser said, after an Amtran bus tour of the city Tuesday, during which consultants quizzed commission members about neighborhoods, history and their ideas about problems and possible solutions.
Company Managing Principal Andrew Schwartz asked commission members to be candid and touted his own and colleagues' insights as "fresh," because they are outsiders.
Downtown was the first destination.
"We don't have a real downtown," commission Chairman Bob Gutshall said.
"What does it lack?" Schwartz asked.
"People," Gutshall said.
People started leaving in the 1960s, when businesses went to Pleasant Valley, said commissioner Randy Isenberg.
Have the recent downtown projects of Penn State Altoona reversed the trend? Schwartz asked.
They haven't made much difference, commission member George Thompson said.
But they're making more of a difference, as the college has scheduled more daytime classes for nursing and communications, and they will be making even more of a difference when the college's Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence opens this summer in the former Meyer Jonasson building, member Barbara Wiens-Tuers said.
The bus traveled on Broad Avenue, down the leafy parts of Union Avenue, along Sixth Avenue, Chestnut Avenue, past the Juniata downtown - where a streetscape project is underway - through the residential areas of Juniata on Fifth Avenue and Broadway and touched on the Ivyside campus, then past the Wehnwood shopping plaza.
The riders talked of the percentage of rental properties, absentee landlords, the city's underpublicized but effective homeowner and rental rehabilitation programs, the presence of spot blight but no extensive slums, the difficulty older residents have in paying for upkeep of their homes, the city's population losses and the biggest private employers nowadays - after health care, government and education.
Assisting EP&D will be consultant Todd Poole, president of 4ward Planning of Pittsburgh, who is an expert in economic development and market studies, to help ensure the practicality of the plan's ultimate recommendations, Slusser said.
The consultants will develop demographic and socioeconomic information, conduct surveys of residents and businesses, map land uses, hold public meetings, employ focus groups and conduct a community workshop.
"A major drive is to get people [to participate] who are outside the usual suspects," Slusser said.
He said the city is paying $99,900 for the consulting help, having chosen EP&D from among 13 applicants for the job because of its experience with downtowns and with fiscal and economic issues.