STATE COLLEGE - As the Nittany Lions prepare for their Sept. 1 home opener amid numerous NCAA sanctions and the national spotlight focused on a university in turmoil, the State College community and surrounding areas have begun preparing for a period of uncertainty.
Local elected officials and business leaders said it is too early to know the impact, but plans have been set in motion to ensure the community can move forward in the years ahead.
Penn State's ineligibility to travel to any postseason bowl games "will certainly affect us in the next four years, but to what degree, I don't know," Nittany Travel owner Ray McGill said.
The effects of the NCAA sanctions could hurt the community in other ways, McGill said. Local business owners hit with a drop in sales due to decreased football traffic might be less inclined to book a regular vacation - something that would then have an adverse effect on McGill's business, he said.
The agency does not typically handle travel packages for home or away football games and only sees a major uptick in demand when Penn State places in the more prominent bowl games like the Rose Bowl or Orange Bowl, McGill said.
But the sanctions could be a way for Penn State and its fan base to "turn some heads" this fall, he added.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the statue of Joe Paterno was loaded into a truck and moved out of Beaver Stadium to an unknown location Friday morning.
The statue had been stored in the stadium since being taken down by a construction crew last Sunday.
"As we've maintained from day one, the statue will be stored in a safe and secure location until a permanent location is decided," Penn State spokesperson David La Torre said.
"I think the one thing that is necessary is that Penn State's football program, and its new coach and its new players, hold a steady course," McGill said. "I think that if that can be done, it's going to show the community that Penn State is more than a football team."
About 200 members and partners of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County met last week to discuss the "economic and community uncertainty" following the NCAA sanctions against Penn State, chamber President Vern Squire said.
The focus of the meeting was not to analyze the events of the past few months but instead focus on using Centre County businesses' positive aspects to chart a course forward, Squire said.
The CBICC meeting drew representatives from all sectors of Centre County, including construction, education, hospitality and health care representatives.
No representatives from Penn State were present at the meeting, he added.
"We have had additional conversations with Penn State," Squire said. "The idea is that they want to be cooperative and a part of this community solution.
"They are a part of the community; it's fitting for them to be involved," he added.
Now more than ever, Centre County businesses must focus on engaging alumni and welcoming them back to the community and the region, he said.
"If [alumni are] welcomed and appreciated for what they can do to show their support, that has a lingering effect," Squire said.
The Central PA Visitors Bureau also held a meeting for its member organizations last week. Participants solicited ideas for promoting the area in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and NCAA sanctions, Executive Director Betsey Howell said.
The businesses in attendance emerged from the meeting with a consensus that the area needs to tell its own story, Howell said.
"We need to promote the area and all the great things that exist here," Howell said.
on the positives
While all of the businesses are supportive of the victims, Howell said a campaign acknowledging the positive aspects of the area is needed.
Events on the Penn State campus such as the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon (THON) and the Lift for Life fundraiser are some of the events the Visitors Bureau hopes to highlight.
But the area is known for more than just Penn State - community festivals and a variety of outdoor recreational activities will continue to draw visitors to the area, Howell said.
Although a certain degree of uncertainty exists before the Nittany Lions' first home game Sept. 1 against Ohio, Howell said businesses will work to broaden the economy of the area to not rely solely on football revenue.
"This is bad, but we'll get through it," Howell said. "Hopefully the Penn State fan base will come out and support us."
She said about 10 hotels were represented at the meeting and only one of them reported being underbooked, with the rest on par, going into this year's football season.
State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, was one of a handful of elected officials in attendance at the CBICC meeting Thursday morning.
"He believes in this community," Tor Michaels, Conklin's chief of staff, said. "We will recover and find ways to move forward."
Other elected officials, including state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre; state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre; the Centre County commissioners; and State College Borough Council President Donald Hahn were also in attendance, Howell said.
Michaels said the meeting was the first of many in the coming months.
"Obviously we're saddened by the events that took place at Penn State University, but at the same time, we all have to pull together at this juncture and move forward as a community," Michaels said.
Joe Hurd, president and CEO of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce, said Blair County businesses are in a "wait and see" mode following the announcement of the sanctions.
"If the decision had been to shut the program down for a year, it would really have generated more attention in angst," Hurd said. "I honestly believe, if there's one university in the country that can weather this type of storm, I believe Penn State is it."
After hearing the university had already sold 85,000 season tickets, Hurd said the region would not be adversely affected and would persevere.
"I don't really expect a considerable drop-off in terms of people coming in and spending money," he said.
Sense of optimism
While some businesses originally expressed concern over the potential of the NCAA issuing the "death penalty" to the football program, where the program would have been shut down for a period of years, most business owners expressed optimism that Penn State fans would continue to travel and bring their business to the area during the coming football seasons.
"There's a rallying point to this whole thing" under the new leadership of the university and head football coach Bill O'Brien, Hurd said. "It's a test of loyalty, absolutely no doubt about that."
Some businesses said they are upset over the NCAA sanctions but remain committed to the State College community.
"We are not happy that the NCAA did not wait for all the information and facts to come out before deciding on the sanctions," Family Clothesline advertising manager Caroline Gummo said.
The downtown clothing retailer is one of many State College businesses that still stocks merchandise of the late football coach Joe Paterno. Family Clothesline will continue to stock Paterno merchandise while there is a demand for it, she said. But shirts adorned with "Billieve" - coined after O'Brien was tapped as head coach, have steadily increased in popularity.
"We've seen a tremendous amount of support for our new coach," Gummo said.
The store is usually swamped with alumni and visiting fans on football weekends, but Gummo said it is too early to anticipate how the NCAA sanctions will affect turnout come gameday.
"It's not just the sanctions," Gummo added. "It's definitely not what we want to focus on. People are upset that children were hurt and that children were hurt at Penn State."
Penn State alumni and students without a direct connection to State College businesses can also have their voice heard through an online survey.
Announced earlier in the month by self-described "fundraising and community building" company Affinity Connection, the survey is geared toward collecting information from various stakeholder groups associated with Penn State, CEO Greg Woodman said.
Everyone from students and alumni to business owners, family members of students, university faculty and staff to current State College residents are invited to take the survey by visiting www.affinityconnection.com/PSU-survey. Those taking the survey are asked a variety of questions, including the impact of Penn State on them, what they feel the core values of the community are, how the university can move forward, whether the Board of Trustees should suspend the football program and how likely they are to support the university financially.
"We thought that we might be a part of the rebuilding process by using our survey," Woodman said. "We found that if you give open-ended questions, it allows people to speak candidly and thoughtfully to assess this current situation."
The company hopes to sort responses according to the various stakeholder groups to come up with a consensus of each group's core values, Woodman said. Woodman plans to publish the findings when the survey is completed at the end of August.
Answers have ranged from "Moving forward is easy. Moving forward with integrity and intelligence is the difficult part," to simply words such as "Prayer," Woodman said.
Whether respondents answer one or all of the 16 questions, the company hopes to give a voice to community members, Woodman said.
"There were some values and ideas tied with the 'Success with honor' mantra that have been lost with all this rush to judgment," Woodman said.
Alumni and State College residents bonding in solidarity can help to restore the image of the university and surrounding community, he said.
But Penn State will still play football in the fall - and hopefully, the fans will also show up on gameday, Downtown State College Improvement District Executive Director George Arnold said.
"The team's able to play the games, the team's standing behind the coach and I think that's encouraging," Arnold said.
If the football program shows solidarity despite being in the national spotlight, the alumni and fans will show up "stronger than ever," Arnold said.
The community standing in solidarity with the university, area businesses and visitors will "speak volumes" for returning alumni and football fans, Arnold added.
Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.