Credit city for trying reinvention

Downtown Altoona never again will be the bustling business and retail hub of Blair County that it was prior to the exodus to suburban malls and shopping centers, beginning in the 1960s.

As redevelopment projects shifted into high gear during the decade of the ’60s, many memorable but deteriorating buidings succumbed to redevelopment’s wrecking ball, including large structures adjacent to the downtown business corridor that once housed important functions of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Altoona’s historical record is built upon the railroad industry, but it was stores, banks and other businesses along 11th and 12th avenues — housed within memorable facades and architecture — that made the downtown corridor not only the one-stop place for meeting most people’s needs, but also unique in its own special way.

There no doubt are oldtimers who still look back fondly on what existed during those days, even the days when it became clear that the old would have to give way to something else. They reminisce about how much less stressful life seemed to be back then, even amid the loud sounds of the railroad industry and the railroad traffic passing within what at the time seemed to be an arm’s length from the retail part of town.

Indeed, the downtown never will return to the bustling self that it maintained prior to redevelopment — even with the downtown renaissance currently underway. However, keeping some of the downtown’s former character amid the newness that is evolving can have benefits, if utilized to the greatest advantage.

Having the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission as an ally in that venture injects optimism and opportunity for what might lie ahead.

There was a time when people of this state — as well as tourists — thought about the commission only in terms of the numerous historical markers found along roadways throughout the commonwealth bearing their distinct appearance and messages.

But the commission is much more than about markers, and this isn’t the first time that its help has been sought on Altoona’s historic district front.

A story in the June 10 Mirror provided a snapshot of the proposed Altoona historic district expansion currently in the planning stage. It is a proposed expansion that should be accorded the support of area state lawmakers, all of whom have the power to lobby on its behalf.

Their votes also will be important regarding proposed legislation aimed at increasing the size of the state’s tax credit fund, currently $3 million — a fund that could be important to the success of the historic district venture that’s being discussed.

State tax credits can cover up to 25 percent of the costs of rehabilitations that maintain the historic integrity of a structure, while federal tax credits can cover 20 percent of the costs. The proposed historic district expansion could help building owners secure tax credits to help fund restorations that would comply with certified historical rehabilitation guidelines.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, as the wrecking ball was paving the way for a vastly different Altoona, few city residents imagined that, a half-century later, preserving remnants of the past would be deemed important. But that’s what has happened.

It’s not wrong to believe that to fully appreciate the present, it’s important to be able to touch some of the past.

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