When Chris Berleth, relationship manager of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce, thinks of the southern part of Northumberland County, there’s a single word that comes to his mind.
Berleth, a native of Rhode Island who moved to central Pennsylvania in 2012, said he feels things are starting to click for an area that, admittedly, took a downturn after the exit of the coal industry decades ago.
“It’s starting to become obvious that there is a drive from community members and something is starting to click,” Berleth said of the greater Shamokin-Mt. Carmel area. “For economic revitalization to happen things have to be well timed. There’s a passion in the community that has always been there and now it’s starting to result in an increase of businesses.”
Berleth pointed to several influences in the area that have had a major effect on the economic climate, including the creation of the AOAA and the efforts of locals, including Kathy and Sam Vetovich, owners of Heritage Restaurant in Shamokin.
“The resilience of the coal region is coming out in the creativity of businesses that are cropping up,” Berleth said, adding that the AOAA is a perfect example of such an endeavor, where former mining grounds were used to create an attraction that generates reach out of state.
Berleth said he is amazed at the amount of people the organization has been able to pull to the area, referencing the tens of thousands of passes that have been sold since its inception in 2014.
Despite recent successes, Berleth said the chamber of commerce is actually focusing on the negatives of the region to begin the process of revitalization.
“We want to learn about how to overcome issues by looking at other areas who have been successful at making a rebound,” he said. “We want to see how it’s happened in Bethlehem and Reading and Berwick, which has had 10 years of economic development now.”
And though there have been sparks in business in the region through government programs like the federal opportunity zone initiative, which Shamokin has been designated, Berleth said he sees the majority of the area’s future successes being generated by natives.
“I think area people want their hometowns to be a great community that they would be proud to say they grew up in,” he said. “We’ve also gotten extreme support from the leaders in area government, all the way from the municipal level to Rep. Kurt Masser and beyond, we have had such great representation trying to help get the timing right with legislative affairs.”
Berleth said when he was invited to attend a meeting of the Shamokin Area Businesses for Economic Revitalization, he was told it would be a gathering of a few people who are interested in bringing Shamokin to life.
“I walked in and there were 60 people there. The room was absolutely filled,” he said. “And it’s still growing every single month. The coal region has enough people who care to make it a better place — but again it comes down to timing when you talk about major changes.”
Berleth said the chamber will again be involved in the annual Anthracite Economic Summit, scheduled for May, which will further discuss how to increase the area’s economic output and reach.