Sandusky trial is trying for Bellefonte merchants

News media parked at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte at the start of the Sandusky trial this month. Some shop owners aren't merely frustrated, they're worried for the future. "Nobody wants to come into town," said one.
News media parked at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte at the start of the Sandusky trial this month. Some shop owners aren't merely frustrated, they're worried for the future. "Nobody wants to come into town," said one. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff)
Posted: June 22, 2012

BELLEFONTE, Pa. - This week, about the only people in Confer's Jewelers, the classy, family-owned boutique next door to the courthouse, were the salespeople.

Nobody was browsing at Childrenz' Clothing Plus. And at Victorian Rose, cherry-cheeked cherubs provided the only friendly faces.

"It's just dead," said Carol Walker, who owns and runs the all-Victorian store for this largely Victorian town. "Nobody wants to come into town."

Why? The trial of Jerry Sandusky.

The rows of TV satellite trucks; the cables and wires that lay across sidewalks; the legions of reporters, lawyers, and talking-head experts taking up parking spaces; the commotion and fuss and disorder - it's keeping regular shoppers away and hurting many small, locally owned shops. Some businesspeople aren't merely frustrated, they're worried for the future.

They've endured a two-week siege, beginning with jury selection, and may face at least another week. And they're not the only ones being affected.

Local school officials had their administrators - up to and including the superintendent - on the sidewalks as the trial began, to help small children safely cross the streets amid the hubbub. Attendance was down slightly at last weekend's annual Bellefonte Cruise, a historic-car show that usually draws about 10,000, organizers said.

"The trial made it a stressful week, and many were uncertain that the cruise was going to happen," cruise chairman Dave Provan said in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, both the county public defender and the prothonotary, located in the Centre County Courthouse, have had satellite offices 10 miles away, at the Pennsylvania State University law school.

"So far, so good," said Chief Public Defender David Crowley.

For others, it's so far, not so good. The lousy economy has been tough on small businesses during the last two years, people here say, but the last couple of weeks have been worse.

"It's just dead," lamented Ed Emel, who with his wife owns Childrenz' Clothing Plus, a consignment store that sells clothes for children, teenagers, and adults.

Normally, people are coming in and out of his store all day long. Now, nothing.

"This right here," Emel said, nodding toward the courthouse, "is just killing us. It's ripping the town apart."

Bellefonte is a town of old brick and freshly painted gingerbread, a friendly, charming community of 6,200, dependent for its existence on its quaint properties, its natural beauty, and its proximity to the economic behemoth of Penn State.

Today, Bellefonte is a center of the news universe, its name familiar across the country as Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach, faces lurid child-sex-abuse allegations. He has pleaded not guilty, and on Wednesday, his attorneys rested press his defense.

Outside, the green courthouse lawn has been claimed by cameras, tents, and stand-up crews. No entrepreneur has set up a stand to sell bottled water and snacks to the reporters, though the Home Delivery Pizza Pub dropped off a load of menus - promising to deliver to any identifiable patch of grass.

For some, of course, the impact of the trial has been nil. Every day, senior citizens grab stools at the soda fountain at Plumb's Rexall Drugs, where they chew over the news of the day. At George Stone's State Farm insurance, Sophie, the sociable, three-legged cat, continues to spend her afternoons snoozing near the big picture window.

For others, the influx of reporters, attorneys, and assistants has been a boon: All those people have to sleep, eat, and drink somewhere. The Cool Beans coffee shop bills itself as "the place where Bellefonte gathers," and that has never been more true than now. During breaks in the trial, the place is jammed with reporters buying gallons of coffee and wolfing down turkey wraps or tuna sandwiches.

"The town is open for business. People don't have to stay away," insisted Gary Hoover, executive director of the Bellefonte Intervalley Area Chamber of Commerce.

Yes, parking may be a bit tougher to find, he said, but the idea that there are no available spaces is "more perception than reality."

It's true that on the borough outskirts, big, lighted highway signs warn "Congestion ahead" when there's really not much congestion, except for a minute or two wait at the High and Water Streets stoplight.

Borough parking enforcement officer Eric Haupt - he doubles as the animal-control officer - said he had seen open parking spaces, though people might have to circle the block to find them.

Attorneys and county residents not involved in the trial won't need them, at least for the foreseeable future, since the Penn State law school offered office space to the county. Law school leaders wanted to be good neighbors and knew busy courthouse offices could be strained by the trial.

If you have to move your office, the Katz Building is nice digs - constructed of natural stone and wood, and steel and glass, with modern art on the walls, and gorgeous window views of the lush green campus playing fields. The building houses a courtroom with state-of-the-art audio and visual equipment, used for classes and student mock courts, but sometimes for actual appeals on live cases.

Taped to the door of Room 204 in the law school is a paper sign that says, "Public Defender. Please knock." The prothonotary's office in 308 has posted a similar notice.

"It's just giving the public and attorneys another location, due to the volume of people and parking," said Debra Immel, the county prothonotary and clerk of courts.

Both satellite offices will be at Penn State for the duration of the trial. Many here are hoping that's not much longer.

"Three o'clock and I don't have one sale yet," Valerie Owens Echols, who runs the Rags to Riches Resale Shop, said as trial testimony began. "The only ones that are coming are the curiosity seekers."

The Victorian Rose practically bursts with everything connected to the age - prints, curtains, candles, pillows, rugs, birdbaths, wreaths, teas, hats, flowers, fruits, furnishings, and more. This week, owner Walker looked out over a collection of silky, rainbow-hued butterflies, awaiting absent buyers.

"It's a month of [lost] income," she said. "And our bills are still due."


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, jgammage@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @JeffGammage.

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