Tioga sees a turnaround as new businesses move into old factory sites

( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ) From left are Ron Hinton, director of Allegheny West Foundation, Verna Tyner, of Tioga United and Gail Kass, President and CEO of New Courtland at the future site of New Courtland Senior Housing along Allegheny Avenue at 19th Street.
( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ) From left are Ron Hinton, director of Allegheny West Foundation, Verna Tyner, of Tioga United and Gail Kass, President and CEO of New Courtland at the future site of New Courtland Senior Housing along Allegheny Avenue at 19th Street.
Posted: March 12, 2013

VERNA TYNER was 10 when her family moved to Venango Street in Tioga 40 years ago.

"I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," Tyner said of her new home. "It was just a gorgeous, beautiful neighborhood. The lawns were manicured. The trees were trimmed."

But as Tyner grew up, the neighborhood fell down.

Dozens of factories that dotted Tioga, Nicetown and Allegheny West began closing, putting thousands of people out of work.

Among them: the Budd Co., which made railcars and later automobile doors; Tasty Baking Co., maker of Tastykakes; and the Stanley Blacker suit factory.

But Tioga United, a community organization for which Tyner is president, and groups such as the Allegheny West Foundation and Mercy Neighborhood Ministries began to work on strategies to combat the blight.

"We were just not willing to accept the only outcome as vacancy, with no jobs or no opportunities to grow," said Ronald E. Hinton Jr., president of the Allegheny West Foundation.

Today, the activists are hopeful.

They see the area poised for a turnaround as a number of businesses and institutions have moved into - or will soon occupy - renovated factories or once-vacant industrial sites.

The most recent development project is the $5.6 million NewCourtland LIFE Center, under construction at 19th Street and Allegheny Avenue, site of the old Stanley Blacker suit factory. It is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

It will be the third LIFE center (short for Living Independently for Elders) that NewCourtland Elder Services Inc. operates in the city. The centers, based on a national model, provide elderly people with a place to spend the day - with activities and socializing - as well as to get medical care. The two other centers are in Germantown and Mount Airy.

"We knew that North Philadelphia had to be the next frontier," said Gail Kass, president of NewCourtland. The 19132 ZIP code, around the Allegheny Avenue site, has one of the city's highest concentrations of elderly residents who meet the income criteria for LIFE services, officials said.

Kass said the goal is to keep the elderly living on their own and out of nursing-home care for as long as possible.

But the LIFE Center is just the first phase of construction planned for the 5-acre Allegheny Avenue site.

NewCourtland will learn this spring if it will be awarded tax credits to start building a second phase of construction: affordable housing - both for seniors who can live alone in a 60-unit apartment building and a smaller building for seniors who need live-in assistance.

"We are very excited about this project," Tyner said. "NewCourtland will bring some jobs, some security and safety [in addition to services] for our senior citizens."

Nearby on Jan. 31, more than 1,200 people crowded into the Murrell Dobbins High School to hear about the Brown ShopRite grocery that is coming to the new Bakers Centre in August. It will offer about 300 jobs.

The 30-acre Bakers Centre, at Hunting Park Avenue and Fox Street, will also have a Ross Dress for Less store and a Wendy's. It's under construction on land once used by Tasty Baking Co., which moved to the Navy Yard in South Philadelphia in 2010.

The activity is the latest in a string of development in the area in recent years:

* In 2004, the Sisters of Mercy bought an old brass factory at 20th and Venango streets and converted it to the Mercy Family Center. It opened in 2009 and provides preschool day care, after-school care for older children, adult education, and adult day care for the area's elderly.

* In 2007, Temple University Health Systems moved some of its administrative offices into the old Budd Commerce Center, on Hunting Park Avenue at Stokely. Temple University moved some of its administrative services there a few years later.

* In October 2010, the Salvation Army Kroc Center opened on part of the Budd Co. site, providing recreation, education and spiritual programs.

Also, the neighborhood groups Colt Coalition, RAH Civic Association and Abbottsford Tenant Council have joined forces to provide five "job readiness" workshops to teach life skills, how to conduct a job interview and how to complete a resume.

The community organizations also have been working with the city's Planning Commission and Commerce Department to work on strategies to attract more development.

One strategy was a "Developers' Tour," organized by community leaders last year, that brought potential investors to the area on a trolley-bus and in a couple of vans.

"The purpose of such a tour is to show off the strengths of a neighborhood, to show off the hidden treasures that people don't normally see and hopefully get developers interested in investing more in the area," said Richard Redding, director of community planning for the city.

The Planning Commission helped with the itinerary, showing developers old buildings that already had been renovated and others needing renovation.

Before NewCourtland began construction, the Stanley Blacker factory stood like an ancient ruin of a bygone industrial economy.

It had closed in 1991, putting 750 people out of work. Three years later, the building caught fire. Residents blamed vagrants and drug addicts.

"It was one of the most visible symbols of neglect," said Hinton, of the Allegheny West Foundation. "It was a factory that had closed, then burned down. Anyone riding by on a train would wonder, 'What is that horrible thing?' "

But projects like NewCourtland's are raising spirits in Tioga and Nicetown, said Tyner, who also is a committeewoman, chairwoman of the 11th Ward and chief of staff for City Councilman Bill Greenlee.

"I believe that it's time to get Tioga back on the map, to bring attention back to our community," she said.

Tyner still lives on the same block she moved to 43 years ago. She and her husband bought a house only doors away from her mother's home. A brother, cousin and granddaughter also bought houses on the block.

"We stayed here because we remembered how beautiful it was," Tyner said.

She said her late father worked three jobs to provide for a family of five children.

"He always used to say, 'I'm struggling and I'm striving,' " Tyner said. "He said there's nothing wrong with struggling to make things better."


On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN

 

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