By Jodie Dello Stritto
Participants selected for the Wilds are Working program will live in downtown Bellefonte for a month. Photo: Downtown Bellefonte Inc
Mainstreet manager Jennilyn Schuster believes Bellefonte’s quality of life infrastructure is so unique and appealing, it only takes experiencing it firsthand for someone to fall in love. “The initial focus is getting people here,” she said.
The Wilds are Working described as “a lifestyle experience for remote workers,” will introduce Bellefonte to the participants selected to relocate and live downtown for the month of July. Applications arrived from as far as California, with more than a handful from North Carolina, according to Schuster. The residents-to-be represent a wide age range and include singles, couples and families.
In addition to paid housing, participants will receive a stipend in the form of gift cards for local experiences, from dining to recreation. The program is built heavily around the area’s natural assets and opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, a particular draw for technology workers, according to COO Abbi Peters.
“This program will show new residents that Bellefonte isn’t just a great place to live, it’s a community that invites new experiences and fresh perspectives that can make it even better.”
“The gift card model helps to fuel businesses in our local communities,” Peters explained. “It doesn't cover grocery shopping, for example, but could pay for a morning cup of coffee, lunch at a downtown café or kayak rentals.” In this way, she said, the program supports a variety of local businesses, in addition to those that provide basic necessities, and delivers experiences the participants are seeking.
Beyond directing dollars into local communities, Schuster explained the more lasting benefits of Bellefonte being a pilot community for the program (Kane, Pennsylvania, is the second pilot location, slated to welcome its participants in Fall 2022).
The Wilds are Working program capitalizes on the abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities. Photo: Downtown Bellefonte Inc
“Working in the community, I hear a lot of people say how great it would be if Bellefonte had a welcoming committee,” she said. “As new people move in, wouldn’t it be great if there was a team and a process to welcome new residents and help them navigate their way to different opportunities to get involved? This program is it.”
Part of the program requirement is establishing a committee to serve as a resource to participants, helping to connect them to areas of interest, local knowledge and advice for making the most of their stay. The team will be a model for a long-term approach to working with new residents and, Schuster hopes, as a foundation for new generations to make their home in Bellefonte.
“Bellefonte has welcomed so many new, non-native residents who bring a diversity of ideas and talent to the community,” she said. “This program will show new residents that Bellefonte isn’t just a great place to live, it’s a community that invites new experiences and fresh perspectives that can make it even better.”
Peters said even before arriving, participants have expressed eager interest in lending their support when their stays end. Hearing feedback and insights about their experiences, she said, will allow the welcoming committee to “see the community through the lens of a newcomer.”
Bellefonte and Kane will also be important case studies for other rural communities to follow, Peters said.
“Often, smaller towns and more rural communities try to follow examples set by bigger cities,” she explained. “This program will offer a template that's tailored for small towns and rural areas, both in our region and elsewhere, giving them a greater chance of success in attracting new residents.”
“When I moved here, everything was shut down and everybody was like ‘What will we do if there’s no Penn State football?!’ But it was an amazing opportunity for the community to refocus on what makes Bellefonte special.”
Schuster herself is a relative newcomer, moving to Bellefonte from Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2020, to be nearer to her parents, who own Our Fair Lady Bed and Breakfast . Since then, she’s been inspired by how the community has responded to challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“When I moved here, everything was shut down and everybody was like ‘What will we do if there’s no Penn State football?!’ But it was an amazing opportunity for the community to refocus on what makes Bellefonte special,” she said. “We had time to focus on additional relationships, like this one with the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship. When you look at Happy Valley, obviously State College and Penn State are a big part of the appeal. Now, we have really focused on creating an individual identity for Bellefonte, which boasts a livable downtown that offers so much — architecture, nature, shopping, dining, schools, churches — all in a walkable area.”
With the revitalization of spaces like the Gamble Mill and Titan Park and, before that, the Match Factory, Schuster said Bellefonte has now started to fill in the retail gaps with a variety of shops and drinking and dining, driving what she calls “purposeful progress.”
“We’re capitalizing on our assets to benefit from things like outdoor tourism and event travel, two areas that are increasing post-pandemic, along with the remote work movement that’s driving people to smaller, more rural towns that offer robust outdoor experiences and a slower place,” she said. “The Wilds are Working is just one piece of the puzzle.”