Jim Thorpe: Revitalization Success Story – Pottstown: Umm, No…

Postcard picture from 1915 of a "bird's e...

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I drove up to Jim Thorpe today thinking it would be cooler in the mountains (not) and because it is a funky place (this was not my first visit, hence I already knew it was funky).

Jim Thorpe is the county seat of Carbon County.  Carbon County has a total land area of 387 square miles and 65,249 residents, based on the 2010 Census (a population density of 171 persons per square mile).  Jim Thorpe’s population was 4,804 (2000 census) with a land area of 14.5 square miles (mostly undeveloped, obviously).  Carbon County borders Lehigh County to the south and Luzerne County to the north.

Jim Thorpe was originally two towns across the Lehigh River from one another – Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk.  The two towns merged and adopted the name Jim Thorpe, after famed Native American Olympian Jim Thorpe who is buried in the borough.  Originally, what is now Jim Thorpe was a railroad and coal-shipping center.  Like many Pennsylvania towns, Jim Thorpe found itself on the downside of post-industrialization and languished for many years.  Becoming Jim Thorpe was the first attempt to boost the local economy.  This offered only limited success and so the town leadership needed to find other means of ramping up their economy.

Today, Jim Thorpe is a bustling small town that has become a destination (are we paying attention Pottstown?) using its natural surrounding, its heritage and some good marketing. 

Jim Thorpe has capitalized on being a former railroad town.  You can take an awesome train ride along the Lehigh River.  During the trip you learn about local history, play games and answer questions.  It is very enjoyable and affordable.  Asa Packer and his son Harry Packer have mansions in Jim Thorpe.  Asa’s mansion is a museum and Harry’s mansion is a B&B.  Asa Packer founded the Lehigh Valley Railroad and Lehigh University.

Jim Thorpe is a river town.  The Lehigh River runs between both sides of town.  Taking advantage of being a river town, Jim Thorpe offers whitewater rafting on the Lehigh. 

Jim Thorpe is also a mountain town.  It’s called the “Switzerland of America”.  Taking advantage of being in the mountains, the town offers mountain biking and hiking.  They threw in paintball just because.  And don’t forget the Anthracite Triathlon, paying homage to being a coal-shipping center and part of the Coal Region.

Jim Thorpe is a historic town, full of 19th century architecture.  One can see examples of Federalist, Greek Revival, Second Empire, Romanesque Revival, Queen Anne and Richardsonian RomanesqueSt. Mark’s Episcopal Church, the Carbon County Courthouse, the Packer Mansions, the Train Station, the Hotel Switzerland, historic Broadway, the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Building and the Carbon County jail are some of the architectural attractions in town.

Jim Thorpe is so cool.  How cool is it??  Jim Thorpe was listed as number 7 on Budget Travel magazine’s America’s Coolest Small Towns in 2009.

Downtown Jim Thorpe is full of restaurants, bars, boutiques and stores of all kinds.  No empty buildings or mental health drop-in center.  Everything is clean and neat.  There is signage every where so you can find your way.  There is plenty of cheap parking…you have to pay but it is only a few dollars for the day.  There is plenty of foot and vehicular traffic coursing through the downtown.  Keep in mind this town has 4,804 people (or there about – not finding 2010 census results yet) and their downtown puts Pottstown’s to shame.  What’s wrong with that picture?  Jim Thorpe is 4 ½ time smaller than Pottstown, off the beaten path (Carbon County is not exactly Montgomery County with 800,000 people) and yet this town still finds ways to revitalize and thrive, even in a bad economy.

Would you suppose the Mayor of Jim Thorpe nuzzles the ear of the Carbon County Commissioners at local events and undermines the borough council’s downtown revitalization strategy and possibly harms a local business?  Would you suppose the Mayor of Jim Thorpe goes on the local radio station and bad-mouths borough council or that his/her spouse calls borough council a bunch of idiots while storming out of a meeting?  Would you suppose the Mayor of Jim Thorpe blows off out-of-town visitors and embarrasses borough council by promising to do something and then not doing it?

What do you suppose Jim Thorpe’s secret it?  Would you think the borough leadership came up with a plan and sticks with it?  Would you think there is a vision for Jim Thorpe and that the leadership works together and speaks with one voice?  Would you think taking advantage of a town’s history and natural surroundings is as good idea? Would you think creating a destination environment to attract repeat visitors is a good strategy?  Do you think embracing art and culture is a good strategy?  Jim Thorpe does.

Obviously, we are doing something very wrong in Pottstown that we are put to shame by a little mountain town in rural Carbon County.  They have left us in the dust.

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4 comments on “Jim Thorpe: Revitalization Success Story – Pottstown: Umm, No…

  1. I lived in PA for over 30 years and never visited this little town. Great article Roy, and maybe Pottstown will get the picture!

  2. One of my Dad’s HS classmates runs a B&B in Jim Thorpe – don’t know if it’s in town or outside town, how many can there be, right. When I accompanied him to his 40th class reunion (as my mom was unavailable), she suggested that they hold a reunion up there since there were really good things going on – it’d be WELL worth the trip.

    I’m getting that impression thanks to your masterful reporting, Roy!

    We like to look for places to do family trips and our last one (all 7 of us) was to Coopersburg, NY and tht was a few years ago. I’m gonna suggest we go to Jim Thorpe for a trip for next summer or sooner if we could coordinate it – sounds like a VERY cool time! In fact, I can’t wait to put the bug in their ear – I think I’m gonna give them a call!!

    Thanks for sharing and bringing ‘good vibes’ to light!!

  3. Lois, I can only hope the light bulb goes on one of these days! My patience is wearing thin.

    Steph, your family would have a blast. It’s not even all that far away, which is nice because getting there is quick (good for traveling with kids) and easy on the wallet for gas. You can shoot right up 476! I think it’s the exit after the Lehigh Tunnel.

    You would be amazed at how may places there are to eat and shop. I gotta drag somebody up there with me that will walk (I am too chicken to do whitewater rafting). I would like to hike along the trail. The train ride is way cool. There are a good number of special events that go on year round as well. Between eating, shopping, culture, history and outdoor activities there is a nice variety of things to do. It is family oriented fun – or as my mother would say “good clean fun”. You will have to report back if you go and share your experiences with us!

  4. When I get something set I’ll be sure to let you know!

    I promise a report, too!

    Just don’t know when it’ll happen. Thanks again!!

    Do the rafting and put some BBQ sauce on that chicken – LOL!!

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