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A Plan for Jim Thorpe’s Future - Suggestions for addressing parking, congestion, and overcrowding issues.

By: Brian Evans

In Jim Thorpe, the successful effort of our community to build a tourism industry over the course of several decades has helped establish the town as one of the most popular destinations in the Pocono mountains. That growth however has outpaced planning, and now efforts are being made to help solve some growing problems.

The popularity of Jim Thorpe provides great benefit to the community. But those benefits can understandably be lost on residents dealing with the daily frustrations that result from the larger crowds that often come to experience the town. How we look at these issues is important to finding the best possible solutions to them.


It’s important to note…

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Mauch Chunk was reportedly one of the most visited tourist attractions in the US. More people were visiting Mauch Chunk at the time than any other place in the country other than Niagara Falls. This would mean that tens of thousands of people were visiting our small town on any given weekend at the height of its success. Far more than just the few thousand people that come here even during our busiest seasons today.


When the rail and coal industry that once made Mauch Chunk so prosperous were replaced by the automobiles and fuel, the town suffered greatly. Many of the towns historical buildings were neglected, most lost forever, and the economy fell into a depression.


But residents pulled together and reportedly started a nickel a day campaign to raise money to help restore JT tourism economy. That lead to the now infamous purchase of Olympian Jim Thorpe’s remains and the renaming of the town. Over time, the town was slowly revitalized, and we now enjoy the benefits of that hard work.


This history is important because tells us that Mauch Chunk/Jim Thorpe has always been a unique place that people want to come see. It tells us our history is to be bold and to do bold things. And it tells us at minimum what the area can support logistically.


What’s different now?

While many thousands more people were coming to visit Mauch Chunk in its prime then do visit the town today, life has changed in ways that make it hard to fathom. The largest difference is those people came mostly by train whereas now they come by automobile. But there are some fundamentals of urban planning that would help us to understand why we have the problems that we now face and how best to address them.


Primary to that understanding is how downtown and business district were historically much bigger in Jim Thorpe during its prime. There were more people, but those people were also spread out over a much larger area visiting the shops and restaurants along Mansion House Hill and up West Broadway. Today, crowds are far more concentrated into a much smaller geographical business district which has been limited by zoning controls.


Mauch Chunk/Jim Thorpe also had beautifully cultivated local attractions like the Switch Back Railroad, Glen Onoko Falls, and the Flagstaff Ballroom. Supporting the development and maintenance of these areas provides additional things for people to see and do here while also drawing them out of the downtown which helps reduce the traffic, congestion, and overcrowding issues we now have.  


What value does tourism really provide?

Economic data shows economies with large travel and tourism sectors show strong economic resilience and robust levels of economic activity. While local municipality’s ability to tax tourism dollars directly is limited, the direct spending that results from tourism and indirect tax generated from it are substantial economic drivers.


The goods and services that businesses require to operate provide revenue to other local businesses. For every meal made, there is a food delivery, and someone paid to deliver it, unload it, organize it, to make it, sell it, serve it, etc. For every shop there are goods purchased and sold, but also accountants and bookkeepers, attorney’s, delivery services, etc. As properties are bought and sold; realtors, insurers, brokers, appraisers, and more are deriving income to facilitate those sales. New property owners and investors will hire local contractors for restoration, repair, and maintenance of their properties and buy construction materials from local distributors and outlets to fulfill those projects. These are just some of the countless ways that tourism feeds local economies, and all of that spending does not account for the massive amount of money brought into the community by the people coming here to spend it.


For residents in a small town dealing with the negative consequences that can develop from a successful tourism industry, understanding the tangible value that industry is providing can be difficult and hard to accept. For this reason, it’s important for local government officials to understand that value themselves and to continually help residents to understand the value of promoting local tourism while also working toward solutions to address the problems it introduces.


What does the future hold?

The rise of remote work has changed entire state economies. The Pennsylvania Poconos have been particularly affected due to their proximity to major metropolitan hubs like New York City and Philadelphia as many workers shift away from the expense of city living. This combined with the comparatively low cost of real-estate and abundance of activities and beauty in Jim Thorpe has exacerbated growth here considerably. Our county and state officials expect this growth to continue over the coming decade.


It's not an indictment of our local elected officials to suggest the congestion and overcrowding problems we have today are a result of poor planning and failure to anticipate and act on the predictable growth that we have experienced. Planning is hard a democracy harder. But addressing these problems now in an effective way that does not significantly harm our economy will require proactive solutions to adapt to the crowds that are coming, not to shoo them away.

This congestion and overcrowding occur for several reasons but not the least of which is that the downtown is concentrated into such a small geographic area. These problems will continue unless we find effective ways to draw people out of Hazard Square and the center of the downtown.


Additionally, review of the most recent census data reveals that Jim Thorpe has a substantially aging population. It is widely expected throughout the real-estate market that a glut of homes will be coming to the market over the next 5-10 years as aging baby boomers and their families sell off those properties. As the market value of homes in Jim Thorpe has already surpassed an affordable value based on the average salaries of residents here, it is important to consider how the sale of these homes will impact the future of this Jim Thorpe.


What’s the plan?

One solution some are advocating for is to restrict the amount of people coming to Jim Thorpe. To accomplish this by reducing the length of special events, to prevent new development, and to encourage people to visit other neighboring towns instead of Jim Thorpe. These approaches will cause harm to our revitalized economy and drive significant revenues away from our community.


However, there are other solutions, some, or any combination of which could and likely would dramatically remedy the congestion, overcrowding, and parking issues for Jim Thorpe without sacrificing the economic gains that were worked so hard to attain. This can be accomplished by learning from our past how our community was able to manage the much larger crowds which we know once frequented Mauch Chunk/Jim Thorpe while acknowledging the new challenges we now face that that didn’t exist then.


Parking – There are multiple ways the borough and county can work to reduce parking issues in Jim Thorpe:

1.     With limited geographical area to create parking space, and demand for parking at an all-time high, the borough should advocate and work with the county to develop a parking garage facility in the existing county lot. This space is already being used for parking, provides the space needed to expand that parking, and would presumably alleviate some or all the expense to the borough necessary to develop a parking garage in the existing county lot.


2.     The borough recently excavated a few acres of land along Lentz Trail (Picture below) for parking of borough vehicles. This lot is near the end of W Broadway and would provide a useful area for overflow parking from the county lot during our busiest seasons. The borough should develop a plan to use this parking lot during these times to help alleviate parking issues.

3.     Local developers have cleared significant land on Flagstaff Mountain and proposed using it, amongst other things, for parking to help alleviate parking issues for the downtown. While this potential solution requires infrastructure improvements, the developers have offered to participate in the cost of completing those improvements. Providing available parking away from the county lot but within reasonable proximity to the downtown will also help address the overcrowding and congestion issues.


Zoning – Rezone portion of the R4 district along W Broadway into the C3 district.

Doing so will provide a pathway for investment in the deteriorating buildings and infrastructure that currently exist along W Broadway and encourage businesses to develop organically slowly over time through re-zoning that area. Doing so will help alleviate the “red-tape” and multiple variances that would be required to do so and that strongly discourage investment in those areas now. Having more businesses to visit on W Broadway will help draw crowds out of Hazard Square and away from the center of the downtown. This increased capacity is both a short and long term need for our community. A detailed community plan which outlines the benefits and ways to accomplish this already laid out here.


Glen Onoko Falls – Investment in revitalizing the falls and trails around them.

Glen Onoko Falls provides a unique and worthy attraction for residents and visitors of Carbon County as well as specifically for Mauch Chunk/Jim Thorpe. Unfortunately, investment to protect and maintain the falls and those trails that surround them has not been made and now the falls are closed to visitors. This is a lost opportunity to help alleviate some of the pressure on the downtown and a lost resource for our residents. The borough should work to invest and expedite, revitalize, and promote this area.


Switchback Trail – Restore and develop the switchback trail.

Key to addressing our problems is to find ways to draw people out of Hazard Square, further into town or to other areas around Jim Thorpe. Doing so keeps the financial gains that our tourism economy produces localized, while also helping to address the negative impacts it introduces such as overcrowding and congestion of the downtown area.


The Switchback Railroad is an integral part of our towns history that is little more than a footnote in our written history. The trail the Switchback once rode is now made up of largely neglected or overgrown walking paths. This valuable resource is being squandered. The borough should institute and seek to restore and improve the trails around Glen Onoko as doing so would help alleviate some of our most urgent problems while also restoring a valuable community resource.


Flagstaff Ballroom and Cable Car Tram – Support development of Flagstaff Mountain and the proposed cable car tram.

Developers on Flagstaff Mountain and in Jim Thorpe have been working for several years to develop a cable car tram to carry people from the Flagstaff Ballroom into the downtown of Jim Thorpe. Perhaps no single idea or plan could do more to address the growing parking, congestion, and overcrowding problems that Jim Thorpe is currently experiencing then the development of this cable car system.


A $1m grant is currently in place in addition to private equity investment that would likely cover the construction cost for this project. The financial and logistical gains to the residents, borough, and county that would result from this development would dramatically improve quality of life by reducing parking, overcrowding, and congestion issues.

Operations – Better planning of our local festivals and events could dramatically alleviate the negative issues experienced during our busiest seasons.

By concentrating entertainment, food, and bathroom options in or near Hazard Square, as has traditionally been done, we miss an opportunity to disperse crowds more effectively. This has been a major contributor to the overcrowding and congestion issues that we now experience.


To do this, we need to create incentives to draw people out of Hazard Square to other areas around town. This can most easily be accomplished by moving mobile food and entertainment resources out of the square and to position them in designated areas along West Broadway. Doing so keeps people in the walkable business district and avoids adding to traffic issues but also requires them to move up Broadway out of the over congested downtown. This would also potentially provide significant benefit to those existing businesses on W Broadway which historically have struggled to draw business to their locations even during our busiest seasons.

Police and Policy – Create part time supplementary volunteer police force

The additional crowds and congestion have over-burden our police force and emergency personnel. We don’t employ enough personnel to safely manage to amount of people that are coming here in our busiest times. To help resolve this, we could pursue a training of a part time volunteer or auxiliary police force. Many communities all over the country use these types of services to bridge the gap when additional safety personnel are needed. This is not an easy thing to coordinate or develop, but with the vested interest of the community and elected officials it is far from out of reach.

Canyon Rim Estates – Support the development of housing, entertainment, and parking proposed by Canyon Rim Estates developers.

While the development of CRE poses some legitimate environmental concerns that need to be further explored, the proposed development is not unusual or extraordinary. The mass clearing of forestry that occurred on Flagstaff Mountain feels like, and perhaps is an unconscionable action. That said, that deforestation is done, and the proposed development of that space could dramatically reduce the parking, congestion, and overcrowding issues that need solutions.


W Broadway Stairs – Restore the W Broadway / High Street Stairs

An injury and lawsuit ensued from a fall on the W Broadway / High St. staircase. The borough filed motion against local property owners asserting they are responsible for the maintenance and use of the stairs despite the fact the borough historically has accepted responsibility for the stairs. That court case is now nearing decision and the future of the staircase is yet to be determined. The staircase is another valuable and lost resource for our community.


While the stairs themselves provide little perceived value to address parking, overcrowding, or congestion issues that we now face, they would help by providing a more efficient way to move in and around town as well as to help draw people further up W Broadway away from the downtown.


How Jim Thorpe’s current and growing problems are addressed is a matter of local governance. Momentum has developed from many residents who don’t see or appreciate the value that our tourism economy provides. They vocally prefer to reduce tourism with belief that it will improve quality of life. In some ways, it would. But consideration of our past and virtually all other local economies, looking at issues such as blight, poverty, and crime, it’s abundantly clear that Jim Thorpe’s unique tourism economy has dramatically improved quality of life here in many ways. It is critical to our sustainability that efforts are made to maintain our current levels of tourism and to build upon them with smart investments and proactive efforts to do so.



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