‘The need is really there:’ In rural Dauphin County, Gov. Wolf pitches his infrastructure plan | Analysis

April 3, 2019 2:29 pm

Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf (L) chats with Nathan Troutman, vice-president of the Twin Valley Players Colonnade Theater, which operates the Colonnade Theater in Millersburg, Pa. Wolf traveled to Millersburg on April 3, 2019 to make the case for his infrastructure plan (Capital-Star photo).

MILLERSBURG, Pa. — At the Colonnade Theater on Center Street, there’s Goose Island and Rolling Rock on tap. There are burgers on the menu in the snack bar. And this weekend, Disney’s live action version of “Dumbo” and the “Pet Sematary” remake the world never knew it needed will flicker to life on the theater’s two screens.

A decade ago, the Colonnade wasn’t much of anything at all. Its screens dark and the theater in disrepair, local residents departed for Selinsgrove or Harrisburg to catch the latest blockbusters. It was a far cry from a heyday that traced its lineage to the beginning of the silent film era in 1919, through the advent of talkies, and stretched through Hollywood’s golden age, according to a history posted to its official website.

The Colonnade finally shut down in 2000 after one of its owners died. The movie house was donated to a local theater group, The Twin Valley Players, who worked tirelessly to keep it afloat. It took a mix of state grant money and $200,000 in commercial loans to get the Colonnade back on its feet.

Supporters took the money and used it to demolish the original building. They built a a new theater, which reopened in 2013, on the site. Now, the old Colonnade’s original marquee, highlighted by a swooping, Art Deco capital “C,” hangs in the lobby. The theater group puts on its performances there.

“It gives people something to do,” Nathan Troutman, the vice president of the nonprofit Twin Valley Players Colonnade, which operates the theater, said Thursday. “It makes Millersburg a place to go to,”

As popcorn, hours early for showtime, popped away behind the snack bar, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf nodded in agreement.

The Democrat traveled to this village, which sits hard against the banks of the Susquehanna River in the northernmost part of Dauphin County, to tour its picturesque but struggling downtown, and to make the case for a $4.5 billion severance tax-assisted program he believes will help such aging communities as Millersburg bounce back.

“People live in places like Millersburg because they want to be able to walk to the park. That’s one of the advantages,” Wolf said. “The disadvantage is, because of the way we fund public schools, communities that are built-out [like Millersburg] can only raise taxes. You end up with properties that are blighted — and you can only raise taxes on the people who are left here.”

To remedy that, the Democratic administration is pitching a $4.5 billion infrastructure investment plan, called “Restore PA,” that would pump state money into flood mitigation, downtown revitalization, broadband expansion, and other projects.

To build both public and legislative support, Wolf’s been touring the plan around the state for weeks. During a stop in flood-stricken northeastern Pennsylvania in late January, he punched up the flood-mitigation part of the plan. In Philadelphia, where school officials have been contending with lead paint contamination, Wolf said the money could be used for clean-up and mitigation.

On paper, the administration’s plan sounds like a good idea, one designed to bridge the partisan divide, and bring Republicans and Democrats together on an issue — infrastructure funding — where there tends to be widespread agreement.

After all, who’s opposed to flood-control? Or fixing downtowns? Or spreading broadband infrastructure into rural Pennsylvania, so that folks in, say, Elk County can binge-watch Netflix like the rest of us?

But it’s in the fine print, as ever, where the plan runs into trouble.

Debt on the bonds that would be used to pay for all that spending would be paid for with a severance tax on natural gas drillers. Republicans in the General Assembly, along with their allies in the business community, have cried foul. (Never mind the fact that the GOP-controlled Senate actually passed a severance tax in 2017 to help close a yawning hole in that year’s state budget. If they did it once … ).

In Millersburg, Pa., on 4/3/19, Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf (L) chats with state Rep. Sue Helm, R-Dauphin (center) and a local resident. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Count Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, who was along for the ride Thursday and is reliable “no” on a severance tax, among the ranks of GOP skeptics. The state “has a lot of programs set up to do this,” he said, referring to community revitalization and infrastructure. “We need to focus on getting the most bang for the buck.”

Chatting to Millersburg Borough Council President Christopher C. Dietz, Wolf said the Restore PA plan is his best plan for fixing the state’s infrastructure.

“The need is really there,” he said. “If not this … I don’t have any other ideas. This is a big pool of money and we have a big need … There are real problems affecting real communities.”

And there are ways forward on the severance tax. Wolf already wants to roll back the state’s 9.99 percent corporate income tax, which the business community has wanted since roughly the time Billy Penn hung his hat here. Wolf could trade regulatory reform to get a severance tax. That could annoy environmentalists, but if they’re getting that tax and billions in infrastructure spending, cooler heads might decide to declare victory and go home.

One potential roadblock: Wolf and his allies were so adept at picking off moderate Republicans in the Philly ‘burbs last November that the GOP lawmakers who are left are far more conservative. That makes it even harder hard to marshal GOP votes. Hence, the horse-trading mentioned above.

Difficult — but not impossible.

There are communities like Millersburg — many in far, far worse economic condition — all over Pennsylvania. And the temptation of billions of dollars in ribbon cuttings and photo opportunities may be too much for Republicans to resist.

But more importantly, as I’ve noted in other places before, infrastructure funding is about more than just jobs and community revitalization — though that’s hugely important. It’s also about our conception of ourselves as a state and a nation.

Americans — and particularly the Pennsylvanians who fired the war effort — have always been can-do people. Small statements like the reopened and spruced-up Colonnade pave the way to bigger efforts.

“It’s so important to every community — roads, bridges, clean water,” said Mike Pries, a Republican Dauphin County commissioner who also attended Thursday’s downtown walking tour. “It breathes life into small communities.”

It’s tough to put a price-tag on that.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.