Bill Pekarski, a lifelong Coudersport native, worked for Adelphia before its bankruptcy.
On a rainy day in late October of 2017, Bill Pekarski parked himself at a table near the front window at Cream 'n Sugar, a new coffee and ice cream shop on Main Street in Coudersport.
Pekarski has lived here almost all his life, save for a few college years, but he's not sure he's ever liked a place as much as he likes Cream 'n Sugar. It’s a true throwback, an old-fashioned community coffee shop with one small table, a half-dozen chairs and any flavor of ice cream you could imagine.
"Places like this," he said, "they opened up really as a leap of faith."
This store is one of more than a half-dozen new businesses that have sprouted up on Main Street in the past year or so, a clear sign that the post-Adelphia economy in Coudersport is alive and well.
When the company left town, an economic ripple effect caused heavy turnover in the downtown storefronts, but activity has really started to pick back up lately. Some of that can be attributed to an ambitious program that offered entrepreneurs a chance to move into empty stores at a discounted price, without having to sign a year-long lease.
"This is a great little small-town shop," Pekarski said, marveling at the nostalgia he feels every time he walks into Cream ‘n Sugar. “You walk in here, and time can stop out there. You're here in the moment."
Cream 'n Sugar opened in July of 2016. Patty Gianotti and Mary Jo Stuckey took a leap of faith as members of the Main Street Committee.
The owners of Cream 'n Sugar are not originally from Coudersport. Patty Giannotti and Mary Jo Stuckey were brought to this town together by pure coincidence, each arriving with their families 20 years ago during the exact same summer. Giannotti came here because her husband had gotten a job at the hospital.
Stuckey came here because her husband had gotten a job with a sister company of Adelphia.
"And I remember when he was going to interview. And I looked on the map, and there's a dot in the middle of this forest. I'm like, 'Jay, there's nothing there. Why would we go there?'" Stuckey said. "And it was a nice surprise when we came up and there's this cute little town."
Giannotti remembers it was nearly impossible to find a place to live back then. Adelphia was in full force. Stuckey remembers those days too, and she admits that after her husband's company left town, they considered moving back to Pittsburgh or Ohio. But they stayed in Coudersport because they raised their kids here and they liked it.
“Adelphia, they were just an employer,” Stuckey said. “But the community’s the community — the people and everything. I don’t think that made or broke us.”
In the winter of 2016, Giannotti and Stuckey saw a vacant storefront on Main Street and decided it was the perfect time to act on a lifelong dream. As members of the Main Street Committee, they also had long craved a downtown shop that would sell treats and coffee.
Cream 'n Sugar was born in July 2016, and the two friends and business partners have thrived for more than a year now. They're committed to this job, too.
So committed that they drive 102 miles to State College, Pa., on a regular basis, just to bring back Penn State Creamery ice cream to serve to their customers in Coudersport.
"We tried to look at things we could do to add to Coudersport," Giannotti said. "We've been very careful about picking out lines of products that don't compete with other places in town."
Giannotti and Stuckey can feel a bit of momentum here, and so can some of the officials in Potter County.
Community Development Director Jennifer Rossman, a Coudersport native, said the town's newest strategy is to capitalize on tourism and the surrounding natural beauty. Cherry Springs State Park, for example, is one of the premier destinations for stargazing, bringing tourists from across the world to Potter County to see some of the darkest skies in the United States. Almost half of the land in the county consists of state-owned forests and open land.
"Tourism, I think, people are starting to grasp onto what's available here. We live where other people vacation," Rossman said. "The communities around the county look at Coudersport and really see it as something that is starting to make a comeback."
Coudersport was bustling in the early 2000s, before the crash of Adelphia.
Despite the obvious improvements in Coudersport, the post-recession recovery has still been slower across rural America, no matter the town or city. Potter County's unemployment rate of five percent in September, according to data from the Federal Reserve, still hovered slightly above the national average.
Potter County Commissioner Paul Heimel, a former corporate communications manager for Adelphia, said the economic comeback for Coudersport is probably still in the early stages. However, he’s encouraged by the growth of small businesses over the past few years, and he also points to tourism as the future moneymaker.
Younger consumers are more attracted to nature and outdoor activities than ever, Heimel said, which is something Coudersport can uniquely offer.
“We’re king of being reborn in a way that capitalizes on some of the strengths have always been here. Our natural resources, friendly townsfolk,” Heimel said. “We’re a half-day’s drive from about a fourth of the U.S. population – they can get here in half a day – so the idea is to get the businesses that are going to want to pull in those visitors.”
Heimel referred to himself as the typical case study of a former Adelphia employee. He left his longtime job as a local newspaper reporter and editor to serve in Adelphia’s corporate communications office, where he worked for 10 years. When the company was bought out, Heimel had an opportunity to move to a new position in Charlotte, N.C.
“I wasn’t gonna do it. Everything is very near and dear to me, and many of us who have lived here all our lives, we wouldn’t leave it. It was all right here: Our family, our community, our comfort level, our sense of community. And we love it here,” Heimel said. “People who come here and get a taste of it— they kind of love it, too.”
When those tourists visit Coudersport, they’re certain to find hidden gems.
John and Olga Snyder, who own a downtown gallery and bistro, have been open for business for nearly eight years now across the street from the Potter County Courthouse. They bought their building from Adelphia and rehabbed it, both inside and out. They painted the walls. They fixed the plumbing system. Admittedly, the first few years of business were not easy.
John and Olga Snyder say people are surprised when they walk into their gallery and bistro and find the elegant interior.
But it got better.
Lately, the Snyders have started seeing a steady stream of tourists stop by their building. Once they get inside, these visitors are usually taken aback by the beautiful, dark woodwork and the impressive art collection.
“People are pretty surprised when they walk through the doors here. They don’t expect to find a place like this,” John Snyder said. “It’s not what you expect to see in north central Pennsylvania.”
Snyder has not lived in Coudersport his whole life, but his parents are both from the area.
So the Adelphia situation did not deter him at all from pursuing a downtown business operation.
“This was home,” he said. “We really wanted to be here.”
Coudersport residents are also enjoying a new streetscape in the heart of downtown. The repaving of Main Street was just completed this fall, a project that was long overdue.
And there’s a new media company in town: Zito Media. The Greek word “Zito” roughly translates to some form of the word “alive” in English.
Zito is run by James Rigas, the youngest son of John. It does not have the type of footprint Adelphia did – far from it – but it does provide cable, Internet and phone services to subscribers in more than a dozen states.
Zito leases space in a former Adelphia building on South Main Street, a building so grand it was once nicknamed the “Taj Mahal.” The original Adelphia headquarters is now a county building.
“We’re just on the cusp of something that I think has been coming for a long time,” Rossman said.