Jun. 20—SHENANDOAH — New storefronts and eateries are breathing life into the borough's central business district, regenerating what was once a populous and prosperous community.
Many community leaders and residents believe that business is on the rise in downtown Shenandoah, with new establishments cropping up on the streets on a regular basis.
Several businesses have set up shop along Main Street over the past three years: A to Z Food Mart, Big Mama's Cafe, Merengue Cakes and Deli, Metro by T-Mobile, OBO Trading Post and Shenandoah Pharmacy are among the latest to grace the borough's main strip.
This surge of businesses has coincided with a boom of new residents, many of whom are transplants from large cities.
"Shenandoah's coming up," said Jada Hernandez, owner of OBO Trading Post, a thrift store that opened in January. "There's a lot of opportunities for new businesses."
Hernandez is among scores of residents who moved to Shenandoah from New York City in search of a smaller, more community-oriented space for their families. She and her husband took a "leap of faith" on moving to the borough after they deemed their sixth-floor New York apartment too unsafe for their children.
Since moving to the area in 2012, Hernandez has witnessed a change gradually come about in the borough.
"When we moved up here, the area was very different," she said. "There were people who weren't accepting to some people from (outside) the area. They called us the 'city people.' "
Hernandez's store offers a diverse selection of items, but specializes in collectibles such as DVDs and retro video games. Inspired by a few of her friends' and family members' game-collecting habits, she decided to start a business that would cater to enthusiasts of the niche interest.
The result, so far, has been a success. Collectors walk into the store every day, scoping out the latest selection of movies and games. Hernandez is considering acquiring a larger space for her store, as her shelves are often overburdened with the collectibles.
"We opened the store to serve the community, to give something different for them to look at," she said.
Lou Truskowsky, president of the Shenandoah Area Chamber of Commerce, said business in the borough appears to be thriving, although he added the growth is not easily observable over a short period of time.
"In the short-term perspective, it's really hard to tell," Truskowsky said. "But the impression I have is, compared to what it was before, it's changing for the better."
He noted the diverse mix of up-and-coming businesses, like Smoking Soles — a shoe store slated to open later this year — and longstanding area staples such as Souchuck Lumber, a family-owned lumber store that has survived in the midst of nearby hardware giants like Lowe's and Home Depot.
Smoking Soles, located on the northern end of Shenandoah's Main Street strip, will bring new commodities to the area — high-end sneakers, streetwear and skate equipment. Nick Shustack, the store's owner, has nurtured a love of shoes from an early age and decided to bring this interest to his hometown.
Shustack believes the borough's low cost of living has been a factor in the rise of new businesses. With many well-paying warehouse jobs nearby, he said, the area provides several opportunities for families to thrive and start new ventures from scratch.
"It's more affordable to everybody to bring something to the area that's not around here," he said. "Our area here, it's so small, and it's not as common."
With the spate of new businesses, he envisions a full-circle return to the Shenandoah of his youth. He recalled that, about 15 years ago, at least 50 schoolchildren could be seen on a daily basis socializing on the sidewalks along Main Street.
"There's not much for younger kids in school to do around here, so I'm glad they're bringing more to the area," Shustack said.
Despite its economic struggles over the years, Shenandoah today has its share of established fixtures that are ingrained in the borough's identity.
La Casita de Familia, the popular restaurant on Centre Street, has served a dedicated base of customers since 2005, cultivating a reputation among local and regional residents as a top-shelf Mexican eatery.
In her 17 years at the restaurant, manager Flor Gomez has watched businesses come and go, but she believes Shenandoah may be on the cusp of a strong upswell. Gomez said the influx of new residents in the community is central to the borough's growth, particularly among the Hispanic community.
"I would like for the community to grow so kids have everything they need here in town," she said. "The reason many (Latino) families move into the area is because they like the smaller towns. They feel safer in smaller areas and feel it's safe for their children to grow up in a small community."
In fact, Gomez sees prime examples of this growth unfolding before her eyes daily. A building across from her restaurant, the site of a former BB&T bank, is currently being renovated and will be used as a high-end laundromat, she said.
"Shenandoah is going to get a lot of new businesses," Gomez said.
Earlier this month, the new Shenandoah Pharmacy formally opened its doors with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that was attended by community figures such as Downtown Shenandoah Inc. President Karen Kenderdine and Schuylkill County commissioners Chairman Barron L. Hetherington, among others.
The pharmacy's co-owner, Falguni "Pinky" Patel, expressed gratitude to the community for being kind and allowing her to pursue new ventures. Patel said opening a new pharmacy in Shenandoah was crucial for the borough's residents, as many do their shopping on foot.
"I know there's a high demand for prescriptions and medicine here," Patel said.
Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Robert S. Carl Jr. said Shenandoah is changing for the better, with many public servants and residents working to make the borough more attractive.
"There's been a groundswell of community volunteerism and activity and people who love their community," he said. "The community support is very strong."
'A brighter future'
As new businesses make their way into the community, one project, over three years in the making, is expected to make pivotal progress.
Downtown Shenandoah Inc. plans to break ground on its Center for Education, Business & Arts within a year. The multimillion dollar community hub and innovation center is expected to be an economic boost for Schuylkill County.
DSI Executive Director Susan Williams said the center provides significant prospects for businesses looking to thrive in the community. The CEBA will include office spaces for entrepreneurs to start and develop new businesses before settling in their own spaces, outside of the incubator.
The building will also include a classroom, an art gallery and a commercial kitchen available for area restaurants to rent.
Through the spirit of partnerships, business leaders and community donations, DSI has raised $5 million for the project, Williams said, with the goal to raise $8 million.
"As with any project of this magnitude, especially the challenges of the past few years, we have encountered a few road bumps along the way," she said. "That said, our goal is to break ground this year."
Williams believes the center gives business owners an incentive to become established in Shenandoah.
"They come in, they tell us how excited they are for this building to open because they want to rent space," she said. "They want their businesses to be a part of this, and they see a brighter future."
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