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Stroll the streets of Shenandoah and try to imagine it at the turn of the 20th century — a bustling Pennsylvania coal town with a population of 30,000-plus. Shops lined the downtown, neighborhoods of immigrants sprouted up across the valley, and enough goods flooded in that soon it was nicknamed “Little New York.”

Today, Shenandoah, about 30 miles southwest of Wilkes-Barre, is a town of about 5,000. Times have changed, leaving empty storefronts and mines that are mostly silent. Yet in the heart of Pennsylvania coal country, in a town built on hard work, there is still the low hum of ambition. People aspire.

That’s why Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects was proud to recently present the conceptual design for Shenandoah’s new Innovation and Event Center, a 37,000-square-foot new-construction project that will support and advance local entrepreneurship. It’s set to rise from the heart of downtown.

“We’re not just talking about designing a new building; rather, we’re designing a solution for an entire community,” says Frank E. Dittenhafer II, FAIA, LEED AP of Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects. “As always with us, this project is ultimately all about the people and who it can help.”


‘The engine of downtown’

Picture a place where young inventors can build and test their products and where computers and office space are available for fledgling businesses. Picture a street-level retail space, a professional culinary kitchen, and a picturesque rooftop garden, and you’ll see a few of the key pieces of the new Downtown Shenandoah Innovation and Event Center.

It’s a bold design, intended to inspire.

“Everyone is very excited about the concept design, and it’s been very well received,” says Mary Luscavage, Main Street Manager for Downtown Shenandoah, Inc. “It’s amazing how they came up with everything we wanted and in ways we didn’t even imagine.”

Murphy & Dittenhafer’s focus was on creating a catalytic project that would spur a downtown renaissance. The site will include everything from lower-level maker spaces where designers will have the tools they need to create, to a third-floor art studio with windows overlooking the surrounding valley.

In between, a coffee shop, conference rooms and a large event space will ensure people are drawn downtown day and night, for myriad reasons.

“This is definitely not a timid design,” Dittenhafer says. “But we wanted this to be the engine of downtown, something that can bring the community and really the whole region together.”


A reason to stay

Shenandoah strives. In the past few years, locals have won several area entrepreneurship contests, leading to at least one patent and small businesses seeking homes. And there’s plenty more talent to be mined in the valley.

The Innovation and Event Center can provide not only a place for new merchants to share their goods but also the tools needed to find the next big invention. Perhaps most important, though, it gives Shenandoah’s younger generation a reason to stay.

“The biggest thing for us is finding a reason for kids to stay in this area,” Luscavage says, “to get them to help us grow again.”

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That reason will soon take shape on North Main Street, at the center of downtown. A hole 150 feet wide will be filled with four stories and a quaint courtyard. Bold lines and colors will attract attention, and an open-plan transparent design will allow passers-by a glimpse of the excitement inside.

If you look closely, you might also find a masked reference to a piece of Schuylkill County’s past — the huge St. Nicholas coal breaker, once used to process more than 10,000 tons of coal a day. From a certain angle you’ll see it there in the asymmetrical lines and glass panes near the rear of the building, a subtle hat-tip to the past.

Instead, though, you might find yourself today looking through those same large windows beyond the building, and out across a proud Pennsylvania town that’s full of fresh promise – still.

“For me, this project is really about the evolution of industry, and of pride, for the people in the area,” Dittenhafer says. “It’s reflective of both where they’ve been and where they want to go.”