McConnellsburg, a borough in south-central Pennsylvania with a population noted as not much over 1,000, has managed to find a way to monetize parking in its downtown—that is, the three blocks that comprise its main street (Lincoln Way).
Do you see them there in the distance, next to the sidewalk? The village hosts a tidy row of signature green-and-gold meters.
To be fair, it’s a well-kept little downtown overall, with a number of meticulously preserved mixed-use buildings that still offer the nineteenth century paradigm of commercial on the first floor with residences above.
The oldest structures along McConnellsburg’s main street are sufficient to serve as contributing features to the McConnellsburg Historic District, a district that comprises approximately one-third of the borough’s .35 miles of incorporated area.
Among these structures is the original home of Daniel McConnell (who platted and founded the borough in 1786), and Fulton House, an old stone tavern built just a few years later, seen in the photo below.
Yet McConnellsburg doesn’t have a website of its own; only Fulton County offers that. Presumably not big enough that its borough council can justify allocating the money to fund one.
Still, at least one person among the village leadership managed to make a case for parking meters in the town…or enough of the right people managed to get the ear of an influential figure in municipal government. I’m not sure I’m aware of a village this small that has ever deployed parking meters.
And if there is one, I can only imagine it’s because the village has a clear attraction—something that encourages enough touristic out-of-towners to visit that they’d be willing to pay while visiting that winsome (although hardly lively) little main street. But, aside from history buffs intrigued by the borough’s 18th century structures—a phenomenon common to other parts of Pennsylvania but comparatively rare here—the biggest attraction is the region’s unusually high concentration of barn quilts, with enough in McConnellsburg to justify its place on the Barn Quilt Trail. But this feature isn’t something that McConnellsburg shouts to visitors upon entering; I only learned about this idiosyncrasy through follow-up research.
So, why does McConnellsburg have parking meters? The borough obviously puts some effort into giving them a certain identity: notice how they share the atypical green coloring of the village’s streetlights in the photo below (with the wood-frame Daniel McConnell House visible on the opposite side of the street):
My suspicion is the Borough can justify metering its main street for one primary purpose: for people visiting McConnellsburg for county-level functions. It is among the least populous county seats in Pennsylvania. Only three other counties in the commonwealth have fewer people than Fulton County. Here’s the Prothonotary’s Office, just two blocks off of Lincoln Way but still within the Historic District.
This building is probably the single largest attraction in McConnellsburg, bringing the the county’s remaining 12,000 people scattered across 438 square miles to this relatively central location for county-level functions, which, in an area this rural, is quite a bit: registrations, deeds, hearings, birth/death certificates, planning, veterans’ services. Though Pennsylvania is one of the handful of states where 100% of is incorporated—aside from two other tiny boroughs, the rest of Fulton County is sparsely populated townships—the county seat in such a rural area would assume a higher share of responsibilities than it might in, say, urban Allegheny County, which is pockmarked with numerous boroughs, well populated townships, and one very large city (Pittsburgh). And although the Prothonotary’s Office appears to have a sizable adjacent parking lot, it’s likely that these spaces first go to County workers, with a few reserved for visitors. The rest have to park on the street nearby, with meters to accommodate them.
But I still cannot help but question the efficacy of these meters, for one major reason.
Check out those prices. They’re even more generous than the meters I noticed in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Cincinnati many years ago, and they’re almost as generous as the ones in nearby Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which give us fifteen free minutes with the turn of the knob. At these sort of prices, how does the Borough make much money off of them? About the most they could get out of a single meter is one dollar in a day, and that probably virtually never happens. The meters also force people to carry change with them, which a diminishing number of us do.
The meters have no apparatus to accept paper or credit/debit payment, and at these rock-bottom rates, it’s hard to imagine how they could justify it. No credit payment company would accept a contract with a place that charges so little. And how can they even justify a meter attendant to cite people for violations? Perhaps they’re extra strict and charge unusually high prices when someone lets the meter expire; otherwise, it’s hard to imagine McConnellsburg could collect enough money to pay a single worker. Most telling of all: the side residential streets off of Lincoln Way or its perpendicular 2nd Street can easily accommodate off-street parking.
I saw no evidence that McConnellsburg requires permits to park on these side streets, so it’s an easy method to avoid a citation. Outside of a major event—an annual festival, maybe, or a major trial—it’s hard to imagine a situation where any one of the borough’s many meters gets any real use at all.
I hate for this article to end on such a critical tone, so once again I must at least marvel at the fact that such a small municipality has decided to charge for parking. But if one were to assess the efficiency and efficacy of various initiatives through a state-level audit, I can’t imagine this one rating highly. It’s a reasonably straightforward example of the free rider problem, where the means of offsetting the cost of maintaining public roads gets offset by other public roads, and people choose to park at the ones with no cost. One could argue that such a thing would happen as well in an urban setting where meters have steeper rates and real enforcement; but even in city like Philadelphia, the well enforced metered parking downtown can hardly compensate for the thousands of miles of minor residential roads that lack a payment system. Additionally, the embedded value levied here comes from parking alongside the road, not from the cartway upon which the vehicles travel. Therefore, the price conferred through metering better accounts for social costs—traffic induced, potential safety consequences, preventing free-rider abuse of spaces in front of commercial enterprises that have no off-street alternative. And while I’m not sure the attempt at safeguarding against these negative externalities really achieves much in McConnellsburg, it’s hard not to fault the borough’s leadership for at least making an effort. And that level of effort is visible throughout the McConnellsburg main street. Not every small town in America that can make such a case to put nearly half the land area within a protected historic district. And I have to tip my hat to the green and gold. Maybe someday McConnellsburg really will find that pot at the end of the rainbow.
17 thoughts on “McConnellsburg, PA: population barely above the triple digits, and parking meters on the main street.”
Lighthearted look at a winsome little town. I enjoyed this article. I wondered if there is a possibility that the meters aren’t even functioning?!? The town could be a movie set if the correct-era automobiles were brought in.
Good point! I can’t say I bothered to check. In fact, I’m not sure I could check, since I don’t carry loose change around all that often anymore…just like most people. At this point, they might be merely decorative.
I was near McConnellsburg once, when a medical emergency necessitated a visit to the then-County hospital. Being in a town of a couple thousand, It couldn’t provide the necessary orthopedic services so I had to go on to the larger center at the next County seat, Chambersburg. I did not get the chance to really see the town as I was following an ambulance.
Yes, Chambersburg is definitely a full-fledged small city, ringed by many others. The population differentials between Fulton County and Franklin County are substantial, so I can’t imagine the Fulton County Medical Center had nearly as much to offer. Resources may have improved in the last few years, since the Center for Advanced Medicine apparently opened, but Franklin County and Chambersburg are fully urbanized, with far greater capacity.
As towns of its size go, McConnellsburg looks pretty intact. I suspect, however, that almost all of its economy subsists by on the headquarters of JLG Industries, which makes boom and scissor lifts. This manufacturer is probably more resilient to economic downturns than a lot of construction supportive industries.
Often the survival of a small town or city depends on a homegrown business, often niche manufacturing. (For a gloomy look at what happens when such a business is sold or acquired, read Brian Alexander’s book “Glass House” about Lancaster Ohio and Anchor Hocking Glass works.)
Small town America is littered with examples of what happens when the hometown business disappears, whether it’s the factory or the grain elevator and farm coop.
Ach, not to worry. An Amazon Fulfillment Center can save the day for such a town. Seems like the only remaining economic activity, working at a breakneck pace to distribute imported consumer goods we probably don’t even need!
Alas, probably truer than we care to admit. While I know you’re being somewhat ironical, perhaps you know better than I do if Amazon Fulfillment Centers would locate in such a tiny community. McConnellsburg does have a few advantages: it’s located just a mile south of a major east-west highway (US 30), and less than ten miles south of an interchange with the PA Turnpike (I-76), which are few and far between. In this era, highway junctions may be more important job generators than a population node.
But I doubt the jobs at a Fulfillment Center are anywhere near as well-paying as skilled manufacturing work at JLG Industries. Though Amazon jobs do tend to be better paying than the retail jobs that they have consistently displaced.
It looks to me as if Amazon tries to be near the junction of long-run N-S and E-W interstates. They’re big in Columbus O and Indy. So I’d say Carlisle/Hbg, Scranton, or Washington PA or Metro Philly/Trenton NJ would be more likely.
Indeed, and the same could be said about McConnellsburg. I’m not sure JLG (the primary employer in the town) is anything near what it used to be, since getting acquired in 2006 by Oshkosh Corporation. And speaking of Glass Houses, it doesn’t even have to be that small of a town–case in point with Muncie and the Ball Corporation. Given the relocation of its primary industry, the Ball Corporation, to Colorado over 20 years ago, it’s easy to assert that the biggest thing keeping the regional economy afloat is Ball State University, and that without it, Muncie would probably be in no better shape than nearby Anderson. All the more ironic, since the iconic “Ball” cursive that is synonymous with the American Mason Jar hasn’t been affiliated with Ball Corporation (in Indiana or Colorado) for ages. The new owners have simply retained the brand because it works.
Perhaps the planners thought the meters add old-fashioned charm to the streets, because there is little chance that paying a meter maid makes any fiscal sense at all.
There’s definitely no way they could recoup the cost, given the rates the borough charges. From what I could tell, there are quite a few of them: at least 40. Perhaps they only enforce during special events that bring a lot of people in–a major festival or some county-level business that requires people to visit the Prothonotary Building. Otherwise, based on the fact that they seem more concerned with keeping a color scheme than making them financial viable, you could be on to something…
Were there planners employed in such a tiny town? THAT would seem even more unaffordable than the meters! 🙂
This is my hometown.
I hope I did your town well by my analysis! I was only there for maybe 45 minutes, if that. But I was taken by how well-preserved the commercial main street was.
It’s a pretty shit town. I can’t believe you even found it. Honestly, I’m surprised there are stores still open. With JLG moving the bulk of their operations overseas, I can’t imagine there is much business there.
I’d go with preventing free-riders. The purpose of parking meters is to allocate a scarce resource, not as a revenue generator. With prices this low, it stands to reason that the cost isn’t the factor so much as the inconvenience of having to feed the meter. A lot of places have laws against feeding meters too. Whatever the maximum limit is, that’s the maximum you’re technically allowed to park there. It’s rarely enforced, but again the purpose is to get people to move on. That keeps residents from tying up spaces for stores, or judges and clerks from parking all day on the street instead of the municipal lot. It’s friction more than anything.
You’re probably right, and I definitely noted the free-rider factor as probably being the most compelling. The issue in 2021 is a) ever fewer people carry change on them these days (heck, many don’t carry paper currency) b) at prices that low, even if they upgraded the meters to support credit/debit, it’s unlikely that many credit card providers would want to service a commodity that consistetnyl results in purchases that are fewer than 50 cents. Conversely, the Borough couldn’t justify the service charges because they will always be lower than the fee for a single transaction, meaning that credit/debit payment will never happen because it would result in a net loss, and the lack of a credit/debit payment option will result in most people avoiding the meters altogether. The only salvation I can think of is if the meters are, in fact, heavily enforced, and the borough recoups costs through parking violations. But that wouldn’t be a long-term solution: over time people would learn that these meters get heavy enforcement, and they’d once again avoid them altogether if they can’t dig the nickles and dimes out from their pockets
Obviously I’m overthinking this, but these arrangement do merit this level of scrutiny. It’s the makings of a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis, and rudimentary in this instance may be good enough. But there’s one thing I’m confused about: what did you mean by “[a] lot of places have laws against feeding meters too”?