Wine, Workers, and Song

Wine, Workers, and Song

Altoona Area Bank Keeps Spirits Alive

US Hotel

Legend has it that the U.S. Hotel and Tavern in Hollidaysburg, Blair County, is haunted.

Pupils of the paranormal report apparitions of a tortured bride who wanders the hallways searching without end for her lost love, a soldier killed in combat. A man slaughtered in cold blood in a bar fight staggers across the floorboards wielding an axe, hell-bent on vengeance. A woman with tangled hair who committed suicide decades ago lies across a hotel bed holding her head and writhing in pain. Forks fly through the air, dishes break without being dropped, and water runs without the turn of a faucet.

Whether you are a supernatural skeptic or a boo-believer, the spirit of the architectural gem known as the U.S. Hotel is alive and well, thanks to a reinvigorating rescue from Altoona First Savings Bank.

Likewise, at the Woody Lodge Winery in Ashville, a husband and wife’s wine-making hobby has been fully uncorked to become a lucrative summer hot spot with award-winning chardonnays and Rieslings, live entertainment, and an enthusiastic and growing client base after just a few months in operation.

The ingredient that binds both spirit-driven ventures is Altoona First Savings Bank, led by President and CEO Gary Pfahler; Troy Campbell, Executive Vice President; and Patrick Nagle, Vice President and Head of Lending and Business Development. Both the rustic winery and refurbished hotel and restaurant are generating buzz in their own tight-knit communities and triggering business galore, noisily telegraphing the magic touch and broad reach of community banking.

To the community bankers who had the vision to recognize the value in both projects and took a calculated chance, the Facebook following, constant flow of traffic, and over-arching success of both projects are no mystery.

Today, U.S. Hotel, in the nexus of Hollidaysburg’s historic district, is still an active construction zone, alive with drills spinning, power saws humming and hammers tapping. It is the sweet cacophony of progress, in a structure turned over to the bank in December 2012.

Don Delozier is the hotel’s owner, a seasoned businessman, and a contractor with an enviable record of success who partnered with Altoona First to restore the hotel to its former glory.

Built in 1835, U.S. Hotel was a buzzing hotel in the halcyon days when Hollidaysburg was a bustling port on the Pennsylvania Main Line Railroad and the Pennsylvania Canal system. The red-brick corner edifice was destroyed by fire in 1871. It was rebuilt on the same site in 1886, and a bar was later added. In World War II, it transitioned to become a naval training school.

Now, after sitting dormant for fifteen months, an extreme makeover began in April. The project received the blessing and cooperation of the borough manager and the Hollidaysburg Architectural Review Board, and the community is anxiously waiting for their old friend.

When the contractors first entered the neglected site, it was far from pretty. Ceiling fans, damaged from a leaking roof, hung precariously from the bar ceiling, ready to take a plunge worthy of the climactic scene from Phantom of the Opera. The kitchen had suffered extensive water damage. The walls desperately needed paint. New wiring and lighting were a must. But the well-built structure was impressively sound.

Today, the beloved restaurant and memory-maker is a clanging, buzzing work in progress, preparing to open in September for a wedding. Twenty gallons of degreaser was used to wipe away 20 years of oily build-up. Interior designers, including from nearby Finds antique shop, are at work on a time-honored but fresh look.

American history oozes from every inch of the building, which sports multiple dining rooms, a bar that will specialize in craft beers, and a second and third floor that will be ideal space for overnight guests. Forty-five minutes away from Penn State, the hotel is destined to attract a special niche market for golfers, Happy Valley football fans, class reunions, attorneys with cases in the nearby Courthouse, and bridal parties.

One of the dining rooms will wear many patriotic accents, from American eagles to bells and flags. Liberty Hall will remain as the expansive, time-honored reception hall. The stairwell below the hall, part of the Underground Railroad, will be preserved for posterity.

The community bankers note that nearly every Blair County resident had entered under the old hotel and restaurant’s roof for a banquet, a wedding, a private party, or a romantic date sometime over the decades. They will love the changes.

The previous owner left the second and third floors virtually unused, but the new owners are tapping into the possibilities.

The ambitious face-lift already has curious residents driving by and watching the beehive of activity eagerly. What will be preserved inside remains a closely guarded secret, including the fate of the legendary troughs, spittoon, and church pews.

Now, “When I go in there, it amazes me,” said Troy, knowing of the before-and-after.

The members of the community really want the building to open, and are counting down the days to the big reveal. “People are clamoring for it already,” said Andrea Carnicella, Main Street Manager for The Borough of Hollidaysburg Community Partnership. The building has been an anchor in the community.

The community bankers say their vision is “contagious.”

“This project illustrates what can happen when community banks touch projects that others won’t, and when they do, magic happens,” said PACB President and CEO Nick DiFrancesco. “A community cannot take control of its future if community banks won’t invest in their potential.”

“Unlike big banks, we are looking for relationships, not just transactions,” said Gary.

In a later phase, the quaint bed and breakfast will open above the first floor bar and restaurant.

Because the restaurant had been closed, it did not qualify for economic development funds, but tax credits may be in store in the future.

And about those ghosts? If they bring in customers, the men joke, let the legends continue.

Troy reported that one morning, after absorbing all the ghost stories with some amusement, he came in to the deserted building at 5:30 a.m. and was startled to hear a female voice. He was spooked beyond belief–only to discover that a woman was walking her dog and talking to her precious pooch outside an open window.

“I thought she was a ghost and she thought I was a ghost,” Troy said with a hearty chuckle.

Woody Lodge

Bob and Margie Keller are also finding joy with a different kind of spirits.

They have been drinking in the sweet smell of success since opening Woody Lodge Winery in Ashville, after their homemade wines took off in regional competitions and family parties.
With names like “Struttin’ Tom Merlot”, “Blues Berry” and “Berry Best Friends,” their original wines are the fragrant route to Bob and Margie Keller’s vintage recipe for success.

The couple decided to turn a fun hobby and a fruity fluid loved by family and friends into a full-scale business when they began winning medals for their wines. In fact, Bob has won a medal for every wine he has made. At one competition, after going 4 for 4 in medal competition, The American Wine Association Judges told him that he should seriously consider opening a winery. Bob and Margie realized, “You know what? We’re on to something here.”

They began making wine in 2006 with a homemade recipe from Bob’s dad and uncle.

When they started, they half joked—“We enjoy wine so much, we should start making our own.”

Since Bob has worked in quality control since the age of 18, he is big on details, research, meticulous note-taking, and checking and re-checking. He still works at a government parts supply company, but “This is where my heart’s at now.”

But success has not been without its messes.

One day, Margie came home from her work as a credit manager for a large company and said, “Boy, does it smell good in here!” Her husband emerged from the basement and said, “Boy, are you going to kill me!”

Their finished basement, which once sported lily-white walls and ceilings, was covered in strawberry pulp. While the wine was fermenting, pressure had built up in a brand-new airlock system and had exploded with turbo-powered force all over the basement. The dog, lying on its side and lapping up the syrupy explosion, couldn’t have been happier.

“It popped like a volcano,” said Bob. A gallon of wine dripped from the ceiling. Thus was born the crazy-popular “Strawberry Blast.”

“We had a good laugh about it,” Margie said.

The wines’ eye–catching labels have been crafted by their daughter-in-law’s sister. The couple knows you can have the greatest wine in the world, but you have to get people to taste it first.

The Berry Best Friends illustration has juicy, ruby-red strawberries with shapely legs seated on a green velvet loveseat. Blues Berry’s label has a soulful jazz singer.

With family and friends placing orders faster than they could keep up—“everything was given away before it was even bottled”—keeping up with demand is an ongoing challenge.

The winery’s new building opened in November 2013. Already, with the proper liquor permits, the couple are going to wine festivals and working with local restaurants to supply their wine.

The Kellers know their wine. Bigger is not better, said Bob. He said, “The smaller the grape, the better the taste.”

The winery currently has four employees. Some work in the retail store and some help downstairs in production.

When in synch, the winery can produce about 500 or 600 bottles per hour.

“Our biggest challenge is keeping up with the demand from our customers,” Bob said, who often come bearing gifts.

Pat said, “I take pride in what they’re doing and all we did was give them the money.”

The admiration is mutual. “We tell people about their winery and they tell people about our bank.”

Phase two includes plans to add banquet space for weddings and office parties. They can only sit 50 or so at present.

“If you build it, they will come,” predicts Margie of her own forested field of dreams, where an elevated deck overlooks the scenic woodlands.

The winery now offers live music and acoustic guitarists every weekend throughout the summer. With no kitchen at present, guests are encouraged to bring their own food. People come with pizzas and baskets. Two best girlfriends came by after a demoralizing day of bathing suit shopping with ice cream and purchased a bottle of wine as a “we survived” treat.

People say their wine is as good as many of the top names in wine.

The Kellers single out Pat at Altoona First as a singular savior and supporter.

Bob said Phase Two will be a banquet hall with a larger production area underneath that will give them the ability to triple their production.

Other plans for the future include turning the parking lot into a patio with pavers and outdoor gazebos. Additionally, they hope to open a satellite store in a mall or other town in Pennsylvania or Ohio.

“It’s snowballing.”

Because Altoona First Savings Bank is a mutual bank, not a stock bank, they emphasize that they work for the customers, not stockholders, since they don’t have stockholders. Born in 1927, the bank has five offices, in Altoona, Duncansville, Martinsburg, Bedford, and Everett.

For both the hotel and winery, Altoona First Savings Bank expects to drink in a smooth finish, like the finest of merlots. In fact, the bank may hold its holiday party at US Hotel.

There they can toast the passion, vision, and skills of the owners. And they may discover that the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future are truly Casper-esque friendly ghosts.

This article can be found featured in the September 2014 issue of Transactions. Not a subscriber? Visit the Transactions page on this website or call PACB at 717-231-7447 to start receiving the magazine.