50 years after renaming, Jim Thorpe a thriving tourist town

Sunday, December 12th 2004, 3:31 pm
By: News On 6

JIM THORPE, Pa. (AP) _ Fifty years after the neighboring boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk united as Jim Thorpe as part of a publicity stunt, this quaint Victorian town on the southwestern edge of the Poconos has become thriving tourist destination.

Whether Jim Thorpe the athlete had anything to do with the town's renaissance is open to debate.

The borough's resurgence came decades after the name change and was largely the result of shrewd marketing and a scenic location, marketing experts and borough officials said.

``You don't make any money because people know your name,'' said Steve Yastrow, a Chicago marketing professional. ``There's a tendency for people to look for the quick gimmick. But you're much more likely to impress customers with substance than with a gimmick.''

When Mayor Ron Confer returned to his hometown from military duty in 1963 _ nine years after the name change _ the borough was still ``almost a ghost town,'' with only three stores downtown, he said.

``Nothing changed, actually, other than the name,'' Confer told The Morning Call of Allentown for Sunday editions.

Famed athlete Jim Thorpe, who won the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Summer Olympics and played professional baseball and football, never visited Mauch Chunk.

But after he died poor in California in 1953, Thorpe's widow saw a TV news report on a visit to Philadelphia about the Nickel-a-Week Plan, a program started by a Mauch Chunk newspaper editor that solicated donations of 5 cents a week to a fund that would lure new businesses to the area.

Patricia Thorpe thought the boroughs, which were struggling with high unemployement and the decline of the anthracite coal industry, might be willing to bury her husband, an honor already declined by towns in Thorpe's native Oklahoma.

Late in 1953, she worked out a plan with civic leaders: The Mauch Chunks would merge into one borough, give Thorpe a burial place and take his name, in exchange for publicity and projected economic benefits.

After seven months of discussion, the Mauch Chunks voted 2,203 to 199 to take the Jim Thorpe name.

But the promised economic benefits never materialized: Not the Jim Thorpe Memorial Hospital, nor the pro football stadium, pro football hall of fame, or Jim Thorpe sporting goods manufacturer.

The borough's revitalization didn't begin until the late 1970s and early '80s, when the Carbon County tourism officials began running busloads of tourists into town for dinner. Charmed out-of-towners began buying and restoring the town's stock of aging but structurally solid Victorian buildings.

The borough landed a $300,000 grant to revitalize its downtown, rehabilitated the old Central Railroad of New Jersey station and brought back a steam train. Festivals showcased laurel blossoms in June and fall foliage in October. Antiquing became popular.

Some residents argue the name change did boost the town. Sports fans flock to Jim Thorpe's grave, which has been featured in national media.

``If it wasn't for Jim Thorpe, you wouldn't know anything about Mauch Chunk,'' said Jack Kmetz, a lifelong resident and president of the Jim Thorpe Sports Hall of Fame.

But Confer isn't so sure.

``I don't know if made any difference or not,'' the mayor said. ``I think tourism would have come here, even if it had stayed Mauch Chunk.''