It can really help a town when one of its residents becomes president. We look at the hometowns of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to see what a Biden victory could mean for Scranton.
SCRANTON — They return every four years.
Presidential aspirants, especially in the Democratic Party, have made Scranton a regular stop this century. It was the first place John Kerry and John Edwards visited after the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Hillary Clinton, whose parents lived and are buried here, has visited regularly. But no one as much as Joe Biden.
The Democratic presidential candidate, who spent some of his childhood in Scranton, has mentioned his birthplace frequently on the campaign trail.
He uses it as a stand-in for small-town and small-city America, squaring it off against the titans of Trump’s Park Avenue.
He has one campaign ad that touts the fact that Scranton doesn’t have “skyscrapers or big city bankers, just hardworking people.” There’s another one, narrated by his sister and titled “A kid from Scranton.” And on Saturday, during the Penn State-Ohio State game, the campaign aired an ad narrated by Bruce Springsteen and featuring the rock legend’s music.
“This is more than where he’s from,” Springsteen says, “It’s who he’s for.”
If Biden wins the election, things could change for the Electric City and its 77,000 inhabitants. Having a former resident grow up to be president can mean big things for a small town or city.
Dennis Ramsey and Kim Fuller know what happens when someone from a small town becomes president.
As the mayor of President Bill Clinton’s birthplace of Hope, Arkansas, during the entirety of the Clinton Administration, Ramsey saw what that notoriety brings.
“Our world changed the night of the convention,” Ramsey said, “when Clinton made the comment ‘I still believe in a place called Hope.’”
That was July 16, 1992. According to Ramsey, reporters flocked overnight to the town of about 10,000. Sightseers soon followed.
Plains, Georgia, President Jimmy Carter’s hometown, had a similar experience.
A small town of under 1,000 people, it continues to be a destination for visitors, thanks to the Carter family still living there.
“On any given day, you can see him shopping around town,” said Fuller, president of Friends of Jimmy Carter and Carter’s niece. “We’re very blessed to have them here.”
The town can see as many as 100,000 to 150,000 visitors some years, according to Fuller.
That number of visitors doesn’t make much of a difference for Gerald Ford’s birthplace of Omaha, Nebraska; George W. Bush’s New Haven, Connecticut; Barack Obama’s Honolulu, Hawaii; or Donald Trump’s New York City.
But it meant a lot to Plains and Hope, and it could mean a lot to Scranton.
“It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have the president of the United States not only be from your community but also to have hearkened to it,” said Bob Durkin, the CEO of Scranton’s Chamber of Commerce.
And Scranton is a bit better prepared for it than Plains and Hope were when their residents became presidents.
“Y’all are a big city,” Fuller said.
The Man From Plains
First, there’s the thing you can’t measure.
“Of course, it’s a matter of pride,” says Kim Fuller, with the Friends of Jimmy Carter. “We’re all very proud that he grew up in such a small town, a farming community, and realized his dreams.”
Plains’ population is 776. Everyone in the small southwestern Georgia town in southwestern Georgia knows each other.
Carter talked about Plains on the campaign trail, and the residents rallied around him.
Fuller remembers it well. It was her first time voting for president.
When Carter was elected, visitors showed up in droves to see the small town that gave us the 39th president.
They needed places to go. They packed hotels and restaurants.
After Carter’s presidency, according to Fuller, the number of visitors dwindled. But Carter returned to town, where he teaches Sunday school classes, so any year can bring more than 100,000 visitors.
The National Park Service created a National Historic Site at Carter’s boyhood home outside of town and campaign headquarters downtown, as well as a museum and visitors’ center at the high school.
Fuller says what Scranton needs is the ability to adapt.
“We were not prepared to begin with. For the numbers of people who were coming.“
Hope, Arkansas, has a similar story.
The Man from Hope
Bill Clinton left Hope, a town of about 10,000 people in southwestern Arkansas, when he was 7 years old. But during his presidential campaign, he used his birthplace to help sell his “everyday American” narrative.
After Clinton became the 42nd president, Hope experienced the same surge of visitors as Plains.
Tour busses started pulling in. Gift shops opened up.
“It grew into a little cottage industry,“ said Dennis Ramsey, the former mayor.
The town needed places for sightseers to go.
“We didn’t have a visitor center,” Ramsey said. “We knew we had to have a place for people to go initially.”
Union Pacific deeded an old downtown train station to Hope and, with the help of some state funds, it was turned into a visitor’s center that the city now maintains.
The National Park Service turned Clinton’s childhood home into a landmark and museum.
The spotlight helped Hope.
“You literally become the center of the universe,” Ramsey said. “I had a wonderful opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Once Clinton left office, the number of visitors dropped.
“This was our 15 minutes of fame and it would slowly fade,” Ramsey said.
Scranton hasn’t been able to enjoy the same surge of visitors as Plains or Hope. Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Americans aren’t traveling like normal.
But the interest is still there.
Durkin said officials from 14 different countries have already contacted him about the city.
The city has to put its best foot forward, he said. A surge of visitors could help spur growth in the city.
In its glory years, Scranton was a textile hub and a center of the coal mining industry. It had the first streetcars in the US to be powered only by electricity. And more than 100,000 people called it home.
Then a majority of the mines closed up during the first half of the 20th century, and a lot of the city’s manufacturing jobs moved elsewhere.
The crumbling shell of the Scranton Lace Company still stands. It’s expected to be turned into loft apartments, townhouses, and an event space. Almost every graduate of the region’s schools has taken a field trip on the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour.
And those losses still affect the city’s mentality, in many ways.
Biden even touched on it during a recent trip to nearby Luzerne County.
“Maybe it’s the Scranton in me,” he said, talking about having “a chip on my shoulder.”
The city also has to deal with its reputation for corruption. Just last year, its mayor had to resign after pleading guilty to bribery and corruption charges.
But Scranton pride sticks out all over the city as well. A visitor can find it in the “Electric City” sign downtown. Sometimes visitors take pictures of the “Penn Paper” or “Welcome to Scranton” signs that were featured in “The Office.”
The city’s colleges are growing.
In a four-year span from 1997 to 2001, Marywood College became Marywood University and Lackawanna Junior College became Lackawanna College. The University of Scranton has bought up and renovated whole blocks of the city. Penn State Scranton and Johnson College have also seen growth.
Scranton even has its own medical school now, The Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine opened in 2007.
The healthcare industry in Scranton has also grown, thanks to its three hospitals.
Mayor Paige Cognetti loves pitching the city’s meds, eds, and food.
The city also already has some of the infrastructure that Hope and Plains lacked when their residents became presidents. There’s a visitor’s center. The city already has a national historic site, the railroad museum at The Steamtown National Historic Site. The city also has plenty of hotels.
“We do have some infrastructure that we could augment with ‘the president’s home town’ as opposed to building something new,” Cognetti said.
And then there are all the things outside of town.
Bob Durkin, of Scranton’s Chamber of Commerce, calls Scranton a “15-minute community.” Concert halls, a ski resort, hiking trails, professional baseball, and hockey are all a short drive from city limits.
“All we need consistently for people to realize what a great place this is is get them here,“ he said.