Soon, instead of a bride and groom twirling around in love during their first married dance together on the more than a century old Franklin building's hardwood floors, high school students will be navigating high tech machinery performing intricate dances of their own in skills learning competitions.
And instead of cooks preparing chicken, potatoes and apple pie banquet meals in the kitchen, smart teenagers will be assembling gears, sprockets and wiring into programed devices to perform complicated functions as they learn about future jobs and the needs of industry.
In the old barroom where folks once mingled with cocktails in hand while trays of hors d'oeuvres circulatied around, now a state-of-the art computer lab that will be abuzz of mingling smart teens figuring out how to make complex coding move the assembled part being put together in the adjoining kitchen come alive.
It may be hard to wrap one's brain around how the Liberty Street landmark, The Franklin, built in the1800s can now become a center of 21st century technology and development, but that's what people of vision and a sense of preservation do. Yes, this historic building that was once a single men's social club and then a long-term event venue and pub, has fallen in disrepair in recent years, but does indeed have a future.
And if Tim Heffernan, a former history teacher turned Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) teacher has his way, this building will take a similar path as his life has and move from history to the future of high tech with optimism and forward thinking.
Heffernan can see it clear as day. "Everything we want to do can be done in that building," he said.
Heffernan left his job at Franklin in December to pursue what he hopes is a broader education opportunity for young people across the region. In 2018 he established the Pennsylvania Rural Robotics Initiative in order to 'provide sustainable, world class STEM education opportunities for students to prepare them for twenty-first century careers," according to the initiative's mission statement.
Since then, the initiative has reached 25 school districts in over eight counties.
Leaving the classroom allows Heffernan to devote more time to making connections and seeking the funding to help make Franklin a center for technology. "I couldn't wear three hats and do it right," he said. Since before Christmas out of an empty office in the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce in an effort to build the non-profit. His focus has been to help more schools developing more programs and finding more permanent home with the space he needed for this idea.
Then, last month, chamber director Jodi Baker Lewis had a meeting with the new Philadelphia based owner of the historic The Franklin building. She came back to the office with a wild idea for Heffernan. A very short time later Heffernan was looking at the building and making a pitch for its use.
"He was on board with everything." Heffernan said about the meeting with the new owner.
"A lot of people are now seeing the possibilities of this and are stepping up to help out," Heffernan said. He's meeting with contractors and is getting feedback on ways to get the space ready to go. The building, that many had given up hope on isn't in as bad of shape as some thought Heffernan said. "Structurally it's in good shape."
So, he will move forward with the plan to get the first floor and basement done and ready for the fall. Longer term projects include more office space and conference rooms upstairs and possibly a studio for high quality video production to reach further with instruction. Heffernan sees The Franklin building becoming a center for technology education for young and old alike. He hopes to offer adult training as well in the future.
"Technology is impactful with the kids, and it isn't going away," he said. He hopes the new center of technology, which will be called The Innovation Institute of Tomorrow Inc. will offer a broader scope of opportunities for the kids beyond what they get in school and provide space for them to work after school and through the summer to learn even more. "It will be like a YMCA for geeks. I'm a geek and I love it," Heffernan said. "People are going to think I'm nuts, but I'm OK with that."
What it takes
The overall project took a bit of serendipitous luck. A Philadelphia investor saw a historic property for sale on the other side of the state and got involved. Without a direct plan he was open to discussions, seemingly took what Tim Heffernan had laid out as something important to do and decided to work with Heffernan's vision to make it happen. Through partnerships they agreed on a future for a very old building and they are moving forward.
Editors note There are dozens of stories to tell about this program that we'll tackle as they come.