Downtown State College is known for bars, restaurants, and stores selling Penn State paraphernalia. But hidden among those storefronts, there's a growing innovation sector — down an alleyway, there's a make space; in the top floor of the borough building, a co-working venue; and on a side street, a tech incubator. 

"I've watched people just walk right by these really cool places and they have no idea they are there. There's all these things our community is really proud of that we've created, but so many young people, in particular, don't know that they exist," said Spud Marshall, a local innovator who has helped start many of these initiatives. 

That's why Marshall proposed the idea of putting physical markers and guides downtown, directing people to these venues. His idea, modeled after a trailhead on a hiking path, would connect visitors and locals with a growing part of State College's economy.  

Marshall is one of 20 young city leaders selected as part of the Emerging City Champions Fellowship program, created by the Toronto-based 8 80 Cities and funded by the Knight Foundation. The fellowship offers $5,000 to launch a big community project that improves public life in public spaces, builds mobility networks and enhances civic engagement in one of 26 cities. 

In addition to Marshall's proposal for State College, four Philadelphia projects were accepted as well. 

According to a Knight Foundation press release, they are: 

  • Michael Fichman: A public forum and a series of private round-table discussions about regulatory and economic issues in Philadelphia will focus on culture, public safety, cultural inclusion, affordability, global competitiveness, planning regulations, and more.
  • LaTierra Piphus: A community Time Bank, launched by the Womanist Working Collective, will use time instead of money as part of an exchange system for completing a service for another participant.
  • Michael O'Bryan: A Youthful Vision of Philadelphia (YVOP) will work with youth 14-19 to create a multimedia online tool and live performance capturing youth voices on civic and social issues.
  • Erika Guadalupe Nunez: Juntos Ink. will be an accessible series of monthly art making workshops that unite diverse immigrant communities living in South Philadelphia across linguistic and cultural barriers.

On top of the $5,000 funding, fellows get mentorship and training, starting with a four-day retreat in Toronto. Former fellows, including Philadelphia's Alex Peay, will help the participants develop, implement, and scale their ideas. 

Peay, a 2015 Emerging City Champion, piloted a "get out the vote" project that connected young North Philadelphians with city politics. For him, the mentorship was the real value of the program. 

"The money was just the cherry on top," he said. "But the ice cream, the real foundation, was that four days in Toronto. They gave us so much to takeaway and helped us develop our idea, and we just got so much out of having free time in Toronto to see a different culture and different city." 

The training helped Peay think about what his project might look like after a successful first year. 

"Every city has a city hall, and that's all you need to engage young people with their city government," he said. "You could take this idea anywhere and that's what we're thinking about now." 

The idea behind the Emerging City Champions fellowship isn't to fully fund a project, but rather, to give a good idea the push it needs to get started. 

"We think that $5,000 forces them to get creative — they only have that amount and they only have one year to use it," said Ryan O'Connor, executive director of 8 80 Cities. "It gives them a boost, but if the experiment works, they'll need to work with local partners to sustain the project into the future." 

That dollar amount, plus the training, was enough to catch Marshall's eye.

"I think $5,000 is enough to at least have a bit of leverage to start getting a few things in public spaces," he said. "My hope is that it starts a snowball effect."

And he would know — Marshall says even the most ambitious projects he's implemented in State College tended to start with a small initial investment.