WPSU is taking a look at how central Pennsylvanians decide whether to make their home here, or move on, in our new series “Reasons to Stay.”
Whitney Polakowski never thought her one-person massage operation would grow into a thriving business with ten employees. Now she’s torn between continuing to grow what she’s built or leaving it behind to be with her long-term boyfriend. His career has outgrown State College.
Artemis Massage Studio takes up the whole fourth floor of a building in downtown State College. Every other room is filled with calming music that can’t be turned off, so Artemis’s founder and owner, Whitney Polakowski, drags a couple of chairs into a room that’s still under construction.
“I'm actually really happy because I think this is the last time we'll have to expand. Knock on wood,” Polakowski said. “Since we opened five and a half years ago I've had to go through six renovations because when I first opened I thought I was only going to be in State College for a year. And I only built the business big enough to handle that first year. And every year it got bigger.”
When she started Artemis, Polakowski was just looking for a way to make money in her final year at Penn State. She’d been working as a massage therapist for other people and was tired of it. So she opened a one-room massage business downtown.
“It's actually a really derelict strip of Beaver Avenue above the Brewery bar. At the time that was all I could afford,” Polakowski said. “My whole plan was that I just wanted to get though my senior year of college here. And get the hell out.”
Polakowski put $2,000 – everything she had – into her first renovation. Overhauling the tiny storefront into a place someone would want to get a massage was harder than she thought it would be. One day when Polakowski was feeling particularly discouraged, one of her regular clients dropped by to see how work was going on the space.
“And she's like, ‘This place is going to be so awesome.’ And ‘I believe in you’ and da da da da da,” Polakowski said. “And she opened her checkbook right there and she wrote a check out. She said, ‘How about I buy my first year of massage weekly massage for an entire year up front?’ And she handed me a check for $2,500. And without that… I get like emotional thinking about it. But that's the kind of people who live here.”
The business changed the trajectory of Polakowski’s life. She never did finish that degree in Germanic and Slavic languages and linguistics.
“within the first couple months I was so busy that I actually withdrew from my last year of college in order to see it through. I realized it was a good thing and that I realized that it was going to be something bigger than what I imagined.”
Now Artemis can serve up to eight clients at one time. Polakowski is so busy running the business that she hasn’t done a massage herself in a couple of years. This room under construction is going to be a workshop space where they’ll teach classes on everything from couples’ massage to belly dance to meditation.
“It's been kind of magical,” Polakowski said, “but it's also been… if you would've said back then you know, ‘Do you think you were going to be in State College five years?’ I would’ve said, ‘No. Hell no.’ I’ll be somewhere really interesting. And I’ll be somewhere really dynamic or I'll be in a metropolitan area or I’ll be in different country or…’ No, I'm still in State College.”
Polakowski talks a tough game, but it’s clear she has a real love for the area. A few minutes later she admits it.
“It's truly that proverbial small town feel. That community here that's hard to pull away from,” Polakowski said. “And so if I did go yeah I could go and replicate this again somewhere else. In a larger city but it will never be the same. It will never be like this.”
But Polakowski is laying the groundwork for leaving town. She’s finishing renovations and setting up new software to streamline operations and let her run the business remotely. The main reason she might leave is that her boyfriend’s career has outgrown State College. He’s a Steadicam operator for movies and TV shows. A lot of his work is in Pittsburgh, Polakowski’s hometown.
“I feel it's only fair that I try really hard to get to Pittsburgh because my boyfriend, my partner and I, have been together for four years now,” Polakowski said. “And he has been so supportive and he's been so patient and he has just been so amazing as I have grown along with the business as a person.”
Polakowski’s trying to figure out if she can have both the man and the business.
She hasn’t made a final decision yet about whether she’ll leave and when she might go. She has reasons to go and reasons to stay.
Do you have Reasons to Stay? Share a picture of the reasons you’re staying on Instagram with the hashtag #wpsureasonstostay. And visit wpsu.org/reasonstostay to see pictures of Whitney Polakowski at Artemis and to see stories of others exploring their decisionS to stay or not in central Pennsylvania.