Beyond the Borough’s Borders – Part 2

I’d like to pick up where we left off by pointing out an important distinction in the way local governments deal with county government. These inter-governmental relationships play out on at least two levels: the staff level and the political level. The local and county staff are often in the trenches together, working on grant applications, sharing information, preparing documents for public hearings, meeting deadlines, etc.

The politicians… well, that can be a whole other story, even in the cases where the staff are somewhat merrily chugging along, jointly getting things done. Politics is what we read about in the paper – the votes we don’t understand; the frustration that’s built up over years, perhaps decades; the public policy – and the whole tone of the discussion – that is ultimately set by the elected officials.

In some sense, the wheels of government at the staff level just keep turning. Ideally, though, the local elected officials would be on the same page with county/ regional planning policy in order to keep those wheels greased. (It’s a karma thing.)

On to outside resources…

1. Everyone should know a little bit about Pottstown’s Keystone Opportunity Zone or KOZ. These zones exist in select places throughout Pennsylvania and provide for the elimination of certain state and local taxes for a limited period in order to encourage the redevelopment of specific properties that have not been generating much in taxes anyway and where their redevelopment could increase taxable activity outside the zone. Pottstown’s KOZ parcels are listed here, via Montgomery County’s Economic and Workforce Development website. I believe Pottstown’s KOZ designation expires in 2013. I don’t see news anywhere that any properties have been developed to take advantage of these tax breaks. (There seems to have been a move by the School District in July 2009 to seek an extension of the KOZ zone to 2020. More info/clarification from any readers out there?)

2. The Main Street Program is a 5-year State program to support a Main Street Manager position and the creation of a local organization to manage downtown revitalization efforts. In Pottstown, that organization is the Pottstown Downtown Improvement District Authority or PDIDA. The members are listed here. A map of the PDIDA district is here.

The State Main Street Program provides $115,000 over the five years (with more money given in the early years) and requires a local match. The idea is that the position would become self-sustaining. There is also a Downtown Reinvestment and Anchor Building component to the program that could provide up to $250,000. I’m not sure if Pottstown has taken advantage of the latter, or what year their program is in… (I hope to interview Leighton Wilderick, current Main Street Manager, sometime in the next few weeks!) The State closed off new Main Street applications this past year. At any rate, it looks like this particular funding stream may not be available much longer.

3. Pottstown’s got “brownfields,” properties that contain or potentially contain a hazardous substance, contaminant or pollutant. The PA Dept. of Environmental Protection has an Office of Community Revitalization and Local Government Support to help towns deal with the redevelopment of these kinds of properties.

4. As August 2010 winds to a close, federal money is now available for planning grants that recognize the interrelatedness between housing, transportation and economic development. For the first time, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Transportation will be accepting applications at a single entry point for Community Challenge and TIGER II Planning Grants, and HUD is taking applications for their Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program. At least for now, with the current Administration in D.C., there’s a clear push for coordinated, regional planning that explicitly takes into consideration the connections between housing, transportation and economic development.

The Pottstown Partnership will have to keep in mind all of these possible funding sources and agencies, thinking creatively and collaboratively in order to tap into any possible funding immediately, as soon as it becomes available. The only way to pounce is to know what’s coming down the pike ahead of time and to have your partnerships in the non-profit, government and private sectors all on solid footing.

5. Last but not least, I’d like to spend a moment considering all the businesses, entrepreneurs, consumers, and large and small investors. This “funding stream,” if you will, includes anyone or any entity with capital to invest or spend in Pottstown, whether it’s for the purchase of a building or for dinner and theater tickets. They are constantly making choices between spending their money in Pottstown or elsewhere.

Pottstown’s been struggling for a long time. Many people are worn out. It hurts to see prosperity visiting nearby communities and bypassing one’s own. Every once in a while, there will be a burst of negative online comments about other people with real or imagined, greater wealth or education. These comments impart a suspicion about “outsiders.” They have appeared most noticeably in the discussions about rental housing. Yes, there are some very real, valid concerns that should be, and are being, addressed through enforcement and, I gather, small group discussions between the Borough Manager and the affected parties. My point here is that, after a while, these comments can come across as a general, negative community attitude about investors, period. And that’s not good for economic development.

The planning profession is specifically concerned about improving equity across the entire spectrum of human needs – housing, clean water and air, education, food, transportation, the list goes on. That was a huge reason I was drawn to it in the first place. I think it’s crucial to acknowledge the disparities and our own attitudes toward them, and then hold it all up to the light, especially if they might be getting in the way of the collective best interest. Where and how can public policy be equitable for the most participants AND get the community what it needs to move forward? The balancing act never stops.

As you may have figured out, we’ve basically been taking a rough inventory in order to get an overall sense of what we’re dealing with – the physical landscape, how Pottstown looks on various maps, the people and groups doing the work of the community, the key resources, relationships and perceptions from outside the Borough. Next, I’d like to take another pass at what’s happening inside the Borough, specifically looking at the regulatory framework that land developers and investors would have to navigate if they wanted to locate their businesses there. The problem is, not nearly enough of them do. What’s that all about?

Next up: The regulatory framework for land development in Pottstown.

7 thoughts on “Beyond the Borough’s Borders – Part 2

  1. Sue,
    I was told by an official of DCED that each community can use the anchor building program once, and that Pottstown accessed that funding pool with the former First Fidelity building where The Brickhouse is now located. Unless they’ve changed the rules, it’s my understanding that avenue is now closed to us.

    As for outsiders (investors) I agree that negativity can drive them away. Remember that of all the funding streams you mentioned, they are the only people spending their own money, or the money they’ve gathered, and they can take it where they want for whatever reason they want.
    That said, sometimes that negativity is driven by bad experiences. While a good developer can make all the difference to a struggling community (see Conshohocken), conversely, a bad one can undo progress that’s been made. In Pottstown, I have been disappointed to see roadblocks put in front of Gary Silvi, who has successfully redeveloped older buildings in many parts of the state, but gets a hard time here in Pottstown.
    As we saw in Bethlehem, I become increasingly convinced that the most government and NGOs can do is set the stage and it requires the right person, at the right time, with the right vision and enough energy and resources to make these things happen. As Ken Burns noted in his documentary on the National Parks, almost every single one exists because one person wanted to save that region and would not give up.
    Which leads me, laboriously I’m afraid, to the final point — leadership.
    As we also learned in Bethlehem, which we already suspected I suspect, you will never get everyone to agree on something. But leadership can bring along people who are on the fence. And from my 13 years in Pottstown, what I’ve observed is there are a lot of people with ideas, a lot of people with criticisms, but not a lot of people who know how to systematically, consistently and inspirationally, lead people and a community to a defined goal; who will do the day-to-day work of effectively leading people.
    Which leaves us, once again, at the mercy of getting the right person at the right time. My fingers have been crossed for 13 years now and not only does it not seem to be working, but it makes it really hard to type.

    1. Thanks for that info on the Anchor Building program and the Brickhouse; glad to hear the funding was accessed.

      Good point about negativity being borne out of bad experiences. I agree. But then there was also probably a hinge point – could have been 20 years ago; this is just speculation here – where everything kind of went mostly negative and stayed there. I’m talking about a collective self-image that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Internal defensiveness leads to criticism of outsiders or new ideas, which leads to less interest from outsiders, which leads those who are left to periodically slug it out among themselves, in shifting alliances, ensuring that nothing gets done.

      I can’t wait to write about the Bethlehem/Musikfest example! There are a bunch of key lessons to take away from that visit. I’m still not sure about the “one person” model for “saving” Pottstown. Because there is a long history of internal squabbling, I’m afraid that root cause has to be corrected. In Bethlehem, one individual had a vision and jumped on it – with the help of friends – as soon as Bethlehem Steel closed, before a lot of negative patterns in public discourse & decision-making could become ingrained. That said, the Pottstown Partnership needs to hire a real leader! And, as you say, the person will have to be able to bring along at least some of those who are on the fence.

      In the meantime, I’m hoping that by breaking the revitalization puzzle into smaller pieces, this series can get people from all parts of the community to better understand the inter-relatedness of everything and to think about the challenges in ways that make the work seem do-able. It IS huge, daunting and often (almost) incomprehensible! It might also result in greater accountability and transparency in local governance, in general. When public business is convoluted & muddy, it’s hard for citizens to even know where to begin to articulate their concerns, hence more shouting about things that they know in their gut are not right, but might not be able to pinpoint very easily. If we can cut through some of that & maybe even get some of the systemic problems straightened out before someone is hired, I think that would actually fit your description of “setting the stage” for the Partnership.

  2. I echo Evan for two reasons, first because he is a prolific writer and he steals all the words I’d have used to make a point, and second because I’d like to agree with his opinion that we need a leader who can systematically, consistently and inspirationally lead the people of Pottstown.

    I choose you!

  3. Sue, I’m relatively new to your blog so let me start by saying it is wonderful and please keep it up! I’ve always been interested in things like urban planning and zoning, especially since these issues have a much greater impact on our daily lives than many people realize. I was wondering if you can comment on the news of Borough Council’s voting of 5-2 against the comprehensive plan to improve US 422 and restore commuter rail service in the Schuylkill Valley? As a planner, does this vote actually carry any water? Are the county and state moving forward with this plan or does this vote somehow delay (or worse) stop the process? It seems that in my 6 years as a Pottstown Resident, whenever a game-changing, innovative idea, the political leadership in town either squelches it entirely, or, misinformed residents don’t allow for any progress towards that change. Remember the ‘elementary center’ that was proposed for the Washington Street Corridor? The commonwealth was ready to throw a lot of money at the project because Governor Rendell thought it would serve as a model for other older towns across PA. Imagine a new school as an economic development tool?! What happened, Borough Residents voter for a contingent of school board candidates who were specifically running against this innovative program. Where are we today? The school board is now scrambling to figure out how to fund and what to do about renovating the elementary schools. It also seems that any positive change only happens when your aforementioned ‘outside investors’ get involved. How about Bike Pottstown? I thought this was a borough initiative, until I spoke with the owner of Tri-County Bicycles and found out it was HIS idea and HE put up the capital for the bike sharing program. I also wish to commend the owners of the Gallery School and the foresight that they had in connecting with TRIPAC and the Hill School to form the Pottstown Cultural Alliance. Truly a good idea and a huge stepping stone that could lead to big things. It all comes down to the chicken or the egg. Does retail follow rooftops or can a vibrant downtown create desireability for potential residential investment and revitilization? Thanks for listening. I look forward to your comments and your future posts. PS, I agree with everything that Evan said. I wish he would be promoted to columnist, so we could see more of what he things in the Mercury, not just his solid reporting.

    1. Hi, Andrew — Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m playing catch-up on that 5-2 vote. Without being at the meeting, or having a report or the resolution in front of me, I’m not in a position to comment. I also know that news accounts don’t tell the whole story, so I’m going to have to do some more research before giving an opinion. In many cases where a regional plan is proposed and voted on by numerous municipalities, the lead agency will go back and re-work some aspects based on feedback, but some version of the plan will eventually go through. I don’t know if I should thank you for giving me more homework, but I’ll get back to you on that!

      I wasn’t following Pottstown politics when the central school proposal was on the table. At this point, when there’s nothing to be done about it, I just keep absorbing bits & pieces of that story as valuable background information.

      I thought the Bike Pottstown program was the result of a bunch of businesses and groups, including the Borough, providing joint funding & services. I did a post on it back in April and found the info on their website, as I recall. Here’s the link to that story.

      I’m glad to hear someone mention the Pottstown Arts & Cultural Alliance! I will have some more to say about them & their new website in an upcoming post. I think you’re right about revitalization being a chicken/egg situation. It takes many forms and happens due to any number of factors depending on the specific place, politics, geography, history, etc. We just have to crack the code for P-town 🙂

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