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The regulatory framework– Part 2: Walking a half-mile in a property owner’s shoes

September 7, 2010

I am so sorry for writing really long posts! Please try to get through this one. I feel it’s getting to the heart of the question: Why is High Street empty?

In previous posts, we’ve done an overview of the various documents, ordinances, and maps that dictate land use in Pottstown. We have a sense of the outside agencies and funding sources that are available to help make development happen. We know that the private sector prefers to know exactly what it’s getting into. In this post, we’re walking a half-mile in a property owner’s shoes… into the Borough’s website.

Over the past nine months that I’ve gotten re-acquainted with my hometown, I’ve been to the Borough’s website hundreds of times (no exaggeration) to look at maps, regulations, etc. It’s taken me quite a while to even begin to figure out how the heck things work, and I admit I’m still unsure about a lot of things. It’s kind of a bummer to admit that I can’t get through the maze more easily. And it is a maze.

Being a writer/communicator, I’m really big on websites that serve their purpose. The Borough’s website is not only for current residents, it’s also the point of entry for outsiders who are considering becoming insiders, i.e., potential homeowners and the business community. The website, in and of itself, should be a user-friendly, logical “document.” The fact that it isn’t gives the first hint that the functioning of the government and the approval processes might not be user-friendly or logical either. If your land development systems can’t be communicated clearly for the average citizen, then there’s probably something wrong with your systems.

Let’s go to the Borough’s website now.

1. First thing, I want to know what this town is all about. I click “About Pottstown” and go to “History.” The town’s “story” stops in 1964. That’s a little scary right there, and stops me in my tracks. I want to know about Pottstown today, but I can’t really find it anywhere on the site. Also, it looks like there’s only one photo on the whole site. (Picture = 1,000 words.)

I here confess that I wrote a bunch of the web copy for the PACA website. On the home page, they come right out with their mission, give three sentences about history and then move into the vision of the arts community for the present & future of Pottstown. I like to think these words create an image, draw people in, and make them feel the potential old-school coolness of this place. The Borough can have more about its history on its website, but at some point it needs to bring visitors to the present day.

So now you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with land development?”

Everything the Borough does and how it presents itself to the larger world is part of its redevelopment efforts. Successful land development is all about telling the story, selling a dream, a vision. It’s about the Borough selling itself.

2. Again, we’re developers or potential home owners now. The Borough’s website is chock-full of information about its ordinances, maps, etc. There’s a lot there. But it’s not enough to say the information is all there. It has to be presented in chunks that help a user make sense of the land development process itself.

On the main navigation bar on the left of the home page, I click on “Departments,” to see if they have a planning or community development department. I’m drawn to “Inspections and Permits.” There’s a huge amount of useful information – what you need a permit for, which zoning & planning applications are relevant to specific kinds of projects, residential property transfer and rental registration/inspection requirements.

If you go in this order through the website, this is where you first run into mention of the Homeowners’ Initiative Program. I guess it’s under “Inspections & Permits” because it will involve an inspection and a permit. (Okay, but that seems kind of random.) “It” turns out to actually be two programs (homeowner loan and rental conversion loan). They are also mentioned on the Economic Development page.

Before we go there, though, click on the link to the “Redevelopment District Map” at the bottom of the “Inspections & Permits” page. If I’m a redeveloper or a business owner, my ears perk up: What is the “Redevelopment District”? What are the rules and incentives there? But, no, it’s just a link to a map, and I can’t find anything more about it. On the entire website.

(Out of the blue, in an email, someone recently mentioned a “Core District Redevelopment Plan” from 2003. Is this where the Redevelopment District Map came from? Why have I never seen this plan before? Is it still relevant to Borough land use policy and programs? I need to call someone at Borough Hall to get to the bottom of this.)

3.a. So, let’s jump over to the Economic Development “Information & Links” page. Scroll down under “Homeownership Initiative Program.” Click on “Click here for the Step-by-step application process and to view the Boundary Map” You end up here. Click on Homeownership Initiative Program – Boundary Map. You end up here. This Homeownership Initiative Program Boundary Map is not the same as the Redevelopment District Map.

So why is there a link to the Redevelopment District Map under the Homeownership Initiative information on the Inspection & Permits page?

Are you confused just reading that last sentence? Welcome to my world.

What I’m saying is that I really need the dots to be connected for me.

3.b. Go back to the Economic Development “Information & Links” page. At the very top – no heading, nothing to draw your eye to it – there’s a link to information for businesses in the Pottstown Downtown Improvement District. Up pops what is essentially a whole other website with its own logo. The text says it’s still part of the Borough… a Main Street Program… a special assessment district. I can’t find a map… would my property be in this district?? There’s the Pottstown Downtown Foundation to support their activities. They have funding for their own façade programs… or do they?

I start to wonder if this program is still operating… Under the “Business Opportunities” link, I’ve been reading the same message for nine months. This may be the only place you can find the name of Pottstown’s Main Street Manager… well, the former Main Street Manager. (The current Main Street Manager is Leighton Wildrick. Leighton & I had a great chat last week. I’m sure other people want to talk to him too!)

Eventually, I find the PDIDA map on the Borough Maps page, which is under “About Pottstown,” but not on the PDIDA pages… Did I miss it there?

… From what I can tell by toggling back and forth between the two maps, the PDIDA district is not the Core Redevelopment District… still curious about that…

3.c. Go back to the Economic Development “Information & Links” page. Okay, so there’s an economic development plan. That will tell me what I need to know. Oh… wait… the link goes right to the document. It’s 145 pages. I have to read a 145-page report just to find out what their economic development strategy is? Forget it! I just want to know what programs they have to help me NOW!

3.d. Go back to the Economic Development “Information & Links” page. Click on “View the Maps.” Up pops a map from the Economic Development Strategic Plan. The first map is: “Development Areas and Opportunity Sites.” What do those red and blue boundaries mean? Is there special funding programs for those areas? They don’t seem to match up with the other maps I’ve seen. Geez, I guess I have to dig into that report.

Let’s review:
– Redevelopment District Map
– Homeowner Initiative Program Boundary Map
– PDIDA Map
– Development Areas and Opportunity Sites (from Economic Development Strategic Plan)

And add a couple more:
– Keystone Opportunity Zone (does a map exist?)
Historic District
(We’ll talk about the Historic District and HARB in the next post.)

Why aren’t businesses coming to High Street?

I’m just trying to get a sense of what this town has to offer me and/or my business. I’m just trying to get my bearings. I didn’t even get to any of the actual development or building approval processes yet.

Look, who has time to do all this? Save staff time, residents’ time, business’ time by straightening out the message and getting it up on the website. The website is the entry point to your community and to your land development approval system. It has to be friendly, simple and clear to attract new people and businesses, not tearing their hair out and running in the opposite direction.

What is needed on the Borough website:
– A vision statement that inspires and tells potential homeowners and businesses what you’re all about and where you’re headed.
– Simple summaries of land use incentive programs and regulations, possibly sorted by specific user groups: current residents, potential home owners, potential business owners/landlords, potential developers.
– Examination of maps to see if they are all absolutely relevant. If they are, then there has to be some simple way to explain or graphically depict the overlaps. People purchasing real estate need to know what incentives they are eligible for and what regulations or special assessments apply to their property.
– Clear, logical visuals of the incentive programs, along with their funding sources, to show how they are related to each other.

For now, you could keep the same website design and just start consolidating and simplifying. (Simple is always better.) This could use the attention of a small, working committee of knowledgeable, local minds to sort this out. 🙂 I’d be glad to work on the writing and organization with them. This doesn’t have to take long. In the end, visitors to the Borough website should have a clear sense of what they have to do to become a home owner, business owner or developer in Pottstown and feel welcomed and inspired to check it out further.

Next up: The regulatory framework– Part 3: Walking another half-mile in a property owner’s shoes

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5 Comments
  1. September 9, 2010 7:39 am

    Sue, I do hope the borough will take you up on your offer to simplify their website.

    Before we bought our home, we did as much research as we could, via the net, since we were moving from out of state we didn’t have the luxury of spending lots of time in Pottstown. Our real estate agent did her best to direct us hither and yon, but even today, (nearly 2 years hence), we can still become confused by the quagmire of information and proceedure. I feel this small step could net big results for the borough.

    Have a Great Day!
    Katy

  2. Andrew Kefer permalink
    September 9, 2010 8:53 am

    Hi Sue, thanks for another excellent post. I agree wholeheartedly with Katy. In fact, I thought that the borough ‘discontinued’ the homeowner initiative program due to budget constraints a few years ago! In any case, I agree with your thoughts about the website. I wanted to ask if you have found any examples of towns similar in size and scope to Pottstown where the website is more user friendly and welcoming to residents and visitors alike? I know it is a city and also more than twice the size of Pottstown, but I wondered if you’ve ever visited this website: http://www.lancastercityliving.org/? It appears to be a joint venture between the city and community/economic development groups. Anyway, I thought it was a good example of how to market a place as well as something that is user friendly and inviting. Have a great day. I’m looking forward to your next post.

    • September 9, 2010 9:54 am

      Thanks… running out now… but will reply later today…

    • September 10, 2010 10:29 am

      Oh my gosh, Andrew – that is a GREAT website and resource! Thank you so much for pointing it out. I will work it into a future blog post. At this point, when there’s little/no money, I think the Borough could revise the content of its current website and make it way more inviting and clear, and that could do the trick for a while. But the Lancaster partnership is an intriguing concept to put out there as a separate possibility. I haven’t done a systematic website review, which is what I’ve done in the past when I’ve been involved with a website design or re-design. It would be good to do, though.

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