The Arts and Community & Economic Development

Here’s the pre-requisite for this blog post… Please read Evan Brandt’s excellent article about Bethlehems’s highly successful, long-running Musikfest, run by the not-for-profit ArtsQuest. I was among the group that visited, hoping to glean some insights that might benefit Pottstown.

First, the basic assumption – and it has been shown in numerous studies – is that arts and cultural development provides economic benefits, sometimes in a very big way.

Second, the following discussion assumes that Pottstown wants to consider an economic development strategy that involves the arts and culture. From what I can tell, there is a core group of folks who would like to see this happen, but I’m not sure there’s consensus.

Third, each community is different and, therefore, each community needs to come up with its own “authentic” strategy. Musikfest works in Bethlehem because of their Moravian heritage. In 1993 ArtsQuest also instituted a successful annual Christkindlmarkt, modeled on the outdoor Christmas markets in German villages and towns. As Amy Francis said in The Mercury, “We can’t recreate what you’ve done here… We need to figure out what we are.”

I confess: I had a head-start because I took a class in Cultural, Community & Economic Development last year as part of a continuing education requirement. In that class we looked at the case studies in Tom Borrup’s The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook: How to Transform Communities Using Local Assets, Arts, and Culture. Musikfest would be a fine addition to Borrup’s book, although I’m anxiously awaiting the book that Jeffrey Parks said he hopes to write some day soon about his experiences in Bethlehem. 🙂

Below is an overview of Borrup’s book to help put Bethlehem’s success and Pottstown’s challenges in context.

Borrup categorizes ten arts and culture strategies that various communities have used to achieve economic or social development goals, and he gives examples for each.

Building Strong Economies through Arts and Culture
1. Create Jobs
2. Stimulate Trade through Cultural Tourism
3. Attract Investment by Creating Live/Work Zones for Artists
4. Diversify the Local Economy
5. Improve Property and Enhance Value

Building Social Connections through Arts and Culture
1. Promote Interaction in Public Space
2. Increase Civic Participation through Cultural Celebrations
3. Engage Youth
4. Promote Stewardship of Place
5. Broaden Participation in the Civic Agenda

Of course, most of us might say that we want to do all of these. And the reality is that while a community may focus on one or two of these strategies, there can/will be benefits that flow into some of the other areas as well.

The rest of the Borrup book goes through a very detailed process that communities can follow to reach consensus on what they want their particular arts and cultural plan to look like and accomplish. Under each of these steps, there are set tasks. Go here if you want to see them in the Table of Contents.

Steps for Creative Community Builders
1. Assess Your Situation and Goals
2. Identify and Recruit Effective Partners
3. Map Values, Strengths, Assets, and History (My note: This is where you figure out who you are and what’s your story.)
4. Focus on Your Key Asset, Vision, Identity, and Core Strategies
5. Craft a Plan That Brings the Identity to Life
6. Securing Funding, Policy Support, and Media Coverage

Take this process with a grain of salt: there are examples in the case studies, where an entrepreneurial, charismatic artist or community leader came up with an idea, took a risk and helped turn a community in a new direction, and I would put Jeffrey Parks and Musikfest in this category. The example from the Borrup book that remains most vivid in my mind is Waterfire in Providence, RI. This public lighting of fires on the river was started by the artist Barnaby Evans as a one-time event in 1994, and now it happens several times throughout the summer and fall. I’ve never been to see it, but it gives me chills just looking at the website. It seems like such a powerful ritual and it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors.

But, barring an Arts and Cultural Superhero, Borrup provides a useful guide for communities to undertake this work together. It’s something for Pottstown to consider because there’s a history of the community not working together and skepticism around new ideas. Mr. Parks and his “Friends of Jeff” volunteer posse made Musikfest happen as soon as Bethlehem Steel closed, and it was pretty much a success from the start. They weren’t trying to make a comeback from a long-term economic slide. They weren’t operating in an atmosphere of cynicism and apathy. If a vision, goals and a plan for Pottstown come out of a collaborative process, you will by definition “broaden participation in the civic agenda,” and you would be repairing the way the community functions, which I think is a critical steppingstone to finally improving the local economy.

Another important note: The ArtsQuest organization has three goals.
1. Arts access for all
2. Urban revitalization
3. Organizational sustainability

While “economic development” is part of urban revitalization, note how their main mission is the arts. The economic benefits flow from their carrying out their arts mission in an ever-evolving, sustained way. They have renovated and occupy a building called The Banana Factory, which led to the eventual private sector renovation of nearby buildings. (Mr. Parks said, “Government is not the vehicle. You need the entrepreneurial activity of investors and NGOs.” That’s non-governmental organizations/non-profits.) The Banana Factory includes 28 artists’ studios, digital photo classes and programs for at-risk youth. They have the only hot glass studio in the Lehigh Valley. And, as mentioned in Evan’s piece, they are embarking on the SteelStacks project, which will provide entertainment and community gathering spaces for a year-round program of events, sealing Bethlehem’s identity as the arts and culture hub of the Lehigh Valley.

I think Pottstown’s economic future lies in an arts and cultural strategy, tied to sustainability and its industrial past. This is why I get excited about pie, or green manufacturing of hip stuff, or – I don’t know – the thought of an industrial-sized, noisy atelier filled with blacksmiths, welders, and stone and steel artists/sculptors, creating massive installations that will end up all over the world. I think the elements are there for a good story, by which I mean: there’s something authentic and real there that residents, visitors and investors could believe in. As to the specific form of that strategy – I don’t presume to have the answer. But I know it’s there, within Pottstown’s borders, in its history and its people, just waiting to be discovered.

Positively Pottstown makes the Sanatoga Post

The Sanatoga Post today mentions Sunday’s article, “Pottstown as Fashion Hub??” in its post, “We Made Tires, Steel Here. Why Not Paper Clothes Too?”

Below is my comment/reply. Please note that the one sentence I questioned has since been removed from the article. I do appreciate the continuing conversation with Joe Zlomek, publisher of The Sanatoga Post, and the rest of the community. Also, here I’ve added links within my comment that did not appear on the Post’s site so people can learn more, if they wish.

“Sue Says:
August 19, 2010 at 9:49 am
Hi, Joe – thanks for the feature! Just wanted to clarify your last sentence: “Those firms were less environmentally sensitive than green fashion is sure to be, she notes.” While the assertion may be true, I never did note that! Your last paragraph implies that my post was critical of the area’s industrial past and those employers, whom I never mentioned, thus giving the wrong impression. One of my grandfathers worked in the mines upstate and then for Bethlehem Steel; another for the Reading Railroad; a grandmother worked in a mill. They were living the American dream, as difficult as it was. That’s part of Pottstown’s heritage, I’m proud of it, and I think the town should embrace it with a modern twist.

I’d also like to reiterate that the green fashion idea is just one of several sustainable, green avenues the Borough could consider… along with still trying to attract more conventional manufacturing jobs, if the opportunities present themselves. Tim Phelps, Tri-County Area Chamber of Commerce President, recently had an opinion piece in The Mercury (Aug. 14) about the U.S. Air Force KC-X aerial refueling tanker project that Boeing is vying for. From my understanding of the piece & some other online reading, it seems that contract would be especially valuable to specific manufacturing hubs in Michigan, North Carolina and Johnstown, PA (perhaps other U.S. locales as well). The work in Johnstown is expected to result in jobs/orders for subcontractors in the manufacturing and supply sector here in the Pottstown area. That would be a good thing, too.

While I think Pottstown would do well to go all-out with a forward-thinking economic development and marketing plan built around sustainability and the arts, we have to keep in mind that jobs are jobs, and the area needs them… as long as they are not of a potentially hazardous or noxious nature. (I had to add that caveat because I came out against a “green” recycling plant/landfill proposal several weeks ago that I believe falls into that category.)


Joe Zlomek Says:

August 19, 2010 at 10:11 am
Sue, your point about the story’s “environmentally sensitive” sentence is understood. It was an interpretation and not your direct statement. Consequently, I have removed it in its entirety.

Your other points are well made. Thanks both for correcting and commenting!

Sue Repko Says:

August 19, 2010 at 10:12 am
Thanks for the edit, Joe 🙂

US 422 Corridor Master Plan

Earlier today, Andrew Kefer posted the following question under the post, “Beyond the Borough’s Borders – Part 2.”

“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?”

I replied that I wasn’t up to speed on that, but I’d find the study/plan and get back to him. So, here we go.

Caveat: I wasn’t at any of the meetings where the Plan was presented by Montgomery County planners, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission planners or consultants, so this first pass comes from online material. I’m glad to share the official information and resources provided by the 422PLUS Steering Committee at their website, which is separate from any of the involved agencies’ websites. They are obviously making an effort to keep the public informed at one central location and with a clear, unified message.

Here’s the upshot of the US 422 Corridor Master Plan from their website:
“Deteriorating travel conditions, sprawling and uncoordinated land develop[ment] patterns, and limited funding for transportation improvements plague the 422 Corridor. The Master Plan identifies 10 strategies for managing growth, development, and travel demands, and illustrates a “Sustainable Scenario” that encourages more compact development, maintenance of open space, and more mobility choice within the 422 Corridor.”

Basically, the plan incorporates the most up-to-date thinking about how to influence and control development patterns so we can stop gobbling up open space, start re-using existing town centers and more urbanized areas like Pottstown, and give people more travel choices than just their cars.

And then they go and steal some of my thunder for the build-up and grand conclusion of my planning series! But, hey, they say – and illustrate – it much better than I ever could. Check out their “Sustainability Strategies” brochure specifically for Pottstown. Everyone should become very familiar with this brochure, especially if you can’t make it through the entire Master Plan. And please, please check out the Strategies and Assets & Opportunities/Key Recommendations near the end of the brochure. This brochure just made it into my final line-up of VERY IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS CONCERNING POTTSTOWN’S FUTURE, along with the recent ULI Report and the 2008 Economic Development Strategic Plan.

In the 422PLUS Project section, the website provides info. about further study that will take place regarding the funding strategies for improving the 422 Corridor and possibly extending passenger rail service using existing freight lines. This is a follow-up study to two studies already completed in 2009: the US 422 Master Plan and the R6 Norristown Service Line Extension Study. No one’s being the least bit impetuous here. This is being studied, people are being surveyed and then they’re studying it again. This is what the planning process looks like.

Regarding the tolling issue: As we all know, funding is being slashed left and right. These agencies & planning bodies have to find money somewhere. While no one wants to hear about raising the cost of anything, frankly, the idea of having users pay for the maintenance and upgrading of roads they travel on just makes sense. I’ve sat in traffic on 422 going west plenty of times. I don’t live in the area, but if I’m using the road for frequent visits, shouldn’t I also contribute to its upkeep? Hitting up my EZPass is a simple, sensible solution.

And if some of that money goes toward making some existing freight tracks suitable for passenger rail (which people would have to purchase tickets to use), all the better.

And if there’s money for planning/constructing a passenger rail station in Pottstown, that’s the best yet.

If people don’t want to sit in traffic and don’t want to pay tolls, maybe they will want to live in a place like Pottstown (with its lively arts scene, new housing on the Mrs. Smith’s site, massive, beautiful single-family Victorians, cool restaurants and shops) and get to work by hopping on the train with their cappuccino from Churchill’s every morning. In fact, maybe fewer people would be commuting at all because Pottstown would become a place where larger corporations would want to locate and their employees might be able to get to work without even getting into a train or a car.

Andrew also asked if Pottstown’s vote would kill the project. Not at all. “Even Keel” described it pretty well in a comment on The Mercury article: “This plan will still be adopted and put into effect as there are 23 other municipalities who have a say. A majority of these will support it, or parts of it, and it will be adopted in some form at the County level. It will still have a benefit to Pottstown when adopted.”

Just look at the brochure for Pottstown. I know it must seem like an alternate reality – in a way, it is. But it doesn’t have to be. All these agencies and governmental entities want this to happen. They are asking Pottstown to join other towns, counties, planners and the business community, to participate, to make small area master plans (around a train station for instance), and to be an advocate for this and other regional efforts… that will benefit Pottstown. This is the kind of thing I’ve been talking about. Pottstown can and should be a part of this. Pottstown can do this.

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.

Beyond the Borough’s Borders – Part 1

We’re in a small airplane now, considering how Pottstown geographically connects and relates to its region. How do the uses and zoning along its borders complement or conflict with neighboring municipalities’ uses and zoning? Note the major manmade and natural features of the landscape: railroad tracks, highways, bridges, industrial areas, schools and playgrounds, parks and green spaces, the river, the creek. You can try to also let your eyes only notice one category at a time – just the roads, or just the green spaces – to further imprint how things connect… or don’t.

Still up in that plane, let’s consider how all the groups and individuals in the community (the ones we talked about in the last post) interact with and represent Pottstown to the outside world of the county, the state and federal governments (regulatory agencies and funding sources), private foundation funding sources, and the private sector. What is the quantity and quality of those interactions? How can they become more positive, active and productive, so that the Borough can get its due? Especially in these difficult times, how can the Borough become more competitive for a bigger share of whatever funding and economic growth there is to be had in the region?

Let’s land the plane and head to our computers.

I said in my first article that your zoning tells you who you are and who you want to be. That wasn’t quite the bottom line. Your Comprehensive Plan is actually the foundation that underlies the zoning. The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code is the legislation that enables communities “to plan their development and to govern the same by zoning, subdivision and land development ordinances, planned residential development and other ordinances, by official maps, by the reservation of certain land for future public purpose and by the acquisition of such land; to promote the conservation of energy…” It allows for planning commissions and zoning hearing boards. In short, it sets up the rules for the whole system of land development in the state.

Comprehensive Plans are divided into sections that address specific community concerns and needs: statement of objectives, land use, housing, transportation, community facilities & utilities, statement of interrelationships among plan elements, discussion of short and long-range implementation strategies, statement of compatibility with neighboring municipalities, and a plan for the protection of natural & historic resources. In many communities, the adoption or update of a comprehensive plan results in well-attended, lively public meetings because they know that this document may result in zoning changes which literally touch everybody where they live.

An open space plan would fall under the “land use” category above. Pottstown contracted with the County for an Open Space Plan, done in 2006. Please, please check out Fig. 2, Existing Land Use, a gorgeous map on page 14. (Bookmark it, too, because we’ll come back to that in later post.)

Comprehensive Plans are supposed to be updated at least once every 10 years. Pottstown last adopted its own Comprehensive Plan in 1986. More recently, it has used as its guiding planning document the Pottstown Metropolitan Regional Comprehensive Plan, which was done in 2005 and is in the process of being updated now. Other communities participating in that plan are: Upper Pottsgrove, Lower Pottsgrove, West Pottsgrove, New Hanover, Douglass, East Coventry, and North Coventry.

I’ll just say up front: I’m all for regional planning. Ideally, there’d be fewer school districts and municipalities and more regionally-based planning and government. “Home rule” has gotten many municipalities into a bunch of messes, and it’s clear that Pottstown and other First Suburbs have got more than their fair share. and from where I’m sitting, the Montgomery County Planning Commission looks like an incredible resource and likely ally for the Borough, so I’m kind of scratching my head when I hear or read negative comments online about “the County.”

If you go to the Montgomery County Community Revitalization Program page of their website and click on the Projects Summary – Completion Through 2009, you’ll see that Pottstown has gotten $3.4 million since the program’s inception in 2000. Only Norristown has gotten more at $5.9 million. The “X”s show work completed. The X for the 2006 Homeownership Initiative, Phase 3, should appear further to the right to indicate it was “partially completed,” but wordpress seems to want to put it right after the text.

Pottstown Borough
2000 PECO Acquisition & Bldg. Rehab. Commercial Building Improvements $158,100 X
2000 Site Plan – Riverfront Park Non-Construction – Plans, Studies & Engineerin $42,500 X
2000 Redevelopment Plan Non-Construction – Plans, Studies & Engineerin $46,750 X
2000 Marketing Non-Construction – CBD Marketing $25,000 X
2000 Economic Dev. Director Non-Construction – Revitalization Staff $51,000 X
2002 High Street Parking Parking Improvements $163,200 X
2003 Schuylkill River Center Commercial Building Improvements $27,000 X
2003 Homeownership Initiative Housing $87,500 X
2004 Pottstown Symphony Orchestra Cultural & Arts Attractions $10,000 X
2004 Homeownership Initiative, Ph. 2 Housing $224,500 X
2004 Downtown Marketing, Ph. 2 Non-Construction – CBD Marketing $33,500 X
2005 Pedestrian Underpass & Promenade Transportation – Pedestrian Connections $359,000 X
2006 Homeownership Initiative, Ph. 3 Housing $300,000 X
2006 Performing Arts Center, Ph. 1 Cultural & Arts Attractions $200,000 X
2007 Performing Arts Center, Ph. 2 Cultural & Arts Attractions $235,000 X
2007 Carousel, Ph. 1 Cultural & Arts Attractions $300,000
2007 Homeownership Initiative Housing $100,000
2008 Pottstown Airport Expansion Other $250,000
2008 Industrial Drive Redevelopment Plan Amendment Non-Construction – Plans, Studies & Engineerin $250,000
2009 Homeownership Initiative Housing $150,000
2009 Performing Arts Center Cultural & Arts Attractions $396,000
TOTAL: $3,409,050

Here are just some of the planning tools that the County has developed for use by its municipalities: state-of-the-art model ordinances, a newsletter called Planning Perspectives, and Planning by Design, bulletins that clearly describe design considerations in ways an average citizen can understand.

Suffice it to say that even with the County as part of the Pottstown Partnership, there needs to be renewed efforts – especially in this time of spending freezes and private sector slowdown – to get/to keep the Borough’s development priorities front and center with the County. In that sense, Pottstown has to take charge of its own destiny.

Okay, so I’ve spent a lot of time on the County, but the importance of this relationship cannot be overstated. The County is a planning and policy partner as well as a funding source, and the Borough needs to be working positively and pro-actively with them on every level. I really don’t know all the ins and outs of how they work together, so it’d be great if people could comment on that.

Radiating outward, real quick… the Borough should put itself out there as a spokesperson for the redevelopment and revitalization challenges facing older, developed communities. That means being an active participant in the conversations about First Suburbs, the PA Land Bank legislation, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s policies and funding schedules, the County’s regional planning issues, and even federal community development funding priorities. First and foremost, the Borough’s got to start achieving some success in its own revitalization efforts. But along with that, if it makes itself visible in these broader arenas, and makes its voice heard, it could improve its chances to move toward the front of the line when it comes time to receive the ever-dwindling funds that are out there.

There’s more radiating outward to be done. I’ve got to wrap this up and we didn’t even get to the Keystone Opportunity Zone, or the private sector, or consumers with money! I’ll have to cover those in the next post of the series.

Note: I’m going to Bethlehem today with a contingent from Pottstown to check out Musikfest and learn how Bethlehem used arts and cultural development as an economic redevelopment tool. I took a continuing ed class on this kind of stuff last year and can’t wait to see this particular example in action. I’ll be sure to report on it asap.

The work of the community

Just as we’ve considered the physical layout and characteristics of Pottstown on some maps and on the ground, we can also take a bird’s eye view of how all the different players in the community take on the “work of the community” and how they relate to one another. There are the elected and appointed officials, individually and as members of a public body; non-profit housing, arts, health & wellness, library, shade tree and preservation groups; churches; civic groups like Scouts, fraternal organizations, PTAs; citizen activists; municipal employees; and the private sector that keeps the economic engine running and, in many cases, financially supports the work of the non-profit, civic and religious groups.

If you were hovering above all these groups in Pottstown, who would you see repeatedly crashing into one another? Or who is being deliberately cut out of the game? On the flip side, who sets screens for other players to help them fulfill their role better? Who quietly shows up day after day, year after year, getting their work done?

I am in no way saying that every group and every person in Pottstown must figure out how to work in perfect harmony. Every community needs its watchdogs, especially when there are obvious, serious problems that need to be addressed.

It’s not news that many people are frustrated with the status quo. For the past 9-12 months, there has been a growing impatience and vocal expression of frustration in the blogosphere, in the online comments at The Mercury and in person at public meetings. Citizens have formed groups to respond to specific issues. What’s apparently pretty remarkable is that Council, the Borough Manager and the School Board are listening and have begun taking action on some long-standing problems. They are also setting up processes for information-gathering, deliberation and consensus-building. This is what progress looks like.

These will take time, and not every statement or public comment is going to come out perfectly, whether it’s from someone on the inside or the outside of the process. People might not say what they mean in quite the right way. Maybe they have to back-track or re-phrase. If certain lines of communication haven’t ever been used, or not used very often, elected and appointed officials, citizens and bloggers, too, are not going to come out with perfectly-formed thoughts and ideas right off the bat. We’re just human and need to remind ourselves to cut each other some slack – all for the sake of getting the work done.

Individuals feel like they’re making a meaningful contribution to the work of a community when they have a defined role – when they are recognized and asked to participate in meaningful tasks with a clear purpose. In Pottstown there’s a lot to be done. Anyone who wants to be part of positive change should be given a chance to do their thing. New people need to be pulled in. The court is big here and there’s no five-player limit.

Right about now you might be thinking: “Yeah, yeah. That all sounds just so nice. Now who’s going to FIX things?” Recently – I can’t find it now – someone posted a comment on one of the local blogs to the effect that the town has been down this road before. They hire someone who’s expected to do miracles, it doesn’t happen, they leave and the town loses again. They may have predicted that would happen with the new director of PAID/The Pottstown Partnership… and where does that stand now, anyway?

First, every public entity would do itself a huge favor by figuring out how to more frequently update the public on its activities. We live in a wired world; the expectation is that information should be available, if not immediately, then within a few minutes! Every entity, although not the Partnership yet, has its own website and should be keeping the public informed, even in an informal way. I understand that minutes from meetings are not official until they’ve been approved. But especially in a time of transition – Pottstown seems to be transitioning to a new era of responsiveness & action – when frustration and skepticism still run high, regular, simple updates would go a long way toward gaining citizen confidence.

Second, there is no miracle worker on the horizon for PAID or for Pottstown. You don’t even want to think like that. It’s a set-up for failure, for that individual and for the community. At this point, I’d like to go back to a link in my previous article. It was Wikipedia’s definition of Comprehensive Planning, which showed this step-by-step process:

• Identifying issues
• Stating goals
• Collecting data
• Preparing the plan
• Creating implementation plans
• Evaluating alternatives
• Adopting a plan
• Implementing and monitoring the plan

Whoever heads up the Pottstown Partnership is going to have to do all these things in an open and transparent way that brings out the best in those who are already in the community. Let’s face it, Pottstown can be – to quote Rodney Dangerfield – “a rough crowd.” And I say that with all the affection and pride in the world! 🙂 Whoever comes in would do well to create an economic development plan of action WITH the stakeholders as well as FOR the stakeholders.

Third, you can’t just order up a whole new team! The individuals and groups that already exist in town are certainly capable of listening, learning, gathering information, assessing, making decisions, implementing and monitoring them. They may have fallen short in the past, to varying degrees, but evidence is mounting that they are moving on now, trying to do better and succeeding. These are not miracles. These are people following the outlines of a thoughtful, planning process and getting a job done together.

Next up: Forces and resources outside the Borough’s borders

How one planner thinks

After months of getting pulled in closer, learning a lot, and meeting and talking with a lot of people, I’d like to now write more specifically about the planning, land development and community development challenges facing Pottstown. I’ll be writing with several different, intertwined perspectives in mind. The urban planning part of my brain is influenced by my point guard/leader/coaching brain, and it’s all (still) informed by the experiences of living in Pottstown, going up and down its streets in cars, on a bike, running or walking on my own two feet, during my formative years. I’ll try to show my thinking on the page, and in the process I hope to re-frame the way the community thinks about its challenges and what it wants to be, so that it’s better positioned to get there. If something doesn’t quite make sense or I’ve got a basic assumption all wrong, I apologize in advance. Let me know so I can re-assess things based on reality.

As to the title of this blog post… I’m going to lean heavily on a sports analogy here at the beginning. I see a connection between being a point guard in high school and college and then finding myself in the planning profession. A key concept & goal of the profession is to be comprehensive in outlook. And being a point guard means “seeing” and keeping track of everything that’s happening on the court.

Example: On a fast break, a point guard might not even know exactly who she’s passing to. She just sees the color of her teammates’ jerseys spread out in front of her. She sees opposing jerseys. She sees an open space that a teammate might move into, to get closer to the basket, and she tosses the ball to that space, believing her teammate will move to it, get the ball and score. You don’t want to make or encourage moves that have people crashing into one another. Teammates need to keep good spacing, but they do need to come together, say, when one sets a screen for another. They move closer together, then they move apart. It’s about seeing space and color and individuals working in concert. (Just re-read that… could almost describe a land use map too.) Ideally, it’s one big orchestrated dance that has spontaneity, too, based on trust and instinct.

On several different levels, I think about community development and comprehensive planning, at its best, as a series of orchestrated movements, where different people and groups are playing their roles to the best of their ability. The goals are reasonably attainable, based on the skills that everyone brings to the game. In hoops, you don’t want a schedule where you’re always losing and stuck in an unhealthy frame of mind. In community or economic development, you don’t want to set goals you can’t reach.

So let’s think of a really, really large court; let’s think of several bird’s eye views of Pottstown. A zoning map, historic district map, and homeowners’ initiative map all give a different view. Different uses, zones and priorities have been assigned to different spaces for specific reasons. Yes, these can be modified over time for many reasons. But no land use recommendations or decision should be made without regard to surrounding properties and the uses/priorities assigned to adjacent zones. Sounds simple, but in reality, it’s easy to get carried away from such a basic consideration.

I started writing what you’ve just read, after getting – ah, irked – at a July 31st Mercury article about an “energy plant” that comes with a landfill, proposed for the former Stanley G. Flagg site. The Mercury followed up with a glowing opinion piece on August 1st. But just because something comes in green wrapping paper doesn’t mean it’s good for a particular community.

From a bird’s eye view of Pottstown’s zoning map, I imagine truck after truck delivering municipal solid waste to a flex office zone that has parkland on one side and a narrow gateway zone and neighborhood residential on the other side. Parkland. Green Garbage. Gateway/Neighborhood Residential. This would be an example of incompatible uses crashing up against one another – in short, a badly run play.

I’m generally in favor of green initiatives! But every activity – even a green one – has to be considered in its context, in its specific location. And Pottstown has to start getting serious about how it markets itself. There are other green activities that it can explore and try to bring to town that don’t involve garbage at its western gateway. (We’ll get to these in this series, down the road a bit.)

Okay, so eventually, we need to print out a copy of the maps, come down out of the sky and see what’s exactly on the ground. It’s best to walk around with map in hand and get a sense of the scale of anything that’s already there or in the vicinity. There’s a whole other level of sensory awareness of what makes a “place” work. What do you see, smell and hear in a neighborhood or on a particular site? Does it feel safe?

When friends are looking for a new house in a new community, I advise them to stop in at the municipal building and visit the planning and engineering offices. Ask to see their maps and (here in NJ) the town’s Master Plan. Ask what’s going on. I also advise them to visit their potential new neighborhood at several different times during the day and night. Look for railroad tracks and airports; is there a lot of noise? Truck traffic? Commuter traffic? Bring the kids to the potential house, park the car, get out and walk to the park or school or ice cream shop together to see how it feels. Is it going to work for your family?

We’re all going to have our own opinions and different tolerance levels for all kinds of activities. But a town’s maps, and the ordinances that underlie and support those maps, represent existing public policy. Periodically, you re-evaluate them, you talk it out publicly and you might change them. You make exceptions only for very compelling reasons. To me, though, this is your starting point as a community. Your maps and your ordinances say who you are, how you want to grow, what you want your town to be.

Next up: Who’s doing the “work of the community?”

HB 712 – PA Land Bank Legislation

This afternoon I sat in on an hour-long webinar on proposed legislation that would enable the creation and operation of land banks in PA. The ability to create land banks would give all municipalities and counties a tremendous tool against blight and property abandonment. I could see a Pottstown Land Bank working hand-in-hand with The Pottstown Partnership, Genesis Housing and even PACA, offering homes for sale or lease-purchase throughout the Borough, marketing & offering housing and work space to artists (similar to Paducah, KY), attracting homeowners, entrepreneurs and businesses, and getting properties back on the tax rolls. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania sponsored the webinar. The presenters were Cindy Daley, Policy Director of the Housing Alliance, and Irene McClaughlin, an attorney and mediator who has spent her career dealing with blight-related issues in the Pittsburgh area. From the Alliance website: “Anti-blight land banking legislation passed the House on Tuesday, June 29, 2010 by a majority vote of 190-8. HB 712 provides for the creation of land banks for the conversion of vacant or tax-delinquent properties into productive use. The Housing Alliance supports this bill, although we anticipate it will need some technical amendments in the Senate.”

Below are some key points about what this legislation would allow and how a land bank would function. There are still questions about the nitty-gritty details, but with such overwhelming support in the House, it seems like this legislation could very well get passed in some form pretty soon. It is enabling legislation, which means that it allows land banks to be created but it’s up to individual towns and counties. It is NOT mandatory.

There are an estimated 300,000 vacant properties statewide. Between population and job loss and sprawl, rural, inner ring suburbs and urban communities have been faced with blight and abandonment.

An abandoned house or lot reduces the value of all other surrounding houses by an average of $6,720.

There might be potential buyers for these properties, but an inability to find the property owner, the lack of clear title, and debt that exceeds the property’s value all prevent a property from getting a new owner. Existing tools are inadequate: uncertainty of tax foreclosure process; cost & difficulty of condemnation; and existing laws, which have been on the books for decades never anticipated people simply walking away from property.

Land banks are single purpose entities created by local government to manage properties that no reasonable purchaser otherwise wants.

Would allow for the clearing of existing liens and old debt; clearing of title; remediation; assembly of parcels for current market conditions; holding of property until a market emerges; disposal or transfer under terms and conditions driven by the market.

Land banks just a part of a larger picture. Still need tax collection and foreclosure reform along with clearer mechanisms for protecting low-income homeowners or owners who simply wait until the last possible minute before paying their taxes. This enabling legislation – HB 712 – is just the beginning of the process.

Details of HB 712
Defines a Land Bank as a public agency.
Jurisdiction: Cities or counties that are authorized by state law to create a redevelopment authority. Any city or boro with 10K or more population.
Formed by an ordinance subject to approval by a mayor or county executive.
Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement (ICA) between 2 or more land bank jurisdictions.
Smaller jurisdiction could join an existing land bank.
If there’s a land bank in a city and in that county, the county can’t take real property in that city.

Board of Directors
5-11 members (odd number); can include public officials and municipal employees.
Must include at least one voting member who is a community resident and a member of a civic organization, but who is not a public official or employee.
Must have open meetings, a regular meeting schedule and follow Sunshine Laws.
Staff: may hire employees, or have crossover with city staff & municipal functions

General powers
Adopt, amend, repeal bylaws
Borrow money
Issue negotiable revenue bongds and notes
Enter into contracts
Collect rent
Design, develop, construct, demolish real property
Partnerships, joint ventures for development of real property.
Needs to have capacity to maintain the property according to existing codes.

Acquisition & Holding of Property: gift, transfer, exchange, foreclosure, purchase, from municipalities, from tax claim bureaus. At this point, these properties are undesired by anyone else.
Land bank’s real property, income and operations are exempt from state & local taxation.
Land banks may only acquire property within their jurisdiction, except by Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement (ICA.) Except if property is leased out to 3rd party for more than 5 years, then income becomes taxable. Ideally, will stabilize and bring up values of surrounding properties.

Disposition: A land bank must create an inventory of its real property which is available to the public for inspection.
May sell, transfer, lease, or mortgage any real property of the land bank.
A land bank may establish priorities for the re-use of real property it conveys, including but not limited to uses for: purely public spaces and places, affordable housing, retail, commercial & industrial activities, conservation areas. These uses are not specified in the bill; it’s up to each particular Land Bank. Priorities don’t have to be uniform across the land bank area. Bill recognizes that land use is going to be specific to location. By-laws and any ICA would establish specifics and priorities.

Financing Land Bank operations:
Grants & loans from municipality, Commonwealth, Fed. Govt. & other public & private sources.
Payments for services rendered.
Rents and leasehold payments.
A practice adopted in Michigan that provides a regular funding source: an agreement is reached with the taxing jurisdictions – not more than 50% of real property taxes collected for 5 years after the transfer of property will go back to the land bank. As proposed in HB 712, this is optional, subject to agreement with municipality and school district.
Borrowing and issuance of bonds. Municipalities may but are not required to guarantee the bonds Bonds and income are tax-exempt.

Required to keep records of proceeding & subject to following state laws:Open meetings, Right To Know, Conflict of Interests, Ethical Standards Laws

Special Powers
Power to discharge & extinguish real property tax liens and claims, subject to the approval of the school district for school taxes.
May file a court action to quiet title in an expedited procedure. Multiple parcels of real property may be joined in a single complaint in action to quiet title.
Land banks do NOT have power of eminent domain.

Dissolution: There is a procedure for dissolution of the Land Bank.

Audits: Land bank income and expenses and a report will be submitted annually to DCED and to participating municipalities.

Land Banks and PA Real Estate Tax Collection & Foreclosure
Municipalities may assign tax claims and liens to the land bank. Municipality and a land bank may agree to a set bid price in advance of public auction (upset sale or judicial sale as well as at “single sale” allowed unter MCTLL (only for Phila and Allegh. Counties)) and transfer property to the Land Bank as purchaser in accordance with the agreement. Within 30 days of the purchase, the land bank must receive the deed transferring the property free and clear of all claims, liens and charges.

Next steps: HB712 is now in Senate Urban Affirs & Housing Committee. The Committee intends to hold a hearing on the bill – early Sept.? The Housing Alliance is convening a Working Group to review the bill & propose amendments. All interested stakeholders are invited to participate. And once the language of HB 712 is finalized, the group will begin working on mechanism for financing land banks and tax sale reform, including strong hardship waivers.

First Suburbs, Keim Street Bridge & Keystone Blvd. extension

Exactly the kind of issue that would benefit from analysis and advocacy by the First Suburbs coalition is how PennDOT and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) set transportation funding priorities.

From their website: “The Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project is a regional coalition of community leaders from developed suburbs that have joined together to harness their communities’ power by directly engaging citizens to affect policies and practices that will lead to the stabilization and revitalization of their communities.”

They’re holding the Building One Pennsylvania Summit tomorrow, Friday, July 16, 2010, 10:00am – 4:00pm (doors open at 9:00) at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, 750 E. King Street, Lancaster, PA.

I know a few Pottstown residents are going and I hope someone is going to officially represent the Borough.

In a recent presentation to Pottstown Borough Council, a representative of the DVRPC described how the funding for the repair/replacement of the historic Keim Street Bridge wouldn’t be available for approximately 6-8 more years, or completed for at least 10 years. See The Mercury’s video here. The issue was also discussed by Jeff Leflar on the Code Blue blog.

In the video, Council President Stephen Toroney notes that, ideally, the bridge would be re-aligned with Keim Street AND Keystone Boulevard would be extended to the Route 422 Stowe interchange, thus allowing Pottstown to be part of the 422 flow rather than cut off from it. Toroney rightly pointed out, “That’s the key to our Bethlehem Steel site. To get some businesses in there.” He asked about the possibility of fast-tracking and a public/private partnership to make those things happen. It wasn’t clear, due to the video editing, whether the DVRPC representative ever responded directly to those questions.

I would not let this go. And I don’t mean that in a confrontational way. I mean that there is a strong regional planning case to be made for addressing this root-cause, which is directly connected to jobs and fiscal stability, through recurring dialogue and a working relationship with these agencies specifically around this issue.

This problem is reminiscent of the ultimate effect on many of our nation’s cities of the Federal Highway Act of 1956, which funded the interstate highway system. Massive roadways and overpasses cut downtowns off from their rivers and diverted people, in their vehicles, away from city centers, opening up the countryside to housing and malls – what we now call “sprawl” – and leading to the disinvestment in urban cores.

On a smaller scale, that is what the current PennDOT/DVRPC transportation funding schedule perpetuates – the continued re-routing of traffic (and consumer dollars) around a town center/small city. This funding schedule, even if unintended, is in effect their public policy. It is a policy that, due to inadequate access for the movement of raw materials and finished goods, actually also hinders private sector economic development dollars from flowing into Pottstown.

For Pottstown’s former industrial sites ever to be re-used to their fullest, the newly formed Pottstown Partnership (which includes the County) will want to hit the ground running in talks with PennDOT and DVRPC to re-consider the current timeline on the Keim Street Bridge and to get the Keystone Boulevard extension on the table. The Partnership will also need to actively engage property owners, determining any clean-up and marketing strategies that will put these sites back in use. They are absolutely essential to Pottstown’s revitalization. None of these efforts toward the Pottstown Industrial Complex should be news. They are part of Goal #1 in the Action Plan of the Pottstown Economic Development Strategic Plan (March 2008).

There may be a history here (of inaction) such that funding agencies might be leery of directing resources where they’re skeptical about their ultimate benefit. Fair enough. That’s where the Borough – on its own and in the context of the Partnership – needs to step up and be pro-active with property owners, pro-active in seeking grants for brownfields redevelopment and putting together a package of other financing incentives, and leading the way in this kind of First Suburbs conversation.

Pottstown’s Proposed Rental Rules

I posted this earlier today at The Mercury (as Number5). The Mercury/First Suburbs project asked for feedback about proposed changes to the rental registration/inspection ordinance.

” Even Keel has hit the nail on the head. The current ordinances were/are not being enforced. Maybe some combination of revisions to the current ordinances would be ideal, although I’m skeptical of yet more layers & tougher sanctions in an environment where the most basic enforcement hasn’t even been tried yet. And Meadowdeb makes a good point: there are existing laws regarding landlord/tenant rights. An understanding of these must be explicitly part of the discussion.

Bottom line: passing ordinances is not that hard. Enforcement is and that’s been the problem. There should be much more discussion about how enforcement would work. Notifying tenants & landlords, scheduling inspections, showing up for inspections, re-scheduling, collecting fees, procedures with the courts, setting up payment systems for each instance where money might change hands, etc. This should all be thought out before changing an ordinance. What will be the day-to-day reality of any ordinance, even the existing ones?

What is the current Codes Dept. capable of handling right now on top of current duties? I admit I have no idea, so I have to imagine… I’m picturing an inspector coming back to the office from a day of inspections and re-inspections. Did he/she record the inspection results in a handheld device? Does he/she sit at a computer and input the data into a database that’s been set up… by whom? Does he/she hand a pile of papers to an administrative assistant? Are there paper files and computer files? How long does it take to send out the letter telling the landlord what repairs need to be done? The next day or a week or a month? How many units are we talking about here? How much time does a landlord get to do repairs? Does the landlord call to schedule the re-inspection, or is it put in the violation letter? Do inspections start in different parts of town simultaneously? Is there one inspector assigned to each ward or do they work all over town? How do you track the data that’s being collected so that you know how many units/buildings you’ve been to and whether your program is succeeding so that you can report the numbers to the taxpayers on a quarterly basis on your website? Just going through this exercise makes me think annual inspections are too much. By the time you’ve closed a lot of files, it’ll almost be time to give 60-day notice for the next inspection. And does any governmental entity really want to be collecting/tracking security deposits??

I’m not ashamed of having been a bureaucrat in a previous life. As a planner, maybe it’s in my DNA. Bureaucracies can be set up efficiently to accomplish a public policy goal, or they can be an unworkable, expensive nightmare. “Good government” – Pottstown has to be going for that. So, what, EXACTLY, needs to be in place to make enforcement a reality? And can the program pay for itself – salaries, paper, postage, computer & database management? Has there been any discussion based on facts – like the number of rental units in town – to justify proposed fees or prove fiscal sustainability?

Is it possible that the current ordinances could get things moving in the right direction & allow the Borough to put the proper systems in place and then re-assess the program after a year or two of operation? In any event, why not take the time now, in a public roundtable setting, to vet any changes or even new enforcement of existing laws with the stakeholders (landlords, tenants, concerned homeowners)? Then allow for Council to have a public discussion and accept public comment over the course of several meetings. It’s good of The Mercury to do this, but it really should be happening face-to-face at Borough Hall, with civility a top priority.

Proceeding with caution & collaborating could avoid lawsuits, save tax dollars in the long run, and get everyone a program that mostly (nothing’s perfect) achieves the desired outcomes: safe & decent housing and neighborhoods, housing stock that maintains or increases in value, and more positive perceptions of the town, which actually have a basis in reality.

Positively!Pottstown ”

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