First Suburbs meeting: Help make Pottstown’s voice be heard

The Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project is holding a public meeting Thursday, April 14 at 7:30 pm with Housing and Urban Development Region III Administrator Jane Vincent to call for fairness in regional housing policy.

The Statement of Purpose on their website declares:

“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.”

The First Suburbs Project has galvanized communities in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties. Pottstown is a member of this coalition and will be taking a bus to the meeting, which will be held at the JP Mascaro and Sons Building in Audobon. To get on the bus, which will leave Borough Hall at 6:30 pm, call the Borough at 610-970-6511.

To read some prior blog posts about the challenges facing Pottstown and other First Suburbs, check out the following links:

Community Gardens & First Suburbs – the start of a (long) conversation

First Suburbs: Affordable Housing Notes from NJ

First Suburbs – Challenges of Rental Housing

First Suburbs, Keim Street Bridge & Keystone Blvd. Extension

Public input wanted on District’s Task Force on Facilities

Note: Sorry to be kind of quiet lately. I’ve been “snowed under” with school work. Should be coming up for air again in a couple of days! SR

Last spring School Board President Rick Huss announced the formation of the Board President’s Task Force on Facilities and appointed James Bush to lead the effort. The mission of the Task Force is to visit, collect data and analyze all of the Pottstown School District’s facilities, including the Annex and Administration Building, without preconceptions, in order to make informed, educationally-sound and fiscally-responsible recommendations to the School Board about the future of the elementary schools.

So far, the Task Force has visited all the elementary schools. Last Monday night (Jan. 24th) I had the opportunity to tour the high school and learn more about the Task Force and how they’re approaching their mission.

First, the Task Force itself is a large and diverse group. Second, they’ve got very big binders filled with details and reports about the capacity, weaknesses and costs of each building in the district. I regret not having made it to any of the elementary schools, but all of the agendas, meeting summaries and some reports are available here on the District’s website. Third, I learned that Pottstown has a really amazing high school. The building is light, clean and modern, having been updated and expanded in 2001. Its diverse programming prepares students along the whole educational continuum with life skills, technical and academic training that will get them to the next level that’s appropriate for them.

One really interesting aspect of the high school’s physical plant is that Pottstown Community TV uses 4,800 square feet of space there and pays $1,000/month to the School District to do so. PCTV is owned and operated by the Borough through a contract with Mark Pollock. The lease arrangement is a pretty sweet deal compared to the going rates for commercial/ retail space on High Street or in the region. While this local programming is certainly a benefit to Pottstown and the larger region that it reaches, PCTV’s activities are completely separate from the high school’s operations. From what we were told on the tour, PCTV does not benefit any students, involve any students, or have anything to do with the educational mission of the District. On the one hand, regardless of where PCTV is located, at this time it is a taxpayer-subsidized operation, whose current contract was a sticking point in Borough Council’s recent budget talks. One might ask, “Does it really matter if it’s coming from Borough taxes or School taxes?” On the other hand, now is the time to re-think its location in a school, where the educational mandate is clear and every option for cost savings must be considered.

It was stated at the meeting that the District currently uses a total of 12,534 square feet for administration. I would expect that the possible availability of 4,800 square feet for administration or the re-configuring of students/classrooms would be on the table in discussions this spring.

The President’s Task Force on Facilities meetings are open to anyone and allow for public comment and questions. The next one is on February 7th at the Middle School. I urge everyone to get out to the meetings that will continue through the spring and to get up to speed on what has already been reviewed, so that there will be a critical mass of informed citizens ready to take part in the discussions that are on the horizon. No less than the quality education of Pottstown’s youth and the financial future of the town are at stake.~

Feb. 2, 2011. Please note this comment and clarification received from Superintendent Dr. Reed Lindley:

“Seems that the statment “involves no students, not connected to the educational mission,” is somewhat of an overstatement. PCTV recently received a grant from the Health and Wellness Foundation to work collaboratively with the High School in the development of a live AM “cooking show.” While the details are still being finalized, this project is directly connected to the educational mission, and would involve students from more than one academic/career program at the High School.”

Joint School Board & Borough Council Meeting this Monday

This Monday, Dec. 20th, there will be a joint School Board & Borough Council Meeting at 7:30pm at the Pottstown Middle School in the 2nd floor LGI room.

The agenda will include an update to the community on the PAID partnership, a presentation about a Community Land Trust for Pottstown, and tax assessments. I will be part of the group that is doing the Community Land Trust presentation.

A community land trust (CLT) is a nonprofit model that offers flexibility for engaging in housing, neighborhood stabilization and economic development activities that are appropriate for a particular area. A few notable features of CLTs are:

  • setting & implementing goals with community input
  • having CLT homeowners & other community reps. on its board
  • undertaking an active acquisition program
  • selling buildings at affordable prices while the CLT retains ownership of the land beneath the buildings
  • being stewards of the land and neighborhoods
  • increasing homeownership
  • preventing foreclosures

While most CLTs have as their main goal the creation of permanently affordable, owner-occupied housing in places where housing prices are high or escalating, a CLT for Pottstown would undertake a broader range of activities such as community gardens and economic development initiatives to help bring back market-rate activity.

With input from the community,  a CLT for Pottstown would undertake activities in a targeted way to slow the negative fiscal spiral and coax the market back. Many aspects of this approach have been recommended in study after study.

I’m certainly looking forward to carrying on this conversation & to hear questions and observations from the larger community about how this could work. Hope you can make it Monday night!

Added after original post:

Here’s a link to the Pottstown CLT website.

It’s at www.PottstownCLT.wordpress.com.

It’s a work-in-progress. A PowerPoint presentation will be posted there after the Monday meeting.

 

Inequitable distribution of housing vouchers in Montgomery County

The debate about how to best house the less fortunate has many facets and many layers. Below is my response posted earlier today to an opinion piece at The Mercury, written by Elizabeth G. Hersh, Executive Director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. My comments were posted under the name “Number5.”

“This is a long-winded version of brussell’s last paragraph!

The whole point of the First Suburbs project is to bring attention to the fiscal & underlying policy inequities among various municipalities that exist side-by-side or within close proximity to each other in a region. While I agree with Ms. Hersh in many respects, I fear that her defense of the voucher program loses sight of this very basic premise.

There are many good purposes served by the Housing Choice Voucher Program. I am a staunch supporter of its compassionate intent and believe we must be vigilant against negative stereotyping of individuals. But, like many other public programs & policies, if the voucher program is implemented inequitably, much of its good can be undone or result in unintended consequences to communities.

If I am reading Ms. Hersh’s numbers correctly, 4% of all of Montgomery County’s rental units have tenants who are voucher holders, and 12-15% of all of Pottstown’s and Norristown’s rental units have tenants who are voucher holders. Therefore, Pottstown and Norristown have 3-4 times the CONCENTRATION of voucher holders than the county as a whole. The county’s low-income residents ARE concentrated in the county’s urban areas. That is not a “negative stereotype.” That is reality, and it is unacceptable public policy. Not only is it not good for a community’s fiscal health, it is not good for the low-income people themselves, particularly the children, who benefit from being educated among a socio-economic diversity of peers. In what ways do voucher holders truly have a CHOICE to live in a suburban community?

I would also be curious to know how the “nearly half” of elderly/disabled voucher holders are distributed geographically throughout the county. Are they in the urban and suburban areas in roughly equal concentrations?

The phrase, “yes, making sure that all communities bear an equal responsibility for helping our less fortunate neighbors” is added in the last paragraph almost as an afterthought, when that is actually one of the main premises of the First Suburbs project. I have nothing but respect for Ms. Hersh and other affordable housing advocates and providers for their commitment and passion, but summary statistics can be misleading. Critical analysis will help us find more equitable AND compassionate solutions.

Sue Repko
Positively!Pottstown ”

(First Suburbs link added here.)

Rental ordinance up for vote

Although I’m having loads of fun working on the parks series, I have missed talking about public policy and revitalization issues. Actually, I have REALLY missed it. I should be able to get back into the mix a bit more because Rosemary Keane will be leading the way through the parks for the next couple weeks. Below is a copy of a comment sent a few minutes ago to the Mercury regarding their article on the new rental regulation ordinance coming before Council on Tuesday night. Personally, it’s hard for me to be on the outside of all this. Pottstown has so much potential, and I believe it is on its way to seeing better days, but there’s a lot of work to be done.

Has anyone – other than Council, I presume – seen the new ordinance? Is it on the Borough’s website? Don’t you all have mandated notice provisions that would let people see a proposed ordinance 2-4 weeks before it’s voted on? Even if it’s not required by law, it seems like that would be a good practice to put into effect.

When this issue came up this summer, I advocated looking at the existing rules to see if they could simply be enforced, rather than introducing new regs, since everyone acknowledges that enforcement is at the heart of the problems. Will this new ordinance come with a re-vamped, rapid response enforcement system that is administratively tight?

I have heard buzz about the new ordinance and the landlord threats to sue the Borough en masse. On the flip side, property owners are threatening to sue other property owners. Again, PROCESS MATTERS. Why was there not a public process before getting this to a vote? Where is the leadership to bring people to the table to solve their own mutual problems? Each side knows what the stumbling blocks are on their end. Why can’t they face each other across a table in Borough Hall and come to some mutual solution? Why does it seem that people are afraid to talk to each other or that they are cut out of the problem-solving by their own government?

This is symptomatic of what the ULI report noted as a major hindrance to change – people not working together. There has to be a new way of doing things. Now. Or you will never get over the major hurdles in front of you.

Sue
Positively!Pottstown

Process in the public sphere: It matters.

Last night Council unanimously pledged support for a low-income rental housing tax credit application tied to a 55-unit senior housing development on Borough land near the riverfront. In a kind of post-game analysis, here I step back from the project itself to talk a bit about process.

1) Ideally, a town would have adopted land use and economic development plans that spell out what they want in each area of their town. Then, when any authorized municipal representative is talking to any developers about that area, they are on the same page with what the community planned and agreed to.

2) Ideally, if a town is looking to develop land that it owns, it would put out a Request for Proposals and seek competitive proposals/bids. The RFP and this process would all be public. There would be no private conversations with any developers during this process.

3) Opening the bids: here’s where it gets sticky. In most places, negotiations involving land transactions and real estate development by governmental entities are not subject to right-to-know laws. All parties need to know that they can work out the financial end of a deal without the press & the public breathing down their necks. Confidentiality is paramount. Here’s where you have to have faith in your elected officials to agree to what’s in the best interests of the community and select the top bidder(s) accordingly.

4) If there are no clear frontrunners, in an ideal world, the top 2-3 bids/plans would be publicly presented and community input would be sought at that point.

Four necessary components:
• community-approved land use & economic development plans
• a clear & transparent RFP process
• time and timelines
• community input on selected proposals

Obviously, none of this protocol was followed in this case, which really is not unusual in many small towns and even larger towns where no one’s paying attention. Or where there’s an entrenched way of doing things: This is how we’ve always done it. But it has the whiff of a back-room deal that was foisted on the public pretty late in the game. All I’m saying is, there’s another way to do things, where leaders and the community are engaged in more meaningful ways througout the entire process.

Imagine this: 55 units of low-income, senior rental housing in the middle of a comprehensive waterfront plan that includes a few hundred upscale condos, commercial development and recreational uses. Then the low-income housing is a mere blip in the middle of that; no big deal. You wouldn’t have heard a peep outta me!

Imagine this: There are multiple economic development initiatives underway across town that involve County funding, and this housing is a trade-off in some way in the context of a larger plan that may not even specifically include the waterfront. That could be fine too. Trade-offs – compromise – that’s how things get done.

It’s the fact that you’re leading the way, selling off your own land, with no vision or plan, for what? Low-income rentals? That doesn’t compute.

My frustration comes out of the Borough not being in charge of its own destiny in the first place – not having a clue what the community wants, not having an economic development leader on your team, not doing your due diligence, not making people answer your questions straight-up, not demanding a printed handout of the project proposal & parameters — basically, not asserting yourself. And then being forced to settle. Settle for whoever shows up. It doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t.

Unearth your vision – plan – strategize – set goals – implement with a vengeance.

Low- vs. Moderate-Income Housing: Know what you’re voting on (the short version)

A vote in favor of the income-restricted, rental housing project proposed by the Partnership for Income Restricted Housing Leadership (PIRHL) on Borough-owned land is a vote for additional low-income rental housing for Pottstown.

– There is only one tax credit program deadline coming up at the PA Housing Finance Agency and it is Nov. 5th for the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC), which spurs the development of LOW INCOME RENTAL HOUSING.

Jeffrey Paxson, vice president of development for PIRHL, has confirmed to a third party that they are applying for tax credits from the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program, which is administered by the PA Housing Finance Agency.

– Rents in the $500-800 range for 1 & 2-bedrooms in Montgomery County are considered low income NOT moderate income.

– Section 8 certificate holders can NOT be denied housing in a LIHTC project.

That is all.

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.)

Best,
Sue
Positively!Pottstown

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 🙂

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