“I’m positive that five years from now, Pottstown will be a better place than it is today. Not that it’s a bad place today. There are small things that we can all do. Support our local non-profits. Use local vendors. Patronize local merchants and service providers. Keep rolling that dollar over and over again.”
Andrew J. Monastra, December 2012
When we last interviewed Pottstown real estate attorney Andrew J. Monastra in December 2012, he was unabashedly optimistic and upbeat about ongoing efforts to revitalize the Borough of Pottstown, and particularly the downtown. One year later, it appears that Monastra’s optimism and confidence in the power of collective effort is well founded.
Call it the stars aligning. Call it an era of good feeling. Call it what you will. After decades of fits and starts, divisive squabbling amongst factions, entrenched pessimism, and well-meaning organizations spinning their wheels attempting to go it alone, almost everyone now involved in the process of revitalization in Pottstown seems to have come together with a unified vision and purpose, and the beginning of tangible progress is beginning to take shape. New businesses, like Wheels in Motion, and restaurants, like Lily’s Grill and West End Ally, are opening downtown. Existing businesses are seeing increased patronage. Inquiries from potential investors have picked up. Arts and culture venues are seeing an increase in people coming out to events. And the naysayers have started retreating to the shadows.
“The level of cooperation and collaboration amongst all the players (in Pottstown) is at an all time high,” said Steve Bamford, Executive Director of PAID, Inc. (Pottstown Area Industrial Development Corp.). Bamford should know. He meets frequently with representatives from all of the “anchor” institutions and organizations working to improve the town, including: PDIDA (Pottstown Downtown Improvement District Authority); the Borough of Pottstown; the Pottstown School District, Montgomery County Community College, Pottstown Memorial Medical Center; The Hill School; and Montgomery County’s economic development office, among others. While Bamford’s focus is on the borough as a whole, he notes that, “the revitalization of our downtown is critical to economic development of the entire community.”
PDIDA’s Main Street Manager Sheila Dugan concurs. “I think for the first time in many, many years we now have everyone on the same page,” Dugan said. “PDIDA, PAID, The Hill School, the School District, the borough, were all doing things on their own, but now have seemed to join forces. I’ve been here for two years. We are all working together with the same mind set. We can agree to disagree, but moving forward is the big goal. I think that’s a huge step. It’ll help us when we’re looking at grants, to know that people are supporting us,” she said.
“What we’re also seeing, is that there are additional groups who are starting to come on board with their own ideas for what they think the direction of Pottstown should be,” Andrew Monastra added. “And I think that’s great, because I don’t know everything, and I welcome other people’s ideas. The worst thing that we can do is squash other ideas. Even if they don’t agree with me, or they think I’m wrong, maybe I am. I’ll listen to anybody. And I’ll help anybody who wants to help.”
Monastra predicted that a growing trend toward greater unity and cooperation would help to move the borough forward, but he did not stop there. As a member of the board of directors of several organizations working to improve Pottstown, including PDIDA, Art Fusion 19464 (formerly Gallery on High), Carousel at Pottstown, and an advisor to Mosaic Community Land Trust and the Foundation for Pottstown Education, Monastra contributes both time and money to local non-profits, and encourages others to do the same. Last year he challenged fellow professionals to set aside a small portion of their consultation fees each week and donate those funds to one or more local non-profit organizations working to improve the borough. In 2014 he is renewing that challenge, “to other businesses in the area who don’t seem to be catching on to this idea,” he said.
Monastra explains that contributing to these organizations enhances the economic vitality of the town as a whole, which benefits everyone in the long run. “I wish that there was a button on your publication that readers could push, especially the professionals in this town who are reading this article right now,” Monastra said. “Press the button, and it would say, ‘Come on man! Get on board. Let’s go! It’s great that you volunteer. It’s great that you give your time. We appreciate that. However, we need money. We’re not asking you to give $10,000 in one crack. We’re just asking that you give a little tiny bit, so maybe at the end of the year, you gave $2,500 instead of $10,000.’ You get ten people like that, that’s $25,000. That buys a grant writer. That buys a part time bookkeeper,” he said pointing out that if you alleviate the constant need for fund raising, you free up the time for these organizations to pursue their larger objectives.
“That’s what we need, and we need it badly,” Monastra continued. “I’m not asking you to give me your mortgage payment. I’m not asking you to give me your car payment. I’m asking you to give something that you don’t see. For example, a lawyer could give one consultation fee per week. Dentists. Chiropractors. Financial Advisors— Siphon off a piece before it even comes to your pocket . . . The power to make the town better, the power to make yourself better, the power to make anybody better, lies with you,” Monastra said. “Utilize this great power to improve yourself, to improve your town, to improve whatever you want to improve,” he said. “I guarantee you that if we got many people to do that, we would be talking about how great, and cool, and neat, and dynamic and edgy a town that Pottstown is. Not even a question.”
The concept of collective effort, on even a small scale, making a big difference, extends to a directive to buy local as well, Monastra said. “You need to keep the money in the community. You’ve got to keep passing that same dollar bill around, because then you will have done something good for the town. If you use local contractors to renovate a building, they will patronize the local restaurants and stores.”
Monastra points out how increased “feet on the street,” through additional jobs and a greater variety and frequency of cultural events, helps local downtown businesses as well, and that can have a multiplying effect, citing the example of VideoRay LLC, a manufacturer of small underwater video equipment. VideoRay president Scott Bentley bought the property at 212 E. High Street last year, renovated the building, and moved in with 35 employees working in management, corporate administration, marketing, engineering assembly and repair functions. Bentley cited Pottstown’s growing arts and culture community as one of the reasons he chose Pottstown to relocate his company.
“Since VideoRay and their employees came to town, The Milkman Lunch Company, a lunch place with a great bakery moved onto High Street,” Monastra said. “Grumpy’s Handcarved Sandwiches has seen an increase in business. New restaurants, Café Lilly’s and West End Ally just opened. The VIP Diner (High and York Streets) has been sold and will soon be opening up with a new owner. You have the Brickhouse Restaurant, Juan Carlos Fine Mexican Cuisine, and Henry’s Café. In that area you have gone from three or four places to eat, to seven or eight. Why is that? It’s because there’s diversity and more foot traffic. Competitors are good. They bring other people in. So the downtown, in terms of the number of places to eat, is doing well,” he said.
“Steel River Playhouse is bringing people into the downtown,” he added. “Art Fusion 19464 is doing great shows. Jazz nights. There is frequently something to do, on the weekend in Pottstown. Before, there was nothing to do. Businesses are staying open to support the patrons of Steel River Playhouse and Art Fusion 19464. We’re moving forward. There are more people coming downtown on the weekends,” Monastra said.
Monastra gives credit to two individuals in particular, Steve Bamford and Main Street Manager Sheila Dugan, for the acceleration of progress in the downtown. “(Steve and Sheila) have really done an excellent job in promoting the downtown and the borough,” Monastra said, “both with bringing new businesses into the downtown, and also working with the merchants. The merchants were, for a long time, justifiably depressed,” he noted. “Nothing was happening, and they didn’t want to buy into another program and pin their hopes up, only to be dashed. I will say, to the merchants’ credit, they are staying open longer. They are supporting events like the car show and the Carousel of Flavor. These merchants are coming on board. I can’t say enough about the work that Sheila has done with bringing the merchants together and getting them to get behind what we’re doing. And for people like Steve, who is working and having successes. You don’t have to hit a home run. Singles are good. We’re hitting a lot of singles now. You can have a lot of success as a baseball player if you are a .300 hitter.”
“I would like it to be better, but every year we’ve improved,” Sheila Dugan said. “The first year I was with PDIDA, the (downtown merchants) all thought I was nuts. This year we’ve had quite a bit of participation. The Schuylkill River Fest in October was a prime example of that. We brought music into the restaurants downtown. They opened up later than they typically do. The art gallery and theatre had a magician roaming the crowds, and all of that PDIDA was able to provide for them. It made it easier for them to understand the concept of inviting people in. PDIDA has started to show that we can do this as a team. Every month, another merchant calls me up and says ‘we’re on board now,’ and that’s a great thing,” she said.
“The new merchants coming in are also bringing that whole attitude of ‘Can Do,’” Dugan added. “The existing merchants are seeing more and more new merchants come in. People’s attitudes are changing a little bit. They’re becoming more positive and they’re starting to understand that it’s not going to happen overnight. This is a long-term effort on many people’s parts. Each month it just gets a little bit better.”
Monastra also gives credit to a major shift in focus at borough hall, toward greater accessibility and efficiency. “We have a tremendous borough manager, Mark Flanders, and a tremendous police chief, Rick Drumheller,” Monastra said. “The staff at borough hall, from the fire marshal, to the codes officer, to the person who collects anything there, are all very professional, and very much of an asset to this town. I can’t give them enough credit either. Council also seems to be on board.”
Steve Bamford concurs. “I think Mark Flanders is doing a terrific job,” he said. “I’m also very pleased with the hiring of Keith Place, who is the new director of licensing and inspections. It’s clear, there’s no doubt, that economic development is the highest priority for borough hall.”
“Having Keith come in and be the director of codes is a huge building block for this town,” Sheila Dugan added. “I think he is right on target with where we need to focus and what we need to move forward with. He has the expertise to do it.”
"These people (in borough hall) are professionals who want to work with you,” Monastra said. “The whole borough is working very hard to change the perception of how they do business down there. If you take the time to include them in on your plans, before you go call your contractor, you will find that your experience will be a very pleasant one.”
PDIDA has improved its collection of assessments, and has been working closely with the borough to make the remaining long-vacant buildings in the downtown accessible and attractive to investors.
“We are collecting probably 90 percent of our assessments right now,” Dugan said. “When we came on board, that was much lower. Of those who haven’t paid, their buildings are up for sheriff sale,” she said, adding, “We still need to get to filling the empty buildings. There are several discussions. I think you’ll see in the coming months several of the buildings being sought after by businesses. That’s what it’s going to take. We need to have some more cooperative building owners willing to sell for a reasonable price. Some of the buildings need extensive renovation and repairs. These are 120-year-old buildings.”
Investor interest in Pottstown is on the rise. “When I started with PDIDA, I had nobody contacting me with any interest for any reason at the office,” Dugan said. “Now, typically I will get 10-20 phone calls over the course of a month from people who are inquiring. Out of those, one may actually have the backing. A lot of the calls are asking about available financial support. Those are typically very small businesses. The inquiries have increased.”
“I agree,” said Steve Bamford. “I’m very happy with the trend I’m seeing, the level of interest. More and more folks are open to considering Pottstown as a location. It really comes down to numbers. You need to have a lot of these conversations to have a handful pay off.”
Bringing additional businesses into Pottstown is a crucial element in the revitalization process. “One of the things that we know will work is, increasing employment in general, in our downtown and in the borough, will help us attract retailers,” Bamford explains. “One of the keys to success in the next year, is recruiting employers, whom will then, in turn, create the demand for the retail.
“VideoRay is a very tangible example of that,” Bamford continued. “I work in our downtown. I’m out to lunch frequently in our downtown, and it’s rare when I’m in an establishment and don’t see some of the VideoRay folks there. Now we just need to multiply that effect.”
Bamford frequently takes businesses that are considering Pottstown through VideoRay, to tour their facility. “VideoRay has been very gracious and very helpful in allowing me to do that,” he said. “I work frequently with Scott Bentley, the owner. He has been very accessible and helpful in the process. I’m confident that we will continue to see some successes in that area, as we continue to try to recruit similar size businesses. We’re not talking about Fortune 500 companies. We’re talking about privately-held employers, that have 20-40 employees.”
Monastra has a suggestion for those interested in a revitalized Pottstown as to how they can assist Steve Bamford in his efforts to attract employers and merchants. “If we want our town to resemble West Chester, or Doylestown or Manayunk, when we go and visit those towns and patronize those businesses, go and talk to the owners of the businesses,” he said. “They’re easy to find. It’s usually the person behind the cash register. Ask them if they would be interested in opening up a store in Pottstown. I do that all the time. If they say yes, I give their name and number to Steve Bamford, for him to follow up,” he said.
“I’ve done that with several businesses who have relocated to the downtown,” Monastra continued. “We don’t have anybody to blame but ourselves if we sit back and take a deck of cards and throw them up in the air and think magically it’s going to come down as a perfectly built house of cards. Take the bull by the horns. Go out to the restaurants and retailers, and ask, would you want to come here? And if they say yes, take their card and give it to Steve Bamford. He’ll jump on it. He’s not the only one. You can’t sit back and say, Steve, carry the sack. If we help him, we’ll get the kind of businesses that we want here.”
Bamford’s office is located inside the TriCounty Area Chamber of Commerce headquarters at 152 E. High Street, Suite 360. He is accessible by calling 610.326.2900, extension 223, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We are being very, very proactive, and we want to have these conversations with anyone who is interested in making an investment, and we feel very good about the direction we are heading,” Bamford said, adding, “A lot of our space is not what you would refer to as turn key. We don’t have a large inventory of space that is ready to be moved into tomorrow. Much of it requires investment. That’s why these deals take time to put together.”
It does take time, but there’s no doubt that good things are starting to happen for the town.
“I see, five-year term, there’s going to be a huge turnover in Pottstown,” Dugan said. “This will be different than what Phoenixville has with restaurants. We’re going to have our mix of VideoRay, and technology companies, restaurants. Eventually we’ll start to see the unique boutiques come in. It is already being worked on. I think very shortly you’ll start to see some more things popping up,” she said.
Andrew Monastra is more energized and enthused about the future of Pottstown than ever. He’s excited about the possibilities, and ever on the lookout for fresh ides. He recently attended a regional planning meeting hosted by Montgomery County.
“One the ideas at this meeting was if we were to have development in Pottstown, what kind would you like?” he said. “And I thought the concept of a high-rise visible from Route 422 would be good. Think about Conshohocken. Twenty years ago you would drive by Conshohocken and it was not the most attractive place. But in the middle, it had this giant, huge high-rise corporate office building (that drew attention and eventually investment to the town). When you were driving on the Schuylkill Expressway and you saw this building rising up from the ashes of Conshohocken, you tended to look over and say hey, what’s that? So we need something in this town, so when people are driving down 422, it turns their head to noticing there’s a place here. If you’re just an exit, it doesn’t mean anything to anybody. You need something other than a sign.”
While it seems unlikely that a developer will build a massive hi-rise building in the middle of Pottstown anytime soon, it’s this type of vision and creative thinking that will propel the borough forward. In the meantime, it’s the small things that will make the biggest difference.
“Volunteers are really key to making events happen,” Dugan adds. “There is no money from the state or the county coming to Pottstown right now. We’re working on shoestring budgets. Volunteers are key. The next time someone wants to complain or criticize on Facebook, come down and volunteer. That’s what is going to improve things. Come to the events that are going on. That’s where things will start to progress.”
About Andrew Monastra
Andrew J. Monastra’s law practice, located at 740 E. High Street in Pottstown, centers around residential and commercial real estate transactions, business formation, resolving complex title issues and serving as underwriting counsel to many federal credit unions.
Monastra is also the owner of Heartland Abstract, Inc., a title insurance agency, and the managing partner of Venture Settlement Services, LP, another affiliated business title agency whose limited partners include banking institutions, mortgage brokers, individual realtors and real estate agencies.
Over the years, Monastra has carved a niche in the representation of federally chartered credit unions, assisting them in mortgage underwriting, title review, document preparation and post closing compliance issues.
Monastra has been practicing law since 1991, forming the current firm in 2000. Before that time he worked in the aerospace industry while earning his juris doctor at night at the Widener University School of Law. Mr. Monastra earned his Masters in Business Administration from Drexel University in 1984 and earned a business degree from Villanova University in 1982.
Monastra’s educational and business experience provide important cornerstones in his transactional law practice. He brings real world experience to his clients and translates complex transactions into a language his clients can understand. He assists clients with choosing a professional realtor, choosing a reputable lender, and choosing a title insurance company. Monastra can explain in plain, common sense language, the difference between what you want to hear and what you need to know, and guide you in the selection of a qualified professional realtor tailored to your specific needs. Throughout his career, Monastra has found that the formation of a cohesive team — realtor, attorney and client — is likely to produce a satisfactory result to the seller.
For additional information, please contact Andrew J. Monastra, P.C. at 484.941.0912, and visit www.monastralaw.com.