Core Community Members

There are some places that it will never revitalize their central business district.  Sometimes people are happy with the way that things are and there is no inclination toward any change in the status quo. Other times there is just a lack of interest in the way the town progresses. The way a town presents its public space is a symbol of the leadership in the town.

There are times where a town has not changed over the period of 40 years and the same jeweler and hardware store occupy prominent places in the downtown and everyone likes the way it currently situated. I remember being in Lock Haven, PA, and the first day I was called in by the local realtor and told, “we like things the way they are.” The town was nice, and by doing a little promotion and a little historic restoration, they were happy with my job performance. 

Problems happen when that hardware store guy dies, or the jeweler wants to retire and does not care one way or the other if the store is rented. Situations in a downtown could turn on a dime. Downtown Phoenixville was all hustle and bustle when there were three shifts at the mill. It went down to nothing after the mill closed. All that was left were those businesses that had made life colorful back in the day.

It is the leadership, which provides the town’s sense of direction. Some people would argue that the leadership is the town council, while others would say leaders are in the financial community. Whoever it is, in that community, they need to pay attention when times are good, to make sure that enough attention is paid to the public places within a community. Standard maintenance, and community initiatives all make for a better appearing community.

So why do things go bad in communities? There can be a number of reasons. One of the big reasons is an inability to “pull the trigger.” Public groups are sometime afraid of failure, afraid they are unable to produce without having a guarantee. I had that problem when I was the Director of the Philadelphia’s New Kensington CDC, because they had never done it before, and it was a question of “what if we fail?” 

I also heard the self-doubt when I was on South Street. They wanted to have a festival and I had outlined shutting down the street and having the restaurants going in the street with an extension of premises for alcohol sales… with bands, skateboard area and vendors. I said, “Why would you even question this,” and again people were leery of doing it because it might be a failure and hurt the reputation of the street.

Other times you will encounter people who have a conviction about something. In Downingtown, they had a guy on council who would quote John Locke and profess a dislike for grants. He said grants made his taxes go up, and raised public opposition to any funding requests. I tried to explain it was a recapture of state tax dollars offered competitively back to the community. The argument was for naught because he had a conviction… right or wrong people tend to stand behind their entrenched thoughts.

Some communities are adverse to change. I think that is the case in Downingtown, as they delayed the Kardon Park project from the time I was there, then later, ended up with another project that was objectionable to the community. Kardon Park is still contaminated and has two hits of lead that are not remediated. I remember once in Downingtown knocking down an old factory, with PCB contamination, and people being against it.

There are times when elected officials make personnel mistakes and no matter how much consensus there is, the technical capacity is so limited that nothing is done. I have seen that in a number of places. The person in charge is afraid to pull the trigger on a project or an initiative because they lack training and have self-doubt. The bad administrator problem is one of the hardest to remedy, and most times, when that is the case, progress just has to wait until their employment is over.

What is important, is that through all of the self-doubt, and all of the off the wall hocus pocus that goes on with local characters, that the town has voices from the people who could offset some of the wrong turns that towns can make. People have to care enough to get up in public, or maneuver behind the scenes to keep things on track.

There are many potential pitfalls to making progress or maintaining the current market position. Successful towns have a core of concerned people who will look out for the town. Even though some people have a bent on issues, many are sincere and do not become obstructionists if things do not go their way. It could be the stay at home mom down the street from where her mom lived, to the corporate executive who was transferred in from Honolulu. They come in all shapes and sizes. 

It is what I call the “core community members.” People who will try to look out for the town to make sure that it does not go astray— people who are involved and have some understanding of the town. It is that core group, and that commitment to progress, that can help overcome some of the situations that happen, when there is a negative influence or a lack of initiative.

Those towns have an increased chance of revitalization.