Strategy, funding keys to Reading, Berks rebound

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Quality of life for employees, inexpensive business space and a large pool of available workers all are reasons to encourage business in Reading and its downtown, according to local officials.

“There is a huge effort under the current administration, for sound fiscal management to manage the budget,” said Lenin Agudo, community development director for the city. “There are over 90 initiatives in this regard for streamlining and improving the role of government.”

In what was once dubbed as the poorest city in the nation, there are positive signs of strategic plans and a direction for the future, such as small business microloans, strategic plans for development and applications pending for funding for development under state and federal programs.

“We have a couple of opportunities for business owners,” Agudo said. “There is unused office space that averages from $6 to $8 a square foot. That creates an opportunity, but the city has a high rate of vacancy.”

The road to recovery often is difficult.

“Reading is in Act 47, which is another way of saying bankruptcy, so the state is involved for lack of funding,” said Adam Mukerji of the Reading Redevelopment Authority. “It makes it very difficult for impoverished cities to get involved.”

Difficult, but not impossible – as Agudo and Mukerji discovered during a trip to Detroit last November to see what the Motor City is doing to improve its odds following a downturn in manufacturing in that area.

“What we came back with was Detroit is reinventing themselves … there are sections of Detroit that they’re abandoning,” Agudo said. “Imagine telling Wyomissing that they’d give them no power, water, sewer – anything.”

APPLYING FOR FUNDING

While Agudo’s staff is not ignoring any area of Reading, it learned an important lesson – that it is in good shape trying to revitalize 10 square miles compared to more than 200 square miles of blight in Detroit.

“We don’t plan to abandon any area of Reading,” Agudo said. “We have to focus on one block at a time. The trip really taught us how to start our strategic planning.”

Planners are working on projects that could give them more money to bring new businesses to the area under pending applications for Main Street and Keystone Community designations.

“We have worked for nine months with 60 volunteers applying for the Keystone designation,” Agudo said.

According to Agudo, the Keystone Community designation would formally recognize Reading as a place in need of state funding for development.

“The downtown area is prime for revitalization,” Agudo said. “It has to have historical and business value. Downtown Reading is primarily a commercial area.”

GRANTS FOR DOWNTOWN BUSINESSES

His office helps existing and potential businesses apply for and receive grants, the purpose of which is to motivate or incentivize small businesses to go to the downtown.

There are some grants to improve existing facades a facelift, microloans for business and anchor building grants for specially qualified structures, he said.

“There is about $350,000 for microloans so we can provide a loan to businesses in the area,” Agudo said. “We hope to attract a business that can thrive in an urban setting.”

Although officials don’t want to limit the imagination of potential business owners, retail stores do well, particularly those which sell clothes and shoes to urban markets, as do service businesses that sell insurance and real estate in urban areas.

“We’re looking for other types of retail areas,” Agudo said. “We will have an opportunity to impact and provide funding for different [businesses]. We hope to get there in a couple of months.”

MAIN STREET PROGRAM

Outside of Reading, Berks County officials are working toward similar goals for their downtowns.

“We do work the traditional areas that are blighted or in need of revitalization and see what we can do,” said Kenneth Pick of the Berks County Redevelopment Authority.

Some of those areas have included small sections of the boroughs of Hamburg, West Reading, Fleetwood and Cumru Township, he said.

“We’re doing the normal things – housing rehabilitation, assisting with financing, certain areas of public improvement, clearance demolition,” Pick said. “If someone comes to us and is interested with a state or federal program, we can help them.”

According to Pick, his office has helped both Hamburg and West Reading apply for and receive funding through the Main Street program.

There is also funding under the redevelopment assistance capital program, he said.

“We use the increased taxes to pay for some of the projects,” Pick said. “You see an increase in real estate taxes and take a portion of those taxes to help assist in funding that project.”

GOOD HOUSING IS CRUCIAL

But whether inside or outside Reading city limits, Agudo, Mukerji and Pick all tout the quality of life as a benefit of living in Eastern Pennsylvania for any potential employees.

“We have great people [and] we have a great lifestyle,” Pick said. “Housing is affordable and it’s a nice location. You can be in the country in minutes or in a metro area in minutes.”

On the west side of Reading, Entertainment Square – with a major theater and art center – is contiguous with the downtown area under redevelopment and therefore important to the plans underway.

“In Reading, we have a number of very successful economic development projects – the IMAX 11-screen theater and GoggleWorks Center for the Arts and a housing initiative for homes and appliances,” Mukerji said.

“One of the primary concerns in economic development is to make sure you have stable and good housing. We started out by trying to attract people to downtown.”

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