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Businesses still waiting for City Hall to stand tall in Reading

By ,
by Hilton
Hotel has
failed to
in the area,
says Alan
Shuman, the
author and
DoubleTree by Hilton Reading Hotel has failed to increase commerce in the area, says Alan Shuman, the author and developer. - (Photo / )

At the beginning of 2016, I was looking forward to the change in Reading's City Hall. In what is a supreme understatement, Reading's previous administration was not business-friendly.

Last year was the first with Mayor Wally Scott in City Hall, and the year finished with a few bright spots in an ocean of disappointment for Reading.

The much-touted opening of the DoubleTree by Hilton Reading Hotel (which promised to attract additional commerce to the Reading area in which the surrounding businesses could share and benefit) and the Big Mill Apartment Building (which continued to enliven the northeastern Reading neighborhoods) were the significant bright spots.

The Big Mill apartments (renovated by my company, Shuman Development Group) did indeed bring upscale living quarters (upper floors) to the neighborhood.

The management team continues to bring businesses that benefit the community to the first two floors (restaurant, pediatric clinic, day care/learning center, etc.).

Additionally, this project has won several awards, such as the Berks County Smart Growth Award and the Community First Fund Development Award.

Conversely, in its first year of operation, the DoubleTree failed to attract even one new convention.

In failing to increase commerce to the area, the DoubleTree instead pulled business laterally from surrounding Berks County hotels and venues.

Not surprisingly, this resulted in other local hospitality operations suffering reduced profits to the point of detriment.

Most prominently, the Abraham Lincoln Hotel, the last of Reading's grand historical hotels from the 1920s, was forced to change its operation from a hotel to an upscale apartment building. (The Lincoln also is a project of Shuman Development Group.)

Reading's 2016 disappointments continued with Pepsi closing its downtown bottling plant. Further, the redevelopment of the city's properties on Penn Square (at Fifth and Penn streets), which was slated to start two years ago, has been scrapped.

Plus, none of the projected 1,000 new jobs that were to be brought downtown over the last 10 years by the Direct Link center development have materialized, which has resulted in nearly half-a-million square feet of downtown office space remaining vacant.

The GoggleWorks II apartments remain stalled; the Elks Club redevelopment (at Fifth and Franklin streets) never commenced; and, although the city took possession of the 50-acre bottling works site (the former Dana site) and the former Penn optical building on South Eighth Street, it has been unable to make any progress toward either site's rehabilitation.

And the property developers during the last mayoral administration walked away from the $36 million Reading Outlet Center Building No. 1 project (at Ninth and Douglass streets) after three years of making zero progress.

The mind boggles, but, as of this writing, the city administration has expressed its opposition for any state assistance programs designed specifically to spur urban revitalization, such as the Keystone Opportunity Zone extensions/expansions or a City Revitalization and Improvement Zone application.

Further, a huge opportunity was missed in 2016 with the city not assisting a single developer to have a development package ready to submit for the largest allocation of new market tax credits ever dispersed by the U.S. Treasury department, the primary focus of which is to catalyze private development in mostly distressed urban areas.

Numerous agencies that received the tax credits were all but begging to do projects in downtown Reading, but City Hall did not/would not work with any private developers to have projects ready for funding.

Once again we are witnessing a City Hall administration unwilling to show the leadership and spirit of cooperation that it was elected and hired to provide.

In the end, it is the small businesses and citizens that are the backbone of our community that continue to suffer the consequences.

The potentially good news: We can always hope for a better 2017.

Alan Shuman is owner and broker of record of Shuman Development Group, which has redeveloped the buildings at the former Reading Outlet Center in the city. He can be reached at 610-736-3033 or sdg@investinreading.com.

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