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PERKING UP IN POTTSTOWNBusinesses, officials team to boost revival efforts, momentum

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PHOTO/BRIAN PEDERSEN
More people are showing an interest in not only opening a business in Pottstown, but in moving there, as well.
PHOTO/BRIAN PEDERSEN More people are showing an interest in not only opening a business in Pottstown, but in moving there, as well.

With wide streets, diverse businesses and walkability, downtown Pottstown appears to have coveted assets that make a small town thrive.

When that’s coupled with the efforts of the borough’s residents, business owners and officials to invest in the downtown and promote its benefits, there’s potential for revitalization with lasting effect.

In fact, a revival is already occurring, thanks to more millennials moving to town, business owners getting involved in the community, marketing efforts, help from local agencies and town officials, property availability and momentum as investors and others see opportunity.

“We’ve come a long way in five years,” said Sheila Dugan, Main Street manager for Pottstown.

A town of 5.5 square miles, Pottstown has seen a bit of new business growth the past few years, particularly in its downtown. Over the years, though, much industry left the town, which officials say prompted a need for redevelopment.

Investors, small-business owners and borough officials say the already stable base of businesses is poised for more growth as new shops, restaurants and offices keep opening on a regular basis.

The downtown covers 112 buildings over six blocks, said Dugan, who works on retaining businesses – including helping them to acquire loans for new and upgraded façades – and directs new businesses to available downtown sites.

The downtown recently saw several new age-type businesses open in addition to restaurants, healthy living-type stores and the start of an outdoor farmers market.

“We had seven businesses come in last year; we have six businesses that will be in by the end of this year,” Dugan said. “We are running out of buildings in the downtown, which is a good thing.”

QUALITY OF LIFE

Dugan works closely with Peggy Lee-Clark, executive director for the Pottstown Area Industrial Development Inc., which represents all of Pottstown’s commercial development.

“We want quality of life and safe neighborhoods; we want people moving in,” Lee-Clark said. “All of those indicators are important to the thriving of the community.”

Many of the town’s building facades are beautiful, she said, but when investors get into the buildings, they often find they need a lot of money to upgrade them.

“You want to support businesses that have traffic,” Lee-Clark said. “We have focused on the downtown in the last year, which has been successful.”

LIVE, WORK, PLAY

More people are showing an interest in not only opening a business in Pottstown, but in moving there, as well. People want an urban environment that they can afford, Lee-Clark said.

Lee-Clark’s organization is working to set up the infrastructure to attract workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

The Montgomery County borough also has many people who work from their homes, and she is looking to create a co-working space in the downtown to fulfill that need.

The downtown has seen a variety of restaurant openings, from Caribbean to Indian and Mexican, said Cathy Skitko, director of communications for The Hill School, a boarding school. Hobart’s Run, a neighborhood revitalization initiative of the school named for a stream that runs through the borough, strives to promote economic development for the town.

EMBRACING CHANGE

The Hill School recently hosted an investors’ conference that created a lot of energy and positive feedback, Skitko said.

“Business owners are open to ideas,” Lee-Clark said. “I think that’s always a creative tension those businesses can serve in this economy. I think you have to embrace what it can be.”

Many people may want Pottstown to be as it once was, rather than what reality dictates, particularly with the decline of physical stores.

“In the Amazon world, that doesn’t work in this environment,” Lee-Clark said.

The diversity of Pottstown’s businesses also is a strength. Not only does it have independent, small businesses lining its downtown, but it also is home to a Walmart outside its urban core on Shoemaker Road.

COLLABORATIVE EFFORT

Promoting and boosting Pottstown’s business potential is a collaborative effort among the industrial development agency, Main Street organization, Hobart’s Run and business owners.

For example, business owners funded and created the “I Pick Pottstown” slogan, which appears on promotional items, including signs and other materials.

“I’ve been conducting focus groups with business owners,” Dugan said.

“I’ve gotten a lot of people who are more engaged with helping the community. A lot of younger people are coming in.”

SOMETIMES, A SIMPLE IMPROVEMENT

While the town is walkable and bike friendly, in some cases, simple touches to facades and storefronts could enhance the image of the downtown, according to Lee-Clark.

“There are a lot of businesses here and really successful businesses, but what’s not here is window dressing,” Lee-Clark said.

Sometimes a business just needs a cleaning to show somebody cares, she added.

INTEREST BY INVESTORS

Adam Burke, owner of Lily’s Grill on High Street in the downtown, said he talks to many people considering an investment in Pottstown. Burke has owned his restaurant in Pottstown for several years and is one of the owners of the newly revamped Pottstown Farmers Market and Pottstown United Brewing Co., which opened in May.

“We’ve been trying to get other people coming in with new revenue streams,” Burke said, in reference to encouraging new investors.

Pottstown had a longstanding negative economic image because many large businesses left through the years. But, according to Burke, in reality it has many assets, such as affordable real estate, plenty of parking, wide roads and pedestrian friendly sidewalks.

The borough could use more restaurants and possibly boutique shops.

AESTHETICS

Steve Everett is another Pottstown business owner and part of an investment group that bought several properties in the downtown a year ago after seeing the borough’s potential.

His properties include New York Plaza, Prince’s Bakery and Ice Cream Café, an ice cream shop that recently opened.

The aesthetics of the downtown lured Everett and the other investors to buy properties.

“We came into the town looking at Prince’s Bakery and coming down High Street and seeing how gorgeous High Street was and is. … We noticed the acceptance of new investors in the town,” said Everett, who lives in Media. “We felt very welcomed.”

SAW THE MOMENTUM

Everett said his group plans to buy other properties in Pottstown.

“That’s why we wanted to get involved,” he said. “We saw the investment opportunity and got a fair deal on a building and saw the growth starting to happen.”

Access to the Schuylkill River trail, along with the wide streets of the downtown and easy access to Route 422, are a few other assets that drew him to invest, along with the architecture in place to support development.

ENTICING BIGGER BRANDS

While there is not much of a nightlife or enough places yet to eat, Everett said, there’s really no reason for people driving through the borough to bypass it.

Adding more restaurants, a wine bar, a repurposed furniture store and possibly a Trader Joe’s would encourage bigger brands to come into Pottstown, Everett said.

There’s even an ax-throwing business to open, possibly this fall, in the Ellis Mills Building on High Street, another property owned by Everett.

He plans to call it Split Ends Axe Throwing and hopes to open a brewpub on the first floor.

OTHER OPPORTUNITIES

Beyond the downtown, Pottstown offers other investment opportunities, including possibly a hotel, particularly since The Hill School often draws about 1,000 people for events, said Twila Fisher, manager of community and economic development for The Hill School.

The SunnyBrook Ballroom and its neighboring restaurant, Gatsby’s, are destinations, she added.

“The Hill School really tries to support local businesses,” Skitko said. “I’m sure we would support a hotel.”

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