Businesses and developers will have one-stop shopping in Reading’s City Hall, Mayor Vaughn D. Spencer said.
On Friday, more than 100 people gathered for breakfast at Stokesay Castle in Reading to hear the mayor and other officials talk about the progress and plans for the city’s economic revitalization. One of the crucial tenets of that plan is a more business-friendly city administration, said Spencer and another key city official.
Lenin Agudo, the city’s director of community development, talked about the internal changes occurring in City Hall. He said many of the city’s operations have been moved to the building’s first floor to streamline customer service for potential developers when dealing with city permitting and approvals.
He said the city also is piloting an expedited plan review process to fast-track plans needing urgent attention and to handle overflow.
“Internally, we are meeting weekly and working closely as a team to coordinate economic development,” Agudo said. “Externally, we have identified a single point of contact for people interested in doing business in the city.”
Friday’s State of the Community breakfast was hosted by the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce & Industry and also featured other members of the city administration. Along with Spencer, they also shared the city’s economic development strategy, its commitment to revitalize local manufacturing and the successful use of a market value analysis to help the city acquire property investments. The event concluded with a bus tour of three city-owned redevelopment sites.
“Our economic development strategy can be understood in three parts: downtown, neighborhoods and commercial,” Spencer said. “Each of these strategies revolves around improving quality of life and the creation of local employment opportunities.”
Spencer said he worked with the Berks Community Foundation to secure $1.2 million over the next six years to support Main Street initiatives in the city, a program that allows the city access to funding and programs that the state provides. The Main Street program is overseen by the Reading Downtown Improvement District committee.
Spencer also talked about an economic summit held in 2013 for city officials. It was a bid to get the Reading Parking Authority, the redevelopment, housing and water authorities and the Downtown Improvement District on the same page.
“The major authorities realized that economic development helps each of them in their ability to operate,” Spencer said. “It helps their operations affect the potential success of economic development initiatives in the city, and it also helps them with their approach to economic development.”
Adam Mukerji, executive director of the city’s Redevelopment Authority, confirmed the city’s commitment to Act 47’s objective to revitalize local manufacturing and to support walk-to-work employment opportunities. Also known as the Financially Distressed Municipalities Act of 1987, Act 47 empowers the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development to declare certain municipalities as financially distressed. It provides for the restructuring of debt of the municipalities.
Mukerji said the city recently acquired and has begun to aggressively market 50 acres of prime industrial land, know as Riverview Industrial Park, which is a key opportunity for the objectives in Act 47.
“We are committed to bringing manufacturing jobs back to the city,” Mukerji said.
By working together, city authorities pooled resources to incubate the development of Redesign Reading, a community corporation designed to support economic development, the mayor said.
“Redesign Reading will be focusing on strengthening neighborhoods to participate in the economic recovery,” said Brian Kelly, executive director of Redesign Reading. “We will support initiatives that make sure dollars spent in Reading turn over in Reading as many times as possible before leaving.”
Officials also talked about the Reading Market Value Analysis, an economic development tool that the city has been using to target public investments. The study has guided the city’s targeted acquisition of property and potential demolition efforts. Officials said the analysis tool has been instrumental in supporting a 46-unit housing project by a private developer slated to break ground later this year in north Reading.
Also at the event, speaking in support of the mayor and the administration’s efforts, were Christian Leinbach, chair of Berks County Board of Commissioners; Democratic State Sen. Judith Schwank; developer Alan Shuman, owner of Shuman Development Group; and Jon Scott, president and CEO of Greater Reading Economic Partnership.
After the event, Mukerji and Agudo took more than 20 people on a bus tour to three city-owned properties that were recently acquired, including the 49-acre Riverview Industrial Park on Opportunity drive, a three-acre adaptive re-use property at Penn Optical on South Eighth Street and the seven-floor Penn Square building at Fifth and Penn streets in the downtown. The tour was an effort to attract potential investors or developers to the sites.
“I am very pleased to be part of this effort,” Mukerji said. “We are working well together and have begun to usher in the rebirth of Reading.”