Friday, June 7, 2013

Norristown "the next hot, popping thing"

Carolyn Davis, Inquirer Staff Writer

 A Latin phrase adorns Norristown's official seal. Fervet opus - "the work boils."
And it once did. Norristown's mighty industrial base and status as the seat of Montgomery County government helped muscle the area to prosperity.
That was decades ago. As nearby county seats faced many of the same challenges and evolved into communities bubbling with energy, Norristown flailed.

"Everybody wants to see the county seat improve," said Montgomery County Commissioner Leslie S. Richards. "We're one of the wealthiest counties in the commonwealth, and [residents] want to see a county seat that resembles that."

Municipal Council President Gary H. Simpson promises better days are coming: "Norristown is the next hot and popping thing."
For that to happen, Norristown will have to overcome some daunting demographics.
Compared with the region's other county seats - Doylestown (Bucks), West Chester (Chester), and Media (Delaware) - Norristown has the lowest median household income, the greatest percentage of residents below the poverty line, and the smallest percentage of residents with a high school diploma or college degree, according to 2010 census figures.

Much of Norristown's poverty is concentrated in its relatively large African American and Latino communities. About 55 percent of the county's subsidized housing vouchers are used in Norristown, officials said.

"Being the county seat, we probably hold the vast majority of all the social services" in the county, Simpson said. As a result, "everyone for whatever need they have tend to show up on our doorstep."
Norristown - the county seat since 1784 - once was a hub of factories producing hosiery, knitting machines, shirts, and other goods. Customers filled Main Street businesses.

That bustle ended in the 1960s with the opening of the Plymouth Meeting and King of Prussia malls.
Drained of shoppers, Main Street today is a hodgepodge of small restaurants, nonprofit agencies, law offices, mom-and-pop markets, and shops that cash checks, buy gold, and sell cellphone plans.
It has suffered, too, from the access to nearby office parks.

"A lot of businesses that were associated with county government functions have moved out to the suburbs - lawyers, doctors, accountancy firms," said Jeffrey Doshna, who is familiar with Norristown's plight as an instructor in the Department of Community and Regional Planning at Temple University-Ambler.
Many investors and outsiders avoid Norristown because of its image, fueled partly by crime.
Though there was a spurt of fatal shootings last year, Simpson said he thought outsiders looked at Norristown's large African American and Latino communities and slapped them with a high-crime label.
Official corruption also tainted the town's reputation.
In 2006, ex-Mayor Ted LeBlanc and former Municipal Administrator Anthony Biondi were found guilty on various corruption charges.

Then there are the projects that tried but tumbled.
A county-funded effort to redevelop the Logan Square shopping center recently fizzled out when the developer declared bankruptcy.

A previous county commission agreed to an unusual financing arrangement that left Montgomery County on the hook for its $25 million investment in the project. Why did commissioners take on such a large financial risk? Because Norristown was in a desperate situation, some of those officials said.
No one else will help.

"I've tried to get grants for years to promote revitalization of Norristown. Everyone writes a support letter, but no one writes a check," said Jeffrey Featherstone, director of Temple-Ambler's Center for Sustainable Communities.

Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties - whose seats of government are smaller boroughs than Norristown surrounded generally by more affluent communities - offer lessons on county-seat revival.
Media was still trying to find its niche in the late 1970s and early '80s, after the Granite Run and Springfield Malls siphoned customers from downtown, Mayor Bob McMahon said. The crime rate was high then compared with today - at its worst, there were as many as 200 burglaries a year, for instance, in the late 1970s. Now, that number is in single digits.

First, McMahon said, the community improved public safety. Next, it attracted the businesses most likely to be used by courthouse workers, lawyers, and residents seeking county services.
In the 1990s, a few key businesses - Trader Joe's, Iron Hill Brewery &Restaurant, Fellini Cafe - were wooed to set up shop. Downtown Media now has about 20 restaurants and a nightlife.
Like Norristown, Doylestown struggled years ago. It was a borough people wanted to drive through - not stop in - when Route 611 was the best way for trucks and others to go from the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Ottsville in Upper Bucks.

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