"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, November 27, 2015

Why Phoenixville? Another Guest Post

The Importance of the Arts

I’m pleased to publish the second guest post in answer to my question “Why Phoenixville?”  It advocates community investment in the arts, a concept with which I agree entirely.  Not every town has a classic theater to remodel, but the arts can be appreciated anywhere.

"Put simply, the rewards of a successful theatre rehabilitation are economic, cultural, historical and civic.  By working to save historic theatres and the communities that support them, we safeguard our links to the past, cultivate a lively present and point the way to a prosperous future."
                                                                                                                          Author unknown

The Association for the Colonial Theatre (ACT) has played and continues to play a prominent role in the revitalization of Phoenixville.  Since the doors of this gem re-opened, the Colonial has provided people with a reason to visit the Borough’s downtown, 360-days-a-year. The welcoming glow of our marquee was the kind of consistent invitation to visitors that was so important in 1999, when options for entertainment in town were few and far-between. The Colonial’s re-opening was a major tipping point in our downtown’s long, tough slough back from economic desolation. Many people and organizations were a part of the long term effort to bring back the energy of the downtown. The Borough simply needed the kind of energy that a vibrant movie theatre bent on becoming a performing arts center could infuse – and the Colonial Theatre (ACT) provided the spark for the revitalization that has brought us to 2015. 

It’s critical to note that none of the activity that we see in the Borough’s downtown could have happened without a strong and committed community. We enjoy a high level of civic engagement in Phoenixville. Upon arrival in what would become my new, adopted hometown, I noticed very quickly that there were a high number of associations directed by strong leaders and willing volunteer workers.  I also noticed the library, hospital, and YMCA were thriving non-profits that enjoyed the generosity of the community.  The evening when I wandered into town for the first time, people were lining the sidewalks for the Halloween parade. The year was 1987 and although there were many shuttered storefronts at the time, I learned quickly that the “bones” of this town (both architecturally and civically) were still quite strong. (Today, years later, the Chamber, the Borough, the business association and many others work together to generate and maintain the energy needed to keep people coming back. Our food truck festivals, First Fridays, Firebird Festival, and other events continue to put Phoenixville on the map as an interesting destination.)

The Colonial Theatre’s complete history can be found on our website. http://thecolonialtheatre.com/about-the-colonial/history/  It had its heyday from the 1930’s – 1950’s, which were Phoenixville’s boom years. Like other steel towns, the steel industry in Phoenixville that sustained a workforce which then supported a business district, began to wane in the 1960’s and 70’s. At about the same time, the King of Prussia Mall was built along with big box theatres. Later, the advent of movie watching at home was a new and cheaper option than the movie palaces in increasingly empty downtowns. Two men and a pipe organ happen to be one of the reasons that Phoenixville’s Colonial Theatre survives today. Jim Breneman purchased the theatre in the mid-70’s in order to house his Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ. He tried to attract local talent for live stage shows while working to build local interest in his organ recitals. Upon his death, Breneman’s friend and business partner Sam LaRosa took over the business, continuing for as long as he could.  Despite the fact that that period included the toughest years for historic theatres like the Colonial, Jim and Sam kept the theatre operational for two decades primarily as a movie theatre and organ concert venue. In the same period many other historic theatres across the country and in nearby towns were lost forever to bulldozers. Without a clear vision for the Colonial or the right organizational structure in place to run the theatre, it became impossible for Sam to continue managing the theatre. So, he put the building up for sale in 1996.

I personally think that the ‘90’s provided a perfect storm of opportunity that pulled Phoenixville from the brink. Our community availed itself of every opportunity at that time, which is when the Colonial Theatre went up for sale. Phoenixville’s caring community members were ready to step-up. The Colonial held so many memories for generations of folks in Chester County. Newcomers in our town recalled similar theatres from their own childhoods and began to dream of its potential. The Association for the Colonial Theatre (ACT) was formed in 1996 by a group of citizens who believed the Colonial Theatre could catalyze the town’s revitalization. Film and live performance would bring visitors back to Phoenixville. It was PAEDCO (Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation) that purchased the building from Sam LaRosa and once the non-profit was formed, PAEDCO sold the 650-seat ‘vaudeville house’ to ACT. At that time, the economy was strong.  People were excited that the Colonial would remain a centerpiece of their community – and they were generous in their support.  ACT raised $450,000 from a large group of citizens and reopened the doors of the Colonial Theatre.  On our opening night on October 1, 1999, over 300 people stood in line to once again take in a film.  On screen that evening was the wonderful German movie, Run Lola Run! – a clear indication that the Colonial Theatre would not be your grandfather’s movie house! ACT promised so much more. Ultimately, if everyone pitched in, there would be a performing arts center and the downtown would once again be a bustling shopping and dining destination.  ACT asked that our neighbors “Invest in a Community Treasure”.

Since that time, over 500,000 people have visited Phoenixville in order to enjoy a movie, concert or community event at the Colonial Theatre.  Over $2m has been raised by ACT in the first 10 years of opening in 1999 and used for improvements in the theatre. These have included a beautiful new façade, new seats, expanded restrooms, a new roof, office space and a third floor theatre/meeting space.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Americans for the Arts, and many other organizations have demonstrated a clear connection between saving local downtown theatres like our Colonial Theatre and community revitalization.  For every dollar spent in a theatre, patrons spend an additional $2.1 (the accepted multiplier) on meals, parking, and shopping. Secondary jobs are also added to local economies when theatres can drive traffic into downtown areas. In the first year of opening, 18,000 people who had no prior reason to visit traveled to Phoenixville.  One citizen who took note was the owner of Black Lab Bistro. He saw the potential and opened very shortly after the Colonial. Other restauranteurs followed suit and today, the choices for lunch or dinner are fabulous and continue to grow. A recent retail trend in Phoenixville that seems to be successful is vintage clothing and household items. There are now 4-5 lovely, small shops with curated vintage offerings. Phoenix Village Arts Center and Diving Cat Studio are two additional outstanding arts endeavors.
Many examples exist across the country of towns that have also saved their historic theatre and then witnessed the reversal of economic downturns. In these other cases, the decline begins to slow and eventually, reverses completely. The process takes time, patience, money, and vision and the same ‘perfect storm’ that occurred in Phoenixville. It begins with a committed community, the spark of an interest in downtown development and ‘walkable’ communities, newly arrived investors with vision, and a theatre ripe for renovation.

ACT recently purchased the Historic Bank of Phoenixville building next door to the Colonial Theatre, which was more recently the home of The Phoenix newspaper. In the works are plans for two more theatres and a large lobby with more patron amenities. Once the renovations are complete, ACT is likely to triple our business per expansion demand studies. With the growth in restaurants, retailers, other arts organizations, and residential development in the Borough, we are very excited about the Colonial Theatre’s next decade. We look forward to continuing to work alongside the many people and organizations who have made this revitalization of our downtown possible

Mary Foote, Executive Director                                                                                                        

Association for the Colonial Theatre (ACT)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Make It Safe, Clean It Up And They Will Come

Part IV:  Put People First; Business Will Follow

I’m not going to suggest a third priority for municipal governments.  The first two stand far above the other (very worthy, mind you) contenders for prioritization.  They deserve the spotlight.  No third priority is close enough to warrant being placed beside them.  They are basic needs, the foundation. 

Unfortunately, amid the press of business within municipal governments, that truth is often overlooked; they become just two of many things to do, and are given solely to a particular department to accomplish.  That’s wrong, particularly in regard to Cleaning It Up. 

Having made such a sweeping declaration, I must simultaneously acknowledge (again) how difficult it is to give the necessary focus, and attention, to the two top priorities.  I’ve mentioned a few reasons already, but a fundamental one is so obvious that it is too often overlooked: even the most important priorities tend to be obscured by the very volume of things a municipal government must do. 

In order to keep it simple, let’s divide those many things into two groups, things that MUST be done, and those that don’t but offer compelling arguments to do anyway.  The first category is larger than you might think, and it deserves being capitalized.  One of the discoveries every new member of a municipal council (or any other division of representative government, for that matter) quickly makes is how much time is taken up by things that not only must be done, they must be done in a rigidly determined manner.  A municipal government not only must do them, it must do them according to a schedule and standards that are entirely out of its control.  These required actions not only take up a great deal of time, but also represent a significant, and repetitive, drain on the energy of municipal government personnel. 

Let’s also keep in mind that municipal council members are decidedly part time; each must continue to retain an income source from outside.  This requirement imposes strict—if variable—limits on the amount of time a council member can actually allocate to the job.  Sadly, Norristown Pa., the specific subject of these quite general posts, recently experienced the consequences when a respected, hard-working council member lost that reliable income.  It is sad, and Norristown is the less for it, but the rules are the rules. 

The legal requirements of the job are rigid, and these days there is little room (and, with social media, even less cover) for the unfortunate situations, let alone the kind of shenanigans that used to be common in “the good old days.”*  Government is all about the handling of the people’s money by a selected few, who are accountable periodically to the people for how they performed that job.  That means following a carefully laid out, not to mention repetitive, series of actions at specified times; the laws are many but clear.  This all takes time and attention, because after all, we are talking about the people’s money here.

Despite the inevitability of their actions being subject to questions of motive, from different sides at different times, municipal council members tend to get sucked into their part-time job, giving little thought to how much they are making by the hour.  I have previously argued that people who run for an office such as municipal representative are givers, not takers.  Some have disagreed, and sharply.  That’s because the exception always stands out in one’s memory.  They certainly exist (I am personally aware of a few) but they are exceptions, and constitute a small minority of the total number who voluntarily seek out these kind of part time jobs.  I would also argue that overall, greater damage is done by the honest but misguided members of a municipal council pursuing what they thought was a good idea.  Any nominations for that category come to mind?  If you can’t think of any, you haven’t been paying attention; they just keeping happening, as the individual council members come and go.

That’s why it is so important to draw up a plan—a simple one, based on the two priorities—and then stick to it (I am not, obviously, referring to The Comprehensive Plan; that is an entirely different subject for another day).  Once a municipal council has set aside time—and money—to do those things that must be done when and how it must do them, then it’s time for the two-priority focus.  Adopt a security strategy of cooperation with the community, not confrontation.  Enforce your codes; be particularly harsh on yourself.  Spend what is necessary to achieve these two priorities (exercising financial responsibility of course, which in this discussion I take as assumed).  Then, with what time and energy you have left, consider those options that just seem to keep coming down the pike, from all directions.  But look upon them as gravy, not meat and potatoes.

When considering each and every optional activity and expenditure that appears, first subject it to a simple, two question test.  One, will it make the community more secure? Two, will it help to clean things up?  If the answer to either question is yes, then proceed, despite the priority you have already put on both, because what you are already doing can always be improved upon by new ideas, if they are the right ones.

If the answer to both questions is no, then subject each project in turn to this question:  Will this project require cutting back on anything—including time—we spend on achieving the two basic priorities?  If the answer is yes, then just say no to the project, regardless of how attractive it may seem (those projects that come attached to grants, and thus appear to be “free money” are particularly sexy, and hard to resist).

You do this until the first two priorities are largely achieved (again, you can’t please everyone), then watch what happens.  When word spreads of the clean, safe neighborhoods your town offers, at discount prices compared to those anywhere near around it, the rush will be on.  You won’t have to spend money to lure businesses to Main Street; like all businesses, they will follow the people, the market, and plans/good intention be damned.  Attempts to jumpstart or shortcut that process by government fiat do not have a high success rate.  Go back to the basics and put people first.  Much will then follow.

*If you want a sustained record of collective fiscal irresponsibility, I refer you to Norristown, Pa., in the early 1970s, as briefly described in my book What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls.