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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, May 20, 2016

Dear Stan Huskey: I’m Sticking To My Guns On This One Too!

I utilized my most recent blog post to differ with the published opinion of Stan Huskey, editor of the Times Herald newspaper, that “the business of Norristown should be business.”  Such an attitude, I argued, fails to appreciate how history has changed the realities of living along the lower Schuylkill Valley.  He recently replied, prompting this post in return.  

First, I must clear up one not-so-minor point before getting to the relevant ones.  Stan wrote in his column that

“Tolle believes that business doomed America to the Great Depression.”

I don’t believe any such thing.  Here is what I actually wrote in the disputed post:

It was a basic assumption of the times.  Of course, that assumption and others closely-allied to it led to the Great Depression, but never mind that for now.”  

“It” was the attitude summed up in Coolidge’s expression “the business of America is business,” and it definitely led to the Great Depression.  I am in very good company on that one.

But never mind that for now.  We are not talking about old, no-longer relevant aphorisms, but about the changes that rendered them that way, and how understanding these should alter a municipality’s traditional outlook and priorities.  It’s really more about attitude than actions, because actions derive from the interaction of attitude and assumptions.  Many of the attitudes held by Norristown residents and their assumptions about “the good old days” need to be fundamentally altered for them to apply today and in the future.  Still, I believe there is less that divides us than that which unites us on this subject.  Here is a quote from a post dated October 2, 2015, that summarizes my general approach:  The point is not whether or not a municipality should try to attract businesses, but rather what kind of businesses it should try to attract.

What triggered this initial series of posts about Norristown was my learning that the Municipal Council had put together a financial package to ease the way onto Main Street for a restaurant.  A restaurant is what I have termed a “service” business.  My definition means that its primary market is local, a combination of within town and not far away.  A municipality should not focus on bringing such businesses to town, let alone pave the way financially.  “Service” businesses will begin to arrive—of their own volition—as a town’s population increases due to people moving in who possess disposable income.  You do not need to “bring” such businesses to town; scarce resources are better spent making the town itself safer and cleaner, to attract the base clientele that any such recreation business needs.

Yes, that’s “recreation business.”  I didn’t think that Stan meant the return of a steel mill when he said “business,” and he should understand that when I say residence and recreation, I am referring to businesses.  Not only are they businesses, they are the type that attracts ancillary businesses.  Today, such businesses like to locate in picturesque river valleys, particularly if they are also accessible to the major road network. Residence and recreation appear to be doing fairly well for Conshohocken and Phoenixville these days.

In the final analysis, the only real disagreement I have with Stan’s explication of his stance about business comes with this statement:

“But let’s cut to the chase here, Norristown can be the cleanest, safest place on all of Pennsylvania, but if there isn’t anything (read: businesses) downtown to attract people, they’re still not going to come….Bring an upscale boutique to town….Open a new distillery, which is happening on Main Street….Build a thriving arts district with a variety of offerings, which we’re doing with the now-established Theatre Horizon and the return of the Centre Theater….And then bring a restaurateur to town and let him or her see the crowds coming out of the theaters and he or she will want to open an incredible new place that is going to attract even more people to town."
If Norristown were to become even close to the cleanest, safest place in all of Pennsylvania, it wouldn’t need to attract either businesses or people.  Both would be beating down the doors to become part of such a community.  You wouldn’t have to bring a restaurateur to town, because he or she would have already heard all he or she needs to know.  You can’t simply “Bring an upscale boutique to town”; that’s not how it works.  Upscale boutiques locate among communities of upscale people.  Want to “bring” upscale businesses to town?  Focus on the town.  Up-and-coming communities do not need to attract businesses; the fact that they are up-and-coming is sufficient.  That’s why you focus on the community—on its people—and not on attracting businesses. 
One final note, if I may.  In his riposte, Stan observed that
Clean and safe are one of the key components of revitalization, and if Tolle had been following along with the bouncing ball he would know I’ve been writing about that as well, and he did reference one of my columns from last year, so…
I do, in fact, read Stan’s columns on a regular basis, and have for longer than I can remember.  He has been a consistent advocate for Norristown, one that the community definitely needs.  His repeated return to the subject of property tax demonstrates that his grasp of the fundamental issues is sound; there is really no more important issue than that one.  The fact that this is my first published disagreement over the years should indicate that we are not that far apart in our viewpoints. 
I am less certain that he reads my blog posts (although they are available in the Times Herald digital edition).  This is no place to repeat—yet again—some basic truisms that I have offered before.  So I simply ask Stan—and you all—to read my series of posts entitled “Make It Safe, Clean It Up and They Will Come,” which were published from 10/2/15 through 11/13/15, and the most recent series on Norristown’s pending revival, which began on 1/29/16.  They explain why The Business of Norristown Should Be To Make It A Safe And Clean Community.  
 Let me end this post by reaffirming my continued, unqualified support for the next “Norristown Rising” roundtable.  In Stan’s words, it will focus on
“What do we need to do to make sure Norristown is clean and safe?”

That’s the issue, the biggest issue of them all.  I encourage you to show up, and make your voice heard.  This one is about YOU.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Should The Business of Norristown, Pa. Be Business? A Dissent

Norristown, Pa., has several advocates, some in positions of authority and others who simply care and try to organize the community to move forward.  Few, if any, are better placed than Stan Huskey, editor of the local newspaper, the Times Herald.  He may not be in authority, but he certainly possesses a bully pulpit.  He organizes the “Norristown Rising” roundtables, and decides on their topics.  That’s why I take no pleasure in disputing a recent pronouncement of his, but I must.

To promote the most recent “Norristown Rising” roundtable, Stan laid out a vision for Norristown, saying,

“Personally, I’m going to have to go with the Calvin Coolidge theory that the business of Norristown should be business.”

I respectfully disagree.  History suggests something quite different.  I view Stan’s position as an example of remembering history instead of learning from it.  Stan is correct in his memory of the past, and of Calvin Coolidge.  While that pithy expression about business has become attached to Coolidge’s name, it was equally applicable at every level of government in pretty much every place during his day.  Back then, Norristown government reflected the Coolidge attitude, as did almost all municipal, county and state governments.  The business of Norristown was business.  It was a basic assumption of the times.  Of course, that assumption and others closely-allied to it led to the Great Depression, but never mind that for now.  The real point is, as I often phrase it, “that was then; but this is now, and things have changed.”

Boy, have they!  In fact, some very important things have changed a full 180 degrees.  Back in “the good old days,” the business of every Schuylkill River town was business, both manufacturing and commerce.  Factories fill the floodplain, with the main commercial street close by.  The two lowest priorities for the floodplain were residence and recreation.  Well, guess what?  Both the factories and commercial streets are gone now, and as both Phoenixville and the Conshohockens can testify, the growth industries are residence and recreation.

If the Norristown Municipal Council were to make business their business, they would be making an enormous mistake.  That would be a misapplication of scarce resources.  I have already identified a municipality’s two highest priorities, and business wasn’t one of them.  It ranks high, but well after Clean It Up and way below Make It Safe.

Don’t jump to the opposite conclusion, that I am in some way “anti-business.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  First, I fully support an earlier Huskey question, “Is Norristown business-friendly?”  That is a super-important question, and one that Norristown should strive to make true.  On that subject and others closely related, I refer you to a previous post, on October 2, 2015, entitled “Make It Safe, Clean It Up and They Will Come, [Part I].”

My point in that post was businesses that service the local population will establish themselves when that population is adding people with disposable income, most likely younger.  Financial incentives to lure such businesses are a bad bet and worse policy.  Save that for those businesses that are considering locating in town, but will not depend on locals for their market.  They are your financial net gainers.

But most of all, make it your policy that people come first.  Make It Safe and Clean It Up.  Then they—both people and businesses—will come to Norristown/Bridgeport.  As for people, I’m not talking about those who know that their housing voucher goes further in those communities.  They currently constitute a disproportionate component of the population, so no one should cry foul if their consistent numbers become a smaller part of the population (Of course, they won’t cry foul, they’ll cry “Gentrification,” but I’m getting way ahead of myself here). 

I am speaking of those people—they tend to be younger—that are law-abiding and possess disposable income (there should be no further qualifications).  So what will bring such people to Norristown/Bridgeport?  To repeat: Residence and Recreation.  Along the lower Schuylkill River, what was last is now first, because, well, that was then and this is now.  History is all about change. 

As for businesses, let’s face it, they will probably be bars and restaurants, i.e., recreation.  But mix in some new riverside residences, and once word spreads of a safe, clean pair of communities with a growing nightlife that face each other across a beautiful river, directly accessible to several trails, all else can pretty much follow.  This includes those businesses that might want to locate in such a community that is also directly accessible from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, just as an incentive for their employees.  They need not have any connection to Norristown at all, as long as they pay their taxes.  They will be the ones that create the rush-hour traffic jams (yes, the New Norristown must actually seek the return of the very same thing that helped to destroy Old Norristown, but I’m getting way ahead of myself again here).  But all things considered, wouldn’t that be a net gain?

I am much happier to support the topic of the next “Norristown Rising.”  Stan phrases it as a question:
“What do we need to do to make sure Norristown is clean and safe?”
That IS the question, not the only question, but the most important one by far.  It’s what I’ve been saying all along.  So attend this one, and make your voice heard.

Having begun with a charming but no longer relevant aphorism, let’s close with another, still relevant if significantly modified.  It’s the one that goes “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”  In truth, it is those that attempt to repeat history who are doomed.  Don’t just remember history; learn from it.