"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.