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

Gloria Steinem

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.