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Wouldn't it have happened anyway?

As discussion continues about the contribution the West Chester BID has had towards the revitalization of the downtown area, the question is sometimes asked: "Wouldn't it have happened anyway?"

Clearly, West Chester's downtown revitalization was caused by a number of supporters both public and private. But the BID was an essential component that brought the whole of the downtown together to create and implement a sustainable 'Destination Downtown' campaign that was beyond any individual actions that took place.

The National Trust Main Street Center, created in 1980 as a clearing house of downtown revitalization information located in Washington, DC, has determined that there are four essential approaches that a downtown must use for a successful program:
- a local organization governed by downtown stakeholders;
- a clear design plan that embraces historic preservation;
- an active business recruitment component;
- broadbase marketing activities.

In 1999, West Chester had none of these, save for the Borough's Department of Commerce with a single employee that performed economic development activities at a cost of about $60,000 annually. Downtown stakeholders were not organized; there was no agency to champion historic preservation (although some HARB regulations existed); no business recruitment practices were in place; and destination marketing was non-existent -- no logo, no brochure, no website, no public relations.

Clearly, the situation that was in place in 1999 could not have spurred revitalization. Downtown was not destitute at that time, but nevertheless found itself at the end of the longest economic expansion in American history with little to show for it. While Chester County was becoming the fastest growing and wealthiest county in Pennsylvania, four vacant structures existed at the corner of Gay and High Streets. West Chester needed to take serious action to compete in the marketplace. And it did.

In 2001, the Business Improvement District, representing a partnership between the Borough and the downtown commercial property owners, implemented a series of programs that would promote downtown West Chester as a destination. West Chester now has the market brand, print materials, internet presence, and public relations message that competitively positions it as a destination. Most important, it's able to effectively market to millions of potential visitors.

The outcome of these programs is that West Chester is now regarded as a shopping and dining destination. The increase in customer traffic has spurred business development. Property values doubled, then doubled again -- and then doubled again. This allowed for further investment in new development and historic renovations. The number of downtown businesses swelled from fewer than 300 to over 500. The number of restaurants more than doubled.

By 2012, the downtown property owners ended up paying $275,000 of a $360,000 program while the Borough provided $85,000. For that fee, the Borough was participating not only in supporting downtown, but also community oriented programs such as Elm Street which raised funds for neighborhood improvements that only the BID is qualified to instigate.

Haven't other Pennsylvania municipalities flourished without a downtown program?

Norristown, the county seat of Montgomery County, has not prospered. There is no formal downtown organization despite efforts to create one. In fact, the downtown is being described as having "suffered in recent years."

The City of Chester is a community with a university, a downtown train station, and a historic heritage that includes William Penn, George Washington, and Martin Luther King. Indeed, the Avenue of the States may be considered one of the most historic areas in the nation. Yet downtown Chester languishes as little more than a boarded-up ghost town.

There are, of course, communities that are flourishing. And each have active and sustainable downtown organizations. These include Kennett Square, with a budget larger that of West Chester's; Media, with a downtown organization older than that of West Chester's; and Oxford, a rural Main Street program.

Dolyestown, the county seat of Bucks County, does not have a formal downtown organization but rather one driven by the municipality. It may be described as perhaps the wealthiest borough in the greater Philadelphia region. But there are challenges. The only downtown hotel -- the Doylestown Inn -- even with substantial improvements, is bankrupt and now closed. Downtown parking, rather than creating revenue, is a cost burden.

It is clear that the marketplace by itself cannot be counted on to create a robust local economy. It happens when the community joins together to create a vision, develop a plan, and then has the political will to invest in it.

For West Chester, the most important partner for economic vitality is the Borough itself. Without the Borough's support, it could not begin to happen. Downtown stakeholders knew this in 2000 and are painfully aware of this today. Other partnerships that the BID has depended on are now forced to withdraw their support for economic reasons. This makes the Borough's support more important, and more valuable, than ever before.

contact: Malcolm Johnstone

Also See:

Borough Council proposes $45,000 cut to the BID budget


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