Cathy Skitko and Twila Fisher look around Pottstown wide-eyed, pointing out each new storefront and refurbished home, every colorful “I Pick Pottstown!” sticker in a resident’s window and piece of beautiful architecture.
It’s as if they’re seeing the borough for the first time, when really they’ve been working for years to try to make it a hot place to live, work, and socialize.
“One of the biggest challenges has been we need to get out the positive stories,” Skitko said. “There’s so many reasons we can be — not like Phoenixville, but can do the same things.”
Skitko and Fisher, who work together at the borough’s prestigious Hill School, established Hobart’s Run in 2017 to improve safety and cleanliness, promote home ownership (about half of the units in the borough are rentals), and encourage business development. They’ve organized street cleanups, started a facade-improvement grant program for residences, renovated properties, brought investors together for conferences, and installed security cameras in their designated improvement area and in the borough at large.
The women are part of a cohort of people working to bring a second life to Pottstown, a Montgomery County borough with about 22,000 residents and a median household income of $45,000. For years, county and local officials have worked to revitalize the former industrial town, but their efforts stalled, due in part to the 2008 recession and negative public perception, they said.
Yet in recent years, High Street and surrounding areas have welcomed new restaurants, stores, and businesses. Still, there are plenty of vacant storefronts — certain stretches near the Hill School look more like a ghost town than a downtown — but officials, residents, businesspeople, and investors say they’ve noticed a new energy in the area.
Within the last year, an ax-throwing venue, a revamped farmer’s market with a vodka bar and taco shop, and a new brewery have opened downtown, adding a greater variety of attractions to an area already home to Sly Fox Brewing Co. and the popular Steel River Playhouse, a theater that recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. In the next year, more restaurants and shops are in the works, too.
“People say, ‘We’re almost there,' ” said Peggy Lee-Clark, executive director of Pottstown Area Industrial Development Inc. “No, we’re there. It’s happening. We’re not stopping the train this time.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, Pottstown boomed, home to a bustling downtown surrounded by factories for Bethlehem Steel, Mrs. Smith’s Pie Co., Firestone Tire & Rubber, and Doehler-Jarvis, which made aluminum castings.
“When those big blue-collar companies disappeared, that had an impact,” said Elliot Menkowitz, a Pottstown resident since 1972 and a current investor in the area.
Bethlehem Steel closed in 1975. Firestone closed in 1980. Others followed, eliminating thousands of jobs and leaving the borough a shell of its former self.
“High Street suffered from the loss of the industrial force,” said Andrew Monastra, a lawyer who lives and works on the main drag. “But every downtown had the same problem.”
On a recent weekend night, Monastra stepped outside and heard music coming from down the street. He saw people walking to and from restaurants and bars.
“Oh my gosh, I’m feeling a pulse!” he recalled thinking.
Since the summer, downtown has felt more lively, Borough Manager Justin Keller said.
Why the change?
About a year and a half ago, the borough saw $5 million in property transactions, Keller said. Owners who had been sitting on properties for a while finally sold, he said, and buyers began crafting plans for their new buildings. Some of those plans are now coming to fruition, he said.
“Before, people who had disposable incomes, there’s wasn’t much for them to do in the evenings,” Keller said.
Suddenly, with more nighttime activities, folks who lived and worked in the area were going out in the borough more often, and visitors — who in the past may have gone to see a show at Steel River Playhouse and headed home — were sticking around longer and getting a bite to eat or a drink, Keller said.
At Steel River Playhouse, ticket sales have been more brisk than in previous years, said Leena Devlin, the theater’s artistic director.
“It’s really symbiotic,” she said. “People come into town to do lots of different things.”
However, even Pottstown’s loudest cheerleaders know that the borough has a long way to go.
As Fisher and Skitko, of Hobart’s Run, drove around town recently, they acknowledged vacant properties and a couple of older stores along High Street that were moving out.
Jessica Sykes, 37, a lifelong Pottstown resident, said she’s seen inklings of progress in the last two or three years, but wants more. A nurse who volunteers as a block captain for Hobart’s Run, she said trash and unkempt yards are commonplace in her neighborhood on Beech Street.
“I have mixed feelings about what I’m seeing,” Sykes said. “Some good, some bad.”
Borough leaders said some of the biggest challenges, aside from bringing in the businesses, are encouraging people to care for their properties and changing the public perception that Pottstown is unsafe.
“Frankly, it’s generational,” said Lee-Clark, of Pottstown Area Industrial Development Inc. “I think younger generations are less concerned about that. ... They’re used to being in this urban environment.”
Keller, the borough manager, said surveillance cameras and reinstated police foot patrols have helped folks feel safer.
Yet “the crime isn’t there in the downtown,” he said. “It never really has been.”
Keller said he hopes that with better public perception, visitors will discover the area, return again and again, and eventually decide to buy or rent property in the area. There are various incentives, including Qualified Opportunity Zone designations and a land bank program primarily for residential properties, for those looking to invest in the area.
Montgomery County is rooting for Pottstown to succeed, too.
“From the county’s perspective we want to see all the larger, older boroughs revitalized,” said John Cover, assistant director of the Montgomery County Planning Commission. Not only does a rebirth help the boroughs themselves, “it also helps take the developmental pressure off the rural areas.”
Cover said it’s funny how more and more people want to live in newly constructed town-center complexes with “walkable downtowns."
“We already have them,” he said. “They’re called boroughs.”
Boroughs such as West Chester, Phoenixville, and Media have succeeded in establishing popular downtown areas. Officials want to see a similar rebirth for Pottstown, but in its own way — and time.