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Hope growing anew in forlorn Coatesville

Some see potential beneath the problems.

A host of problems thwart a wealth of potential as Coatesville struggles to reinvent itself. They include the death of Lukens Steel and the creation of the Route 30 bypass. Above, the city's train station.
A host of problems thwart a wealth of potential as Coatesville struggles to reinvent itself. They include the death of Lukens Steel and the creation of the Route 30 bypass. Above, the city's train station.Read more

To describe Coatesville - a rusting relic of the steel boom - a consultant finds himself mired in a time warp reminiscent of Groundhog Day, a movie in which Bill Murray gets stuck reliving the same 24 hours.

Tom Comitta, whose planning work with Coatesville dates to 1981, said he has predicted the beleaguered city's imminent rebirth several times, especially in the latter part of 2003, when "all the stars were supposed to be in the correct alignment."

Instead, that year the city made national negative headlines with a brash - and ultimately doomed - revitalization plan anchored by a city-owned golf course and recreation center.

Today, Coatesville, a city of about 11,000, remains one of the state's most impoverished municipalities in its wealthiest county. Street crime is rampant; its politicians pray, feud and accomplish little; its city manager has been arrested twice; and the Police Department is clouded by leadership problems and a sex scandal.

Though other once-decaying suburban towns, like Conshohocken, Collingdale and Ambler, have found ways to claw their way back to viability, Coatesville continues to bump along at the bottom of its downturn. But once again, hopes are growing that better days are ahead.

A succession of events exacerbated the city's downward spiral: the decades-long decline and death of Lukens Steel, which employed more than 6,000 in its heyday five decades ago; the creation of the Route 30 bypass in the early 1960s, which enabled motorists to skirt Coatesville; and, in the early '70s, the opening of Exton Square Mall, which siphoned city shoppers; and the construction of the Oak Street public housing project, which became a magnet for crime.

While that combination of factors drained the lifeblood from the city, issues common to rust-belt towns - sprawl, drug crimes, the collapse of the tax base, zoning that restricted development, municipal ineptness - kept officials so busy applying tourniquets that recovery was an afterthought.

Coatesville has never had the kind of strong leadership that can pull together the city's diverse elements to steer the town through the tough times, former city solicitor Alan Novak said.

Management and political turnovers make for a deadly combination, he said, because there is no one around to see the big picture or with the power to implement it.

"When you have all these interruptions, it's hard to have a steady plan," Novak said. "It really is people living in silos."

George Fasic, former executive director of the Chester County Planning Commission, agrees.

"Speaking as a planner, it would be very difficult for me to go into that city," he said. "First thing, there would have to be a resurrection of political and business leadership."

Still, some see potential lurking beneath the problems.

"I think Coatesville will bounce back," said John Pawlowski, a former member of the Coatesville Redevelopment Authority, "but it has taken a lot of uppercut punches in the past few decades that have people reeling."

Charles "Chuck" C. Bohl, director of the Knight Program, a Florida foundation that helped develop a master plan for Coatesville in 2003, said the city could become a model for capitalizing on "walkable streets, affordable housing, and historic architecture and character."

When Bohl revisited Coatesville in February, he found city leaders "in sync" with the plan's ideas: mixing retail and housing downtown, protecting historic vistas and buildings, and improving public transit.

"All it takes is one major initiative to get off the ground, and others will follow," Comitta, the consultant, said.

The spark could come from Chetty Builders, when it starts construction next month on the first of seven condo towers it plans to put up downtown, said Marc Hargraves, sales and marketing director.

"As we start, other developers will start coming in," he said. "They are going to want to be here."

His project, which will include a Rite-Aid on the first floor of one tower, is one of the pieces still alive from the city's $500 million revitalization plan once anchored by the ill-fated golf course.

Another part of that plan was the city's purchase of 26 acres along the Brandywine, known as the Flats, for $2 million when the owner, the G.O. Carlson steel plant, was shutting down.

David J. Yeager, president of the Radnor Property Group, a development company in Wayne, said he was negotiating with the city and the redevelopment authority to purchase the Flats, hoping to turn what is now a stark, vacant landscape into a vibrant combination of homes, offices and stores.

Comitta and Bohl say government stability could expedite a renaissance, but the city is more accustomed to upheaval and acrimony.

In 1999, City Manager Paul Janssen Jr., the seventh city manager in less than four years, pushed the golf-course plan, which included land in neighboring Valley Township. An attempt to seize parts of a farm by eminent domain cost the city millions in legal challenges, and the project fizzled. And, after Janssen quit, an audit showed that he overspent his budget by $750,000.

Angered by what was seen as an unjust land grab, residents elected a new four-member council majority, which has repeatedly clashed with the three council veterans on issues ranging from hiring choices to saying prayers at council meetings.

Hargraves, the Chetty Builders sales and marketing director, said that he doesn't expect council members from the two factions to sit down and break bread together, but that they need to get on with governing.

"It would be great to see city officials and City Council get up and talk about what's going on in town instead of wasting their time complaining that somebody's picking on them," he said. "That never works."

The factions disagreed early on over the hiring of Harry G. Walker III, a Kentucky entrepreneur, for city manager. Originally, his lack of municipal experience concerned the council minority. Since then, the city and Walker have been sued for alleged violations of the Sunshine Law, a suit since settled. And Walker has been arrested twice, once for allegedly driving under the influence and once on a charge of failure to report an accident. His assistant, Kirby Hudson, also was recently arrested on a charge of drunken driving.

The inexperience of Walker and his team has proved a stumbling block to the city's redevelopment efforts, Hargraves said. Janssen and his assistant and ultimate successor, E. Jean Krack, knew what they were doing, he said.

"The new management team are all wonderful, but none of them bring the level of experience that Krack and Janssen had in politics and government," he said.

Instability also plagues the police department. Last May, Police Chief Dominick P. Bellizzie quit after he tired of hearing rumors that he was about to be fired.

Before he left, one current and one former member of his department were accused of rape, prompting an almost-three-month probe by the District Attorney's Office. Meanwhile, the acting chief, Lt. Julius M. Canale, began an internal investigation in August after allegations surfaced that officers were having sex on the job. He has not returned repeated phone calls asking about the status of the investigation.

In July, District Attorney Joseph W. Carroll created the Coatesville Murder Task Force, an infusion of local, state and federal law enforcement. The city had half of the county's eight homicides in 2005. The move was widely regarded as an end run around Coatesville's rancorous government.

Carroll contends that extra manpower was needed because criminals were so ensconced in the community that witnesses to crimes, often friends or relatives, remained silent for fear of retribution.

Even the hiring of a police chief - William H. Matthews - has generated controversy. Walker, the city manager, has been criticized for ignoring the selection committee's top choice and for interviewing applicants in the company of Richard Legree, a former city councilman and constable whose run-ins with the law go back three decades. Carroll called the selection process "deceptive."

So does Coatesville's rebirth have a prayer? Maybe too many, as evidenced by recent complaints to the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia about the revival aspect of recent council meetings.

The furor was fueled by the behavior of council President Patsy Ray, the self-avowed head of Home Gospel Mission, and Councilman Kurt Schenk, pastor of Union United Methodist in Nottingham. Both have denounced those seeking separation of church and state during council business, but agreed to a compromise: Prayer will precede meetings but not be interspersed throughout.

This latest controversy prompted a plea from Councilman Martin Eggleston: "Let's please end this cycle of dysfunction."

To which city residents and potential developers might reply, Amen.