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Can borough pride propel Bridgeport's long-awaited transformation?

For more than a decade now, there's been buzz around Bridgeport, the 450-acre borough situated on the Schuylkill River between divergent communities of King of Prussia, Conshohocken, and Norristown. This year, there's a new mayor in town, and he's optimistic that the tight-knit community is finally on the cusp of revitalization.

Mayor Mark Barbee stands for a portrait outside the borough hall. in Bridgeport on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Mayor Mark Barbee stands for a portrait outside the borough hall. in Bridgeport on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. TIM TAI / Staff PhotographerRead moreTIM TAI

Honking horns greeted Bridgeport Mayor Mark Barbee as soon as he stepped out of Borough Hall and onto Fourth Street.

Barbee had only been in office for a little over a month. But he was already a familiar presence around town, met with smiles and exclamations of "Hey!" by every resident who passed by in cars or on foot.

As Barbee strolled Fourth during a recent late-afternoon tour of his town, he pointed across the street to a row of storefronts, half of which were empty.

"In a perfect world, all those businesses would be full," Barbee said. "Maybe another bar or two over here."

As he continued on, past the pink awning of Suzy-Jo Donuts and the corner perch of Dino's Pizza & Pasta, and across the road to Good Will Fire Company, Barbee motioned down the street in the direction of West Conshohocken.

"In a perfect world, [the main strip] would go all the way down," Barbee said, laughing. "And I believe it will. It's going to be a while. But, you know, there are levels to this."

"This" is a borough revitalization effort nearly two decades in the making. As neighboring communities across the Philadelphia suburbs have transformed from old mill towns to lively destinations for eating, shopping, and imbibing, Bridgeport's progress has been slow and not quite steady. Barbee, 28, the borough's first gay mayor and its first African American mayor, has set out to turn the tide, with lofty goals of building up the waterfront and attracting more twentysomethings like himself to the area.

Barbee is admittedly still figuring out exactly how to make that happen. But he voices determination, confident that if outsiders could only see the area's understated charm, the town would in no time become West Chester, but with a gritty Philly-esque edge.

Bridgeport by the Numbers

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau
JARED WHALEN / Staff Graphic

"We have a main street," Barbee said. "It's just a matter of filling those vacancies."

Bridgeport is a working-class town with fewer than 5,000 residents. It's nestled along the Schuylkill, smack-dab between the bustling destinations of King of Prussia and Conshohocken, and just across the river from the county seat of Norristown, which over the years has struggled with crime (some of which does occasionally spill over into Bridgeport, Barbee said).

In the early 1900s, Bridgeport was a place to be, to work in the textile mills and to socialize at bars and clubs. But as industry declined, so did the borough.

The 2000s brought several efforts to bring the town back to its former glory. But none quite got off the ground, thanks to setbacks including floods, business fires, and the 2008 recession. In 2016, Borough Manager Donald Curley was ousted without cause, though several council members said at the time they wanted to move the borough in a new direction. (Barbee, who was on the council then, defended Curley.)

The less-than-one-square-mile borough still has that main drag on part of Fourth Street. There, one can walk from the pizza shop to the nail salon to the beer distributor to, of course, a Wawa. But in between the businesses are plenty of empty storefronts. Some bear "For Rent" signs in dusty windows.

Don't be fooled, though. There has been progress in recent years.

Taphouse 23, a gastropub with live music, opened downtown in 2014. And in 2016, Conshohocken Brewing Co. opened a waterfront location. The borough welcomed the watering hole with a star-studded party.

Since then, there haven't been any major restaurant additions, Barbee said; however, a giant rock-climbing gym and state-of-the-art veterinary hospital are in the works.

When Beth and Andrew Kagan, both 31, were thinking a few years ago about where to raise a family, they said the decision was easy. Andrew had grown up in the borough and said he loved its "small, old-town kind of feeling."

"That's what we wanted for our kids growing up," said Beth Kagan, who along with her husband has owned Kagan's Deli on Ford Street for more than a year.

Added perks: affordable home prices (Andrew Kagan said they'd pay twice as much for a similar home in his wife's native Conshohocken), and down-to-earth neighbors.

"They're real," Andrew Kagan said.

"Yeah, they don't just order a sandwich and leave," Beth Kagan added. "They make time to tell you about their life and ask about yours."

The Kagans aren't worried about any perceived stagnation in business growth. Progress takes time, they said, and the new borough council, led by Barbee, already seemed more receptive to change in its first month.

"I think we're on a really good path with our town," Beth said.

Barbee knows that Bridgeport is not Conshohocken, or Phoenixville, or Downingtown. Not yet.

But he believes that this time, for real, the long-awaited change is coming.

"We're trying," Barbee said. "We definitely want to replicate what Conshohocken and Phoenixville and Manayunk and Doylestown have done."'

That optimism is not confined to the mayor's sparsely decorated office, which the Democrat moved into in January after succeeding Republican Thaddeus Pruskowski. (Pruskowski chose not to run again, Barbee said, and endorsed Barbee over Republican candidate Ray Gambone,)

Around town, folks are teeming with borough pride.

"I definitely wouldn't hesitate to say we're going to be the next Phoenixville," said Councilwoman Beth Jacksier, 26, a North Jersey native.

"I think we are the best-kept secret around," said Steven Wanczyk, 56, a lifelong resident who serves as both the building code official and the fire chief. "We're up-and-coming."

"You get a lot of bang for your buck in Bridgeport," said Kyle Shenk, 34, a Bridgeport councilman originally from Lancaster County.

Barbee measures the area's success in part by the number of young people moving into the borough.

Councilwoman Jacksier is as an example of that. After living in Philadelphia for a year after college, "I missed suburbia," Jacksier said, "and Bridgeport is a nice middle ground."

Barbee balances optimism with a realistic grasp on where the borough needs to improve. One place is the waterfront, which Barbee hopes to develop during his term.

This summer, he said, that progress should begin. A boat launch for kayaks and canoes should be constructed in the next few months, said Elaine Paul Schaefer, executive director of Schuylkill River Greenways. Also starting this summer: Twilight on the River, an open-air market with food, vendors, and games, will take place twice a month. And by 2020, an extension of the Chester Valley Trail is set to connect Norristown and Bridgeport to Chester County.

These additions give Barbee hope.

"When you're in the smaller boroughs, they already kind of have the infrastructure" for growth, Barbee said. "It's just a matter of bringing in the businesses."

"This town has been a diamond in the rough for a long time," said Ray Abdallah, 48, who leads the business association. "And I think we're on the edge of something big."