In Phoenixville, millennials + empty-nesters = success
Phoenixville has transformed into a bustling borough chock-full of breweries, restaurants, and a growing population of young professionals and empty-nesters. The two demographics may seem disparate, but officials have found that they are often looking for the same lifestyle. They want diverse restaurants and bars within walking distance, easy access to the arts, properties that are manageable yet luxurious, and a vibrant, civically-engaged community.
When Peter Urscheler moved to Phoenixville in 2006, he hung out in Manayunk and Conshohocken, the trendy places where his friends and coworkers lived. Every once in a while, the group would go to Phoenixville’s Iron Hill Brewery, but the downtown strip in the Chester County borough held little else.
"Oh my gosh, it's so intriguing to think how far we've come," said Urscheler, a 34-year-old business consultant, who has been mayor since January. "In 2006, [Phoenixville] was just kind of teetering, working its way to the tipping point."
"Ten to 12 years ago even, there were still prostitutes on the street, and there were still drug deals going on in the street — in broad daylight," said Councilwoman Beth Burckley, who represents the historic downtown.
Contrast that with the Phoenixville of today: A bustling borough chock full of breweries, restaurants, and a growing population of young professionals and empty nesters. The two demographics may seem disparate, but officials have found that they are often looking for the same lifestyle. They want diverse restaurants and bars within walking distance, easy access to the arts, apartments that are manageable yet luxurious, and a vibrant, civically engaged community. Many have found these in Phoenixville, where on a Friday or Saturday night "baby boomers are partying with the millennials," Urscheler said.
"A lot of millennials are moving in and saying, 'Hey, Phoenixville is cool,' " said Burckley, 36, who moved to the borough seven years ago. At the same time, "we have a flux of people who are older and they don't want to maintain their homes anymore. They want something walkable."
"That's what's so cool," Roseanne Klementisz said. "You're not hanging out with everyone who looks like you, everyone who's the same age as you. … It's just exciting to be in that energy all the time."
Klementisz and her husband, Jim, both in their 50s, have been "suburbanites" all their lives. They raised their children in Skippack, but when the kids moved out, they decided to move somewhere where they wouldn't have a lawn to mow or gutters to clean. The couple decided on Phoenixville. They rented a two-bedroom apartment at Riverworks, a new Toll Bros. complex, and moved there in June.
"I can't tell you how much we love it," Klementisz said. "It's just a vibrant community."
Within the last five years, two luxury apartment complexes — Riverworks and Phoenix Village — have opened downtown. The success of the complexes, which have a combined 600-plus units, has mirrored the upscale-apartment growth seen across the Philadelphia suburbs. At the same time, Phoenixville continues to be a destination for diners and drinkers, who are drawn by breweries, wineries, pubs, and even a distillery.
Phoenixville's growth shows no sign of slowing. In coming years, the borough is set to add 2,000 apartments within a quarter-mile of downtown, according to Borough Manager Jean Krack. And, after years of failed attempts, officials are confident that a Regional Rail station will become a reality.
The borough has been without a passenger train station since the 1980s, according to officials. Train connection to Philadelphia and surrounding suburbs would be a "godsend," Krack said. Today, the closest Regional Rail station to Phoenixville is eight miles away in Paoli.
Residents were behind this latest push for a train stop, which could connect to existing lines going through Norristown, Urscheler said. The proposal is in the "very, very initial" stages, but a consultant returned "promising results" after evaluating the feasibility of such a project, the mayor said.
"It's more shocking that it hasn't already happened," said developer Manny DeMutis. "Road systems can't be widened enough to sustain our growth. And not just Phoenixville's growth, the regional growth."
Census data released this spring showed that Chester County's population was growing faster than any other county in the region, increasing 3.9 percent between 2010 and 2017.
In Phoenixville, DeMutis has witnessed that growth. The son of a Bridge Street barber, DeMutis grew up in the borough when it was a booming steel town. But then came the 1980s. Phoenix Iron & Steel Co. closed, and the town fell into a depression. By DeMutis' recollection, about half of the students in his high school class left over a single summer. The jobs were gone, he said, and their families had to move.
"Watching the town you grew up in, Phoenixville, fall apart and then come back alive," he said, "it's been a gift."
After college, DeMutis returned to Phoenixville and started planning the borough's revitalization.
In the 2000s, restaurants such as Iron Hill and Majolica saw potential in Phoenixville and took a chance by moving in. The Colonial Theatre, which recently underwent an $8 million renovation, attracted folks from across the region, often leading them to discover the burgeoning restaurant and bar scene.
Over the years, DeMutis has invested in many properties, including the new Phoenix Village apartments on Bridge Street.
At Phoenix Village, 70 percent to 80 percent of residents grew up more than 20 miles away, DeMutis said. About one-third of them are empty-nesters, he said, and the rest are young professionals, many of whom work in King of Prussia, Manayunk, or Conshohocken but choose to live in Phoenixville.
"It's the quaintness of the town. It's the amenities of the town," DeMutis said. "It's pretty easy living."
Andrew Davis, 32, moved into Phoenix Village two years ago. What attracted him?
"It was a combination of a young professional community that was growing exponentially," Davis said, "and access to a social life outside your living community."
Davis, a Fort Myers, Fla., native who previously lived in West Norriton, wanted to stay close to his work at SEI Investments in Oaks. Davis said he chose Phoenixville over new town-center communities in King of Prussia because of the borough's authentic "community foundation."
He found a demographically diverse community, too. His neighbors on one side are young professionals, he said, and those on the other side are empty nesters. All coexist peacefully.
"Phoenixville, to me, feels very inclusive and not segregated," Davis said. "It's a well-blended community."
The restaurant and bar resurgence was no doubt intrinsic in Phoenixville's revitalization. But ask folks in the area what really made the rebirth possible, and they'll tell you it was something else.
"The story of Phoenixville is people," DeMutis said, people who are "tough, kind, courageous, selfless."
“The spirit, the culture of Phoenixville, that’s what makes me proud,” Urscheler said. “Modern new-age communities are trying to be what Phoenixville already is.”