West Chester embarking on U.S. 42 revitalization

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Previous plans to revitalize the U.S. 42 corridor in West Chester Twp. have failed, but the township is about to embark on another effort which could include a grant program to help businesses spruce up their properties.

Township officials say they know they need to take “baby steps” and engaging the business owners that call that area home is imperative for a potentially successful endeavor. Trustee Ann Becker told the Journal-News looking to the past is an important step to find out where the “breakdown was in vision and communication” previously. She said she suspects they were “trying to do too much too quickly.”

“That would be top of the list is to talk to those business owners new or old, if they have been there for years they’ll have a better handle on the history than we do,” Becker said. “Just hear what they thought was good, I’m sure there were a ton of things in the old plans that were good that weren’t executed on. But there might have been a few sticking points that made it stop.”

Assistant Administrator Lisa Brown gave the trustees a lengthy presentation this week outlining some ideas for making the corridor more vibrant and attractive such as sidewalks or bike paths, landscaping, signage and lighting and “removing the visual clutter” that is hiding the businesses.

Things that will take a much longer discussion include land banking — namely demolishing decrepit buildings for redevelopment — and upgrading the “wonky” major intersections because the state controls the road.

“If the township were to engage in land banking it’s not something where you would go in and you force property owners to sell or anything like that,” She said. “It’s generally when it’s a property that has not been able to be disposed on the market or requires a significant investment.”

The township could then take over the property and direct its development. Trustee Mark Welch is not a fan of land banking.

“There’s a lot of things we have to discuss here, one of them would be land banking, which the township has not really been in favor of to this point,” Welch told the Journal-News. “Is it a tool that could be used. Yeah. Do I want to get involved and mix it up with the free market? No.”

Brown said this will be a long-term endeavor — 10 years maybe more — but suggested in the first two years they can establish a reimbursement grant program to help business owners spruce up their own properties. She suggested they budget $100,000 to support grants up to $10,000 for businesses township-wide.

The township’s new Economic Development Manager Katy Kanelopoulos said they had a similar program at her old job and it was big asset.

“It was very successful and I think beside the fact we turned around a lot of different properties the investment from the property owners was far higher than what the skin of the government was, the return was much higher,” she said. “The side benefit was I saw a greatly increased trust and open communication between the small businesses and us and loyalty.”

Welch told the Journal-News he is willing to listen to that idea but he has reservations. He said $100,000 could go pretty quickly and perhaps not accomplish very much with only $10,000 for businesses to work with.

Plus he isn’t keen on spending taxpayer dollars to directly benefit businesses.

“We don’t want to make it appear the township is so flush with money that we’re willing to dole it out to a bunch of businesses and private enterprises,” Welch said. “It could be a great idea, but we have to be careful because we’re taking other residences and businesses property taxes and giving it to other businesses. It kind of smacks of picking winners and losers.”

Becker told the Journal-News they have had $250,000 earmarked in the budget for this project for as long as she has been in office. She noted they used coronavirus CARES money to help small businesses previously. As for the $100,000, “if we do a few every year and keep it going, every couple businesses would make an impact over time.”

Trustee Lee Wong could not be reached for comment but he did express skepticism at the meeting saying he knows of at least four projects that were floated for that area that failed, including installing sidewalks along Dimmick Road.

Administrator Larry Burks said this idea will be a challenge for sure.

“I think insistence, persistence and patience is applicable here,” Burks said. “Just because we ran into barriers before doesn’t mean we want to continue that track, we will continue trying and do the best we can.”

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