I recently had lunch with a resident who had moved back to Lansdale after twenty years in California, and the topic of our conversation was Lansdale’s revitalization. After a pleasant hour and half, our lunch concluded, and he urged me to tell the story in my blog. So here it is.
When I became mayor in June 2008, I had little idea what a mayor did, but I did know what I wanted in the center of town: a vibrant community with shops and restaurants– the way I vaguely remember Lansdale as kid. For me, the center of town is like the heart in a human; if the heart is weak, the rest of the body suffers. Just look at Norristown and the spillover of its crime into residential areas and even neighboring townships. And of course, we all know what happened to Lansdale when the mall came to Montgomeryville.
In October of 2008, I naively sent a letter to Conor Cummins and Declan Mannion, the owners of Molly Maguires Pub in Phoenixville, touting the benefits of Lansdale, its demographics and the fact that it is one of the few walkable communities in Montgomery County. It was the very first letter I sent out to recruit businesses to Lansdale– and it worked. Today, we have a delightful gathering place that brings people to our downtown. On any given day or evening, residents and non-residents, young and old, business people and working stiffs can all be seen at Molly’s. And on nice days, you can see them outside. I must mention that it was not without controversy that they came to Lansdale, but compared to the Riccio Real Estate Office it brings a heck of a lot more people to town (Riccio Real Estate is actually still there but it doesn’t take up the entire building. No offense Mike!)
Every town needs a bakery. And now the Borough of Lansdale has Virago. Virago opened in the summer of 2010 thanks to a pair of property owners, Kevin Dunigan and Mike Riccio, who did the right thing and fixed up their property and took the short-term loss for the long term gain. This property used to be the Local Auto Workers’ Union office– not much foot traffic there. Virago had been located at 620 South Broad Street in Upper Gwynedd Township. I had been going there for my daily scone for a few years and one day while chatting up Regina, the lovely owner, I learned that her lease was ending and that she was looking for a new space. “How about downtown Lansdale?” I suggested. After months of begging and threatening to shop elsewhere for scones, she took a look at Main Street and thankfully Kevin and Mike understood the big picture. Again, short term loss for the long term gain.
Jack London wrote that “artists are the antennae of society” and many revitalizations have begun with artists moving to a location because it is inexpensive, but also because there is potential (Lansdale is both). In September 2010, the Water Arts and Crafts Gallery opened in the Dresher Arcade. I helped this artist cooperative by explaining to the landlords, John and Dave Felton, that if they were to reduce the rent for this Art Gallery (the space had been unoccupied for three years) it would add value to their building. Art Galleries add value whereas another thrift shop might not. The Water Arts and Crafts Gallery is approaching its second year and the space is beautiful, and it brings people in from as far away from Philadelphia (it has been favorably reviewed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Reporter and the Intelligencer). John and Dave also understood the message: short term loss for a long term gain.
Every up and coming town needs a brewery and now we have one– at least we will in a few weeks. Rich DiLiberto and Scott Rudich are the proprietors of Round Guys Brewery which is located at South Wood Street. These two came to Lansdale after I had asked Jason Harris, who donated a wine barrel to the Oktoberfest and who also owns Keystone Brewing Supplies, if he knew of anyone looking to open a brewery (this was back in 2009). He passed that information on to a few of his colleagues; a few came to town and Scott and Rich liked what they saw especially when the red carpet was rolled out for them by a few Councilmen and a few residents.
What’s one of the best things Lansdale has? Without a doubt the train station, an historic building that didn’t meet the wrecking ball. Across from the station is Railroad Plaza and abutting the Plaza is 209 West Main Street, the former location of Lewis Paints. This is story is bit more complicated. Tim Lewis had expressed to me his displeasure with his location and his desire to find another location several times; not enough parking, difficulty with his landlord were some of the reasons for his desire to leave 209 West Main Street. Knowing his departure was a possibility, I started looking for possible tenants and I talked to the landlord about the potential for his property. Candy St. Martine-Pack of Green Street Luxuries approached me in 2010 and asked if I knew of any locations available for Tabora Farms. I just happened to know of one. Again, we rolled out and the red carpet and wooed Caleb from Tabora Farms away from his first choice, Jenkintown, and sold him on Lansdale. In a few months I hope to be sitting outside his cafe people watching and trainspotting.
Why explain these success stories? For one I am proud of these accomplishments, but also to show that someone without any training in economic development managed to hook five solid businesses to Lansdale in three short years. Yes, there was the help of many others who helped reel these businesses in, and I am grateful for none of this would have been possible without them. I grudgingly accept the consultants (I have no choice), but I would also like to make the plea to Lansdale’s residents: you too can recruit businesses. It doesn’t take any special talent, just a passion for your hometown and a little common sense. And yes the naive letters continue to go out.