Monthly Archives: March 2012

Lansdale’s Budding Revitalization

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.

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Spring

The vernal equinox may be tomorrow but with the unseasonably warmer temperatures, spring has come a little early to Lansdale. Taking a chance last night that they were open, I took my three year old, Anna, to Rita’s Water Ice on Broad Street. At three years old, she knows what ice cream is but she can’t remember going to Rita’s last year, so when I tell her, “Let’s to go to Rita’s for ice cream,” she looks at me with the curiosity of a three year old and simply says, “Ice cream?” On the way to Rita’s, we swing by White’s Road Park where the ornamental plums are out in full purple bloom (ask any photographer or artist and the evening light in March and October is the best of the year) and of course, the teenagers are out on their bikes and skateboards jumping down the steps oblivious of the trees wondering what I am doing taking photos of them.Leaving White’s Road, we head up Broad Street and at the Vine Street redlight, I am able to snap a photo of the old frieght yard which almost glows in the setting sun; unfortunately, the guy behind me didn’t think so and ushered me on my way with his horn. Arriving to Rita’s and parking across the street, I see a family sitting on the steps of the old music hall eating their ice cream. I can’t help but take a photo and then ask for their approval. I tell them who I am– as usual questioning looks– and then they tell me they’re from Glenside because one of them used to live here. It’s nice to see four generations out for ice cream on a warm spring night.

Difficult decisions…

Jackpot!

A Speakeasy or Blind Pig in Town

I try to imagine Lansdale without any wateringholes or at least any sanctioned wateringholes and it seems nearly impossible. No liquor stores, no bars, no beer distributors, no alcohol of any sort. I can’t imagine a weekend without a glass of wine or a summer, Saturday afternoon without a beer. No Oktoberfest, no Lansdale Craft Beer Festival, no social clubs and no restaurants that served alcohol. In fact, I can’t believe there was ever a period in time called Prohibition from 1919 to 1933. But that was a bad dream when our government tried to legislate human behavior (I wonder what Benjamin Franklin would have thought about Prohibition). Then we woke up and eventually overturned that silly edict with the Twenty First Amendment.

Lansdale was not immune from the Eighteenth Amendment, and as a result anyone wanting a drink was forced to look for it in out of the way places. And one place that residents went looking for that libation was 200 East Fourth Street– a lovely craftsman bungalow that today looks like the model of respectability and middle class values. I was told by a friend that this home was once a Speakeasy or Blind Pig, which are names for an establishment that provided illegal alcohol and maybe a little entertainment and gambling as well.

I stopped in to see if the rumor was true– seventy-six years after liquor became legal. I was welcomed by Annie and Albert Arbogast, a delightful couple who are the fourth owners of the house. Indeed, it was a speakeasy or at least she was told this by a descendent of the orginal owner. She welcomed me into her home with its original chestnut molding, and she led me to a stairway that was unremarkable other than remnants of a deadbolt lock. “This was the entrance to where all the fun transpired”,  she said. This evidence confirming a speakeasy was a bit of a stretch I admit, but it was upon seeing the stage upstairs and the dressing rooms that made the story become a bit more palatable and interesting. A stage upstairs? It made perfect sense given the period. Certainly no television and little in the way of recorded music, a small stage in someone’s home for some entertainment and a few drinks. I can only imagine the bribery and favors that ran rampant at the time. It’s not like ratting your neighbor out to code enforcement for high grass or calling the police for not shoveling snow from sidewalks today. On any given evening your neighbor, or in this case, 200 East Fourth Street, would have a few dozen guests over for a little, illegal party. I wonder about code enforcement; I wonder about the police department and what they said or reported about these gatherings for fourteen long years. While there may be more closet space in newer homes and an open floor plan, you won’t find a history of Speakeasys or Blind Pigs in any homes built after 1933. What makes for better conversation: a walk-in closet or the history of a home as a Blind Pig? I’ll let the reader decide.

Lansdale’s Civic Organizations

Like many communities, Lansdale has its share of civic institutions. The ones that I will describe here are the Lions, Kiwanis and Rotary– of which I am a member. Prior to joining Rotary, I had a small idea of what they were or what they did. My father was and still is a longtime member of the Lansdale Lions Club: Did they roar? Did they have a secret handshake? Did the initiation include hazing like fraternities? I also imagined them as something like the Loyal order of Water Buffalos Club that Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble belonged to where they wore funny hats and sang songs.

As I entered into chiropractic practice in 2001, I was encouraged to join one of the service clubs as a way to network and promote my business, and so I joined the North Penn Rotary Club. There was an inititation period and then a formal induction where I was read the rights and responsibilities of a Rotarian. More significant than what I thought. Slowly I learned all the good that comes from these service organizations and their thoroughly rock solid, middle-class, bourgeois values, which are unfortunately all too often maligned today as boring and unimaginative. Rotary has even been mocked in Desperate Housewives, Curb Your Enthusiasm, L.A. Law and Marley and Me. But then again, that’s Hollywood and not Main Street.

With a combined worldwide membership of 2,885,000 members, each club has its projects: Rotary combats polio and has reduced the incidence from 500,000 cases a year in 1988 to under 1,200 last year. The Lions have given away over $729,000,000 in grants to primarily fight blindness and Kiwanis serves children with over 150,000 projects per year to improve health and basic human needs such as providing clean water to communities. In addition to international projects, these Clubs raise tens of thousands of dollars each year that go back into the community to support the North Penn Boys and Girls Club, Manna on Main Street, Community Housing Services, high school service projects, student exchange programs and Lansdale Day. And one of the more ambitious projects that the North Penn Rotary undertook was the fundraising of $225,000 for the building of the Bandshell in White’s Road Park– all through grassroots efforts.

Unfortunately, like the deteriorating signs in the Welcome to Lansdale Board in the center of town, these clubs are losing members due to changing demographics. There are more activities for our children that limit our time and our jobs place greater and greater demands on both earners which has decreased our disposable time for things such as volunteerism. I would like to hope that as Lansdale turns the corner and becomes the walkable, vibrant community it once was, that residents will reconnect with these service clubs and they will regain that prominent role in the community that they once had. I invite you to take a look at the Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis Websites and perhaps visit one of their meetings.

http://lansdalekiwanis.org, http://www.e-clubhouse.org/sites/lansdale/, www.rotaryclubofnorthpenn.org/

They’re more fun than you think!