2020 Urban Centers Forum

Like most events in 2020, the Chester County Urban Centers Forum had to transition from what was previously a lively in-person event, to an online Zoom meeting. Nonetheless, thanks to this year’s dedicated staff, partners, presenters, and attendees – the 2020 Urban Centers Forum,  “Main Street Restoration and Recovery,” was a success!

New this year, the forum was broken up into two sessions, with the first highlighting “Main Street Recovery,” on Tuesday, October 13, and the second focusing on “Design” to enhance the character of our urban centers on Thursday, October 15. Both sessions featured an engaging group of panelists, as well as opportunities for discussion among attendees. There were a total of 121 participants, including the three County Commissioners.

“Since COVID-19 hit our area, our focus has been helping our main street businesses,” noted Commissioners’ Chair, Marian Moskowitz, during her opening remarks. “Our COVID-19 Business Task Force had 3 main goals: to help mitigation strategies to repair and help our businesses, to provide information and guidelines for reopening in specific business sectors (such as our toolkits), and to provide a guide in the development of economic recovery – which is where we are now.”

Commissioner Josh Maxwell spoke on the importance of working together throughout these unprecedented times. “Learning together, and from each other, benefits all of Chester County,” he noted. “The longer COVID-19 remains, the greater the need to provide resources to assist our community and our economy.”

Commissioner Michelle Kichline addressed the many hardships our urban centers and local businesses have had to face since the start of COVID-19. “We commend all of you for working hard, for partnering together in your own communities to prepare and adapt, and to keep businesses going through the summer and into the fall,” she said. “[Our urban centers] are such a loved part of the Chester County community, but [they] have been hit very hard by COVID-19.”

Brian O’Leary, Executive Director of the Planning Commission, highlighted the support of Landscapes3 within our urban center development, specifically in regards to the “Prosper” goal. “Urban centers, prosperity, and economic development are key parts of the plan, in addition to making our economy as strong as possible,” he said. “There’s also a specific action to support our main streets.”

Pat Bokovitz, Director of the Department of Community Development, discussed some grant programs and recent opportunities throughout the county. “Just last month the County Commissioners awarded five new grants to the boroughs of Atglen, Honey Brook, Oxford and Spring City, as well as the City of Coatesville for their train station/parking garage, totaling just over $2.3 million,” he said. Bokovitz also noted that the awards pushed the total amount of county funding from the Community Revitalization Program and Community Development Block Grant program (since 2002) over the $70 million mark.

Bo Wright, Executive Director for Historic Kennett Square, presented their newly implemented “Small Business Response Fund,” including the process to create the program and make sure it was both inclusive and available to all local businesses. Program partner, Luke Zubrod of Square Roots Collective, followed with the “why” behind the creation of the “Small Business Response Fund,” as well as the three areas of focus for their organization: social impact, community development, and environmental stewardship.

Lorenzo Merino of True Access Capital discussed some additional loan programs in the region, such as microloans, business growth loans, and community development loans.

An overview of The Chester County Economy Report was presented next by Libby Horwitz, Senior Housing and Economic Planner, highlighting some of the county’s key strengths and weaknesses from data collected from 2015-2018. The report addressed resident characteristics, employment characteristics, business characteristics, gross domestic product, key industry groups, and real estate characteristics. See the report here: https://www.chescoplanning.org/EconDev/CountyEconomy.cfm.

Todd Poole of 4Ward Planning provided an update and overview of the newly implemented Restore Chester County project (phase one) next, including the ways in which they conducted research and steps heading into phase two.

In the second session on October 15, Malcolm Johnstone, Senior Program Officer for the Cultural Alliance of Chester County, kicked off the program by discussing the importance of design and placemaking on the economic vitality of main streets. Some of his highlights included creating a community identity (such as flags, logos, and other recognizable graphics), implementing banner programs, using appropriate business signage, and enhancing walkability.

“As both a presenter and participant, I’m thankful to the Chester County Planning Commission for creating a forum that was both informative and useful,” said Johnstone regarding this year’s virtual format. “County officials have a clear understanding of the challenges facing our communities, and it’s obvious that they are committed to finding solutions.”

Following Johnstone, Paul Fritz, the Planning Commission’s Design and Technology Director, presented an overview of the Urban Centers Design Guide, which included a background on the guide as well as next steps for implementation. The guide features four planning principles (growth outlook, preservation focus, land use patterns, and infrastructure), as well as three design elements (building character, site amenities, and transportation). See the design guide here: https://www.chescoplanning.org/MuniCorner/UrbanCenters-eTools.cfm.

Kevin Myers, the Planning Commission’s Urban Planner who led the forum, followed with information regarding main street eTools and other resources for municipalities. The four eTools he discussed – which have been advocated by the National Main Street Center – include design, economic vitality, organization, and promotion.

And finally, Dennis Melton of Melton Architects, provided a private architect’s perspective on design in our urban centers, with examples from Kennett Square Borough. He discussed the importance of architecture within our municipalities and the need for variety (different textures and colors), as well as some of the challenges and benefits of zoning ordinances.

“Thank you to all of our speakers and our staff who put a lot of hard work into making this forum possible,” commented Kevin Myers during the final session’s closing remarks. “We hope you found this program beneficial, and we hope to see you at our future forums!”

The two sessions were followed with an engaging question and answer discussion among panelists and attendees.

To view the recordings and learn more about our 2020 Urban Centers Forum, visit https://www.chescoplanning.org/MuniCorner/UrbanCenters-Forum.cfm.