Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What Shall We Drop?

To bring in the New Year, New York City drops a ball made of crystal triangles. I just read that the City of Boise, Idaho, at midnight, will lower a 16-foot glowing potato from their U.S. Bank building. In St. Georges, Bermuda, they drop a papier mache Bermuda onion. Key West? A 6-foot conch shell. Raleigh, NC? An acorn. Marion, OH? A ball of popcorn.

Closer to home, Pennsylvania is the state where the most towns (45) drop (or raise) something on New Year's Eve -- everything from pickles to a bag of potato chips to a wooden cow to a giant shoe to a Crayola crayon (dropped earlier than midnight so kids can stay up to see it).

So I got to thinking what we should drop in Norristown next year.

Food-wise, we've got great BBQ, soul food, pizza, and the best and most authentic Mexican food around, but probably our one uniquely Norristonian dish is the zep sandwich. 10-foot papier mache zep? Who would understand the symbolism but us? Everyone else would say we're dropping a hoagie.

Our architecture is one of our pride-and-joys. But which building to clone into a New Year's symbol? And how could we be sure Council wouldn't vote to demolish it before January 2015?

Our Dragon Boat Club has done so much to promote Norristown, maybe a dragon would be appropriate. It would definitely look cool.

But I'm thinking Norristown ought to be one of the communities that raises something instead of drops it. Something like a phoenix, rising from the ground to, say, the top of one of the turrets of the old prison on Airy? Or to the roof of One West Main?

Something to show that Norristown's not going down, but on the rise again. What do you think?

Happy New Year, N-town.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Time To Step Up

Norristown's government has announced that they're looking for residents who'll serve in volunteer positions on the Planning Commission and Zoning Hearing Board. Now, before you say, no way, not for me, read on and see why we need you to at least help us find good people for these posts.

I heard this weekend that one person who won't be serving on the Zoning Board is Brian Billings. Brian was the chair of the Zoning Board this past year and completely earned my respect. He asked good questions, he listened to residents' concerns, he even made it a point to personally thank residents who testified at meeting. I thought he did his best to be fair to all parties, yet didn't allow variances freely. If he and the board saw a solution that still remained true to the zoning, they insisted on it. They came up with some decent compromises, too. I can't say I agreed with them on all their decisions, but I have to admit, I TRUSTED the 2013 Zoning Board to act in the best interests of Norristown.

This weekend I heard that Brian, for all the good he did and wisdom he showed on the Zoning Board, isn't being invited back. He's essentially been dismissed. (See Brian's comment below.)

So, Norristown says they're looking for residents to serve, while dismissing someone who was good at the job, and good for the town? I have to wonder if the Council and our new town manager, Mr. Jones, aren't simply looking for a way to stack the deck--get rid of intelligent people who think things out, follow the zoning and can't be easily swayed, only to replace them with pawns.

You'll remember our Planning Commission this past summer and fall, who could barely get quorums at their meetings? Who actually passed the over-crowded development at 1202 Dekalb illegally, WITHOUT a quorum, despite the fact that the developer changed her drawings (for the worse) every time she showed up at a meeting, so that, still, no one knows what the townhouses will look like. Council went on to give that developer $150,000 of taxpayer money to ease the overcrowding SLIGHTLY--a problem that SHOULD have been solved at the Planning meetings before they even brought the proposal up for a vote.

You remember the Pennrose proposal for a low-income apartment house on the corner of Dekalb and Airy, horrendously inappropriate to the historical area and Arts Hill zoning? Despite a storm of protests by residents and 1800 signatures on petitions against the development, Pennrose sailed through the approval process and were about to come up to the final vote before Council when their funding was denied by the state. Think it ends there? Norristown hasn't taken the application of their books yet. Pennrose could very well reapply in 2014.

And plans are already in the works to demolish another old Art Deco style building--Montgomery Hospital.

So we NEED good, sensible people on the Zoning Board and Planning Commission--people who'll represent Norristown's future, and not simply do whatever Crandall Jones and certain council members tell them to do. The Planning Commission meets the 2nd Tuesday of each month. The Zoning Board meets the 4th Tuesday.

Send letters of interest, as well as your resumé and/or qualifications, and which board you're interested in to:   

Mr. Crandall Jones, Administrator
Municipality of Norristown
235 East Airy St.
Norristown, PA 19401

Am I going to apply? I'm thinking about it. Problem is, if I'm ON one of the boards, I can't report about it objectively here on the Diary. It's equally vital that the residents of Norristown are kept informed, and maybe this is a better niche for me to serve the community. But I'll at least do my best to help find good people for these positions. We all need to. Stop complaining about your government and do something to fix it.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Returns and Exchanges

This is the traditional day for returning gifts and exchanging them for other things you think you want more. The problem is, you often find out that the item you're exchanging was bought on sale, so you get less for it than you thought you would. And the objects we think we want cost more than they should, considering they're probably made in a sweatshop overseas and possibly of poor materials or construction. You might end up swapping something of high quality for something that will break or rip or look dated in a month.

It's appropriate, then, that I talk about what exchanges Norristown has made over the decades since about 1980, or technically, what exchanges our government has made for us. We traded the Norris Theater for a McDonalds, the YMCA for a big box of a CVS, and several downtown buildings, including Woolworths and Grants, for another ugly box--AutoZone--with an equally ugly parking lot. With the McDonalds, we got burned twice, because they decided they didn't like the Norris Theater site, so they demolished the Wonder Bread building, too.

In each case, Norristown swapped our architectural treasure for buildings and businesses that have made no significant contributions to the community. When I've asked outsiders who've been here what buildings in the borough they remember seeing, they mention the courthouse, the county prison building on Airy, the churches, and many of our other outstanding architectural structures. They NEVER remember noticing a CVS or AutoZone. If they didn't stop to eat at McDonalds (and sometimes even if they did), they don't remember that we have one. Every town in America has a McDonalds. There are 4 AutoZones and more than 25 CVS's within 10 miles of Norristown. Having them here will never put us on the map.

Our council has even exchanged downtown buildings for vacant lots. Sure, some those buildings were destroyed by fire, but some weren't, like the Valley Forge Hotel. And in all cases, the lots left behind sat derelict for DECADES and most still do. Our council reps complain that the property owners refuse to develop or sell. Well then, give them a deadline, and if they don't sell, put the property up for auction to someone who WILL develop it--on condition that we get some retail stores or other downtown-appropriate businesses. No more drug rehabs, check-cashing places or bailbondsmen. No more tax-exempt owners. Either that or expand the public square and turn the empty lot on the corner of Main and Dekalb into a well-kept park or garden that we can all enjoy, and that outsiders will come into town to visit.

What brought this to my mind is that I've heard that our Historical Architecture Review Board (HARB) was told by certain council members that council would no longer support them, which I take to mean that these representatives don't feel obliged to listen to HARB's recommendations. HARB is the advisory body that reviews proposed development in our historic districts and makes sure exterior changes aren't in conflict with the architecture of the building or surrounding neighborhood. They are the only frontline we have protecting our gorgeous old buildings from damage or demoition. You can read more about HARB here.

I know not all our current council members have this antagonistic view toward historic preservation. Some of them actually have the brains to realize that the architecture that makes Norristown unique is a sale-able COMMODITY. Marketing is all about image. Why project an image of "Norristown--We're Trying Hard To Look Like Everywhere Else?" That sounds like a teenager afraid of peer pressure, if you ask me. We could be saying "Come To Norristown To See Our Beautiful, One-Of-A-Kind Architecture (and stay for our arts, food, etc.)"

So I think we ought to be prepared in 2014 for more attempted exchanges by Council. Norristown can't afford to lose more assets. I hope our 2 newest members of council, slated to be installed in January (Derrick Perry and Sonya Fisher Sanders), will give some thought to how Norristown can use its architectural capital to bring in business, instead of allowing others to demolish the one thing that could save us.

(Note: I'll be taking another day off from the Diary tomorrow (this time for a Revolutionary War battle reenactment). Be back next week.)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Looking Ahead

I'm going to take the chance to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year right this minute, mainly because my phone died Saturday. The repairman's coming today and will turn off my internet.  I may be optimistic about Norristown, but I definitely have a Murphy's Law philosophy about Verizon. Worst case scenario: the internet doesn't come back up, and I can't do anything about it until at least Thursday or maybe next week. I was going to take tomorrow and Wednesday off from the Diary anyway, but I may end up with a longer vacation.

But I DO remain optimistic about Norristown. Looking back over the last six months, since I began making Diary entries each day, I'm amazed by how many great Norristonians I've met. Oh, we have a few who keep trying to project their image of N-town as a big formal urban center. All I can think is that they don't get out of their ivory tower long enough to really get to know the residents and business people of this borough.

Yesterday, as I stood on the corner of Airy and Dekalb with members of the Norristown Preservation Society, waiting to get in the building so we could start our meeting, Robin Parker from the Dragon Boat Club drove by, lowered her window, gave us a shout out and wished us Happy Holidays. Tell me a city where that could happen.

Norristown's the best kind of small town.

I went to a Norristown Business Association meeting last Friday. Remember me saying we need a Chamber of Commerce?  I take it back. The NBA can fill that role, actively promoting our businesses and putting forth a positive image of the borough. They're going to be working together with the Dragon Boat Club and other groups in 2014 to bring us some wonderful festivals and events.

And since I was at the Preservation Society meeting yesterday, I can report that they'll be expanding their role of preserving Norristown's gorgeous architecture and history. Look for more events at Selma, walking tours in conjunction with our downtown festivals, and a raised awareness of our endangered buildings, for instance, the Jail, the Post Office, and Montgomery Hospital. Also look for a SALE on NPS membership, making it easy for the community to get involved.

As I've said before, we need to connect the dots between our volunteer organizations. I've seen so many people get discouraged and frustrated in town, and it's mainly because each group feels isolated. If we reach out to each other, work together, support each other--even simply publicize each others' activities-- so much more can be accomplished. And knowing we all have friends will keep us optimistic.

So enjoy your holidays, N-town, then back to work on this place in January. Remember, Saturday, January 18th is the MLK Day of Service. Volunteers will be working at 3 of our most historic buildings that day--Montco OIC (old Hancock School), Selma Mansion, and Centre Theater. To volunteer go to The Norristown Project's facebook page or contact Shae Ashe at NorristownProject@gmail.com.

It's going to be a Happy New Year in Norristown. Be part of it.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Parties, Music, and M&M Pancakes

At last, we'll have a non-snowy weekend to get out and enjoy festivities before Christmas and New Year's.

On Saturday from noon to 3 pm, come to a Christmas party at Norristown PAL on Harding Blvd. Fun, food, games, give aways, and more. Hosted by One Love Club, Parents that Care and 100 WATTS.

Saturday night at 7 pm, Annabella Wood, song writer/performer, will perform at Coffee Talk Artists' Co-op, 507 W. Marshall St. $5.00 admission. For more info, call 610-272-4811.

Sunday morning from 10:30 to noon, bring your kids to Alfredo's Restaurant (corner of Main and Hamiliton Sts.) for "Breakfast with Santa."  M&M pancakes and a small drink. Kids 12 and under eat free. Children must be accompanied by an adult.

On Sunday starting at 1 pm, the Norristown Preservation Society will hold its Annual Meeting. Open to all members, and anyone who thinks they'd like to become a member in the coming year. Come hear the Society's accomplishments in regards to the Selma Mansion restoration, and what they have planned in 2014. Bring your new ideas and help preserve Norristown's history.

Also at Coffee Talk, from 1 to 4 pm on Sunday, "In the Christmas Spirit... An Afternoon With Songs Close To Our Hearts." (A carol sing and party.) $5 donation. 507 W. Marshall St. For more info, call 610-272-4811.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Council Meeting Post-Game Report

I couldn't get to the council meeting on Tuesday, so I waited for the Times Herald and Norristown Patch to fill me in. Interestingly, there were some discrepancies between the reports, but here's what I pieced together.

First, Olivia Brady was sworn in to fill out the rest of Dwayne Roster/Cy Burke's term. She'll serve until the end of 2015.

Cathy Lawrence was absent. She's actually been absent a lot the last few months. Probably because her term is over on December 31st. Bringing "lame duck" to a new level of disability.

Council officially appointed Rochelle E. Rawlins, Assistant Director of Finance, as acting Finance Director and Municipal Tax Collector, where she will be replacing Richard Zawisza, Norristown’s Finance Director. She's actually been replacing him since November, when Zawisza was given a police escort out of Municipal Hall. Borough manager Crandall Jones says Zawisza is still on administrative paid leave, because of a personal issue. Yes, we're paying Zawisza to do nothing, with no explanation. Read about in Patch.

In other news, J.P. Mascaro & Sons was awarded a one-year extension to its trash collection contract. The Times Herald reported that "the extension will cost each customer $117.56 next year, a 10 percent increase over the current annual cost." The Herald wasn't clear on what was meant. Do they mean an average of $117.56 per customer?  Or is the 10% increase the average and individual taxpayers are going to get socked?

While we're talking about having to shell out more money, Council voted to adopt the 2014 budget, with a 2.8% millage rate increase from 2013. According to Patch, this means a $24.16 increase in real estate taxes per $100,000 of assessment. According to the Herald, the increase will be $34. Where taxes are concerned, I tend to believe the worse case scenario.

The budget passed 5 to 1, with Olivia Brady voting against it. I don't know why she voted against it, but possibly it was because the budget was supposed to have been an open process, with input from the public, and that never happened.

Meanwhile, the rest of council and Manager Jones were all patting themselves on the back saying what a great job they'd done on the budget. Councilwoman Christian was quoted as saying "Everything that could possibly be done to not have an increase was done, and I want to say ‘hats off' to our department heads and our administration as a whole, because I think they did an excellent job in this budgeting process." Maybe she was right, but since it wasn't an open process and the budget workshop that was cancelled was never rescheduled, we'll never know.

The thing is, if I thought Council and Jones could be trusted to use the extra money wisely, I'd say go for it. But in the last year, I've seen them give our tax money to people like Sarah Peck, who's building a development the taxpayers don't want, and almost give funds to Pennrose for their horrendous proposal for the corner of Airy and Dekalb. I've seen them court companies like Gaudenzia, who'll bring nothing to Norristown but reasons to avoid the downtown. I've seen them ignore Arts Hill and small business on Main Street and elsewhere. I've seen them make one bad decision after another about our economy.

But hey, we still have Councilman Millner on our side, keeping us informed every minute. Here are his tweets from the meeting:

I feel so much better, don't you?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why We Need Small Retail Shops in Norristown

I went out early today to try and finish my Christmas shopping. I had a few items I needed to get at a mall and I thought if I went early enough, I wouldn't hit as many crowds. I even went to Plymouth Meeting thinking it would be saner than King Of Prussia.

Wrong. No parking within a reasonable distance of a door. Long lines at every checkout counter. And for items they advertised, if I wanted a larger size, they only had small; if I wanted medium, they only had extra large.

At 2 stores I visited, I was asked for my phone number or email address. Why are we complaining about the NSA invading our privacy when we let big stores do it all the time? I also had to listen to the whole spiel about how my life would be better if I only had a store credit card. At another store I was asked if I needed Scotch tape (I wasn't buying any wrapping paper, or anything else that required tape. Maybe their message was: Our merchandise is so crappy, it'll need taping back together by the time you get home.)

On the way home, I stopped in at Zachary's BBQ on Markley Street to buy a gift card. I was greeted warmly by the women behind the counter. Chef Taylor even came out to say hi. They were busy, but treated me like a human being.

I've been treated like this in businesses all over the borough. But never in a mall. We've got something really special going for us here, and we need to promote it and expand on it.

If I could have gotten those few items here in town, I would have. Sure, maybe I'd still have trouble finding parking. Maybe I'd find long lines. At least in a small business you know they aren't skimping on sales help because of greed. Frankly, I want to see lots of people in our stores, and lots of cars outside. I'd know business is booming, and that's good for the town as a whole.

So please, Norristown, let's do everything we can to bring mom-and-pop retail shops back. If only so I don't have to go to the mall next Christmas.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Last Meeting of Our Forever-Late 2013 Council

I'm late blogging again today. No surprise--it's the 3rd Tuesday, which means I was waiting for Council to post their agenda.  It finally made an appearance at 9:40 this morning, once again less than 10 hours before the meeting begins.

Olivia Brady will be installed as a councilwoman tonight. That's followed on the agenda by "Presentations" and "Executive Session announcement." No explanation of either.

Under "Planning/Economic/Business Development" the two items from last night's Planning meeting are listed: the ordinance to regulate the size of real estate signs, and Via Venuto's revised plan. I supposed Council will say they held up the agenda waiting for the Planning meeting outcome. But, in this modern world of computers, the rest of the agenda could have been posted Friday and an update posted this morning.

The interesting stuff comes under "Finance/Administration/Personnel."  There's a "Motion to approve Resolution 13-159 - updating the consolidating fee resolution." No explanation.

"Motion to adopt Ordinance 13-16 – the 2014 Municipal Budget." They never did have the promised Budget Workshop, where the residents would have been able to have input.

"Motion to ratify the settlement agreement with Dan Bove – 620 Corson Street L.P. and Ives Realty Trust." This is in regards to the Tyson Shirt Factory Apartments. I wasn't able to find out what the settlement involves, but I did find a lot of scathing reviews about the apartments and of Mr. Bove's and Mr. Ives's management of them. The building was condemned at one point.

"Public Comment" is listed on this agenda after "Executive Session announcement" and before "Planning/Economic/Business Development." That means, despite the fact that several items on the agenda aren't clear or defined, and despite the fact that the agenda was posted too late for anyone to do research into these items, the public can only comment on those items BEFORE they're discussed in the meeting.

This is our present Council's idea of how a democracy is run. Thank God this is the last meeting of the year with the old guard. I hope things improve in 2014.

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Week of Meetings

Meetings are scheduled tonight through Thursday at Municipal. If someone brings cookies and punch, we could have one long holiday party.

Tonight at 7 pm is the Planning Commission meeting that was postponed from last week. Still on the agenda is Via Venuto's plan to merge properties on Markley St. for a larger restaurant and adequate parking, but also some new business: "Amendment to provisions of the Zoning Ordinance amending the standards for non-residential Real Estate Temporary banner signs to allow for temporary signs that are proportional to the building size. Recommendation to Council to start the public process."  I think it means they don't want huge For Sale or For Rent signs all over our vacant stores and offices. This makes sense--most non-residential real estate transactions are advertised online these days and agents handle who views the properties. No need to have large signs around that only discourage businesses from moving in because the town LOOKS empty.

Tomorrow there's a council meeting at 7:30 pm. No agenda has been posted yet (no surprise), though I hear Olivia Brady will be installed to replace Cy Burke. I hope, with new blood coming to council in 2014, and according to law, a new president, that the agenda will be posted in a timely manner starting in the New Year.

Wednesday at 7 pm is a HARB meeting. No agenda yet.

Thursday from 7 to 9 pm is the December Zoning Board meeting. This would normally be on the 4th Tuesday, but since that's Christmas Eve, it was rescheduled for the 19th. Gaudenzia is NOT on the schedule. Since the board has 45 days from the last meeting to make their decision, they should convene on Gaudenzia sometime between now and the 1st week of January. But there are plenty of other items on their agenda (posted well in advance of the meeting, I might add).

622 Swede (photo above) -- The owner wants a variance for parking and special use to allow for office space on the first floor and a residential apartment on the second. The 1st floor already seems to have offices. There are 3 floors--one would assume there are other apartments in the building, though I'm not sure. The backyard is paved, but probably not wide enough for a regular parking lot.

821 Haws 
821 Haws Avenue - The West Norristown Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses is seeking permission to demolish the house at 821 and expand their parking lot.

610 W. Lafayette - The Special Exception variance being sought is for a multi-unit conversion and "Restoration or Reconstruction of a Non-Conforming Use, to allow for a 2 unit apartment dwelling with garage." This house has conflicting listings online. One lists it as a duplex, another as a single-family house. Both say it has 2 bedrooms and 2 baths. Possibly it was a 2 apartment dwelling at one time, then became one and now the proposal is to turn it back into a duplex. If anyone knows the story, let me know. My opinion is, if it now conforms with town zoning, it should stay as is. We have enough non-conforming uses as is in the borough.

To get a look at the full Zoning agenda, click here.

More snow expected tomorrow. If the council meeting isn't postponed, I hope the snow isn't so bad it keeps people away.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Cards for Veterans, Soul Food, Christmas Traditions and Music

As stated yesterday, "A Selma Mansion Christmas" -- scheduled for tomorrow -- has been cancelled due to weather and lack of running water. They've decided not to reschedule, but will be turning their energies to the MLK Day of Service, and some really exciting spring events. However, part of the Christmas event was a craft room for kids to make Christmas cards which would have then been sent out to veterans who are patients at Coatesville VA Hospital. The Selma Mansion event committee is still going to make a run out to Coatesville before Christmas. If you have kids who'd like to make at least one Christmas card for a vet (or. if they want, make more than one card), the committee will be collecting them. I'll post details on where to bring the cards and the deadline in the Diary next week. So, even though tomorrow's event is off, let's make Cards for Coatesville a success.

Starting at 11 am Saturday, the George Washington Carver Community Center, 249 E.Jacoby St, will host "Soul Food Saturday."  Dine in or take out. They'll stay open until they sell out. $8 per platter. Phone orders call 610-272-7480 (delivery on multiple orders).

On Sunday, at 2:30 pm, The Historical Society of Montgomery County, 1654 DeKalb St, will present a FREE Holiday Program. In "The Legend Continues..." Judy Parrish will explain the meanings and traditions of ornaments and Christmas symbols as she decorates a tree, and will then read “A Christmas Cup of Tea,” the story of a young man's reluctant visit to an elderly aunt at Christmas time, and the unexpected joy it brings. Open to all. Light refreshments. Call for info 610-272-0297.

From 4-5 pm Sunday, Macedonia Ministries presents a Christmas Concert at Macedonia Baptist Church, 2633 Hillcrest Ave. (East Norriton).  FREE community concert featuring a 20+ piece orchestra, guest musicians and the mass choir.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tonight in Norristown

Two events tonight, both in Elmwood Park. The 2nd is especially important for the future of Norristown.

From 6 to 8 pm, Elmwood Park Zoo will hold its Holiday Tree Lighting -- the one postponed from last Friday. Come join EPZ for hot chocolate, s'mores, and photo opportunities with Santa and his reindeer as they welcome the holiday season with the lighting of their tree. Admission to this event is FREE. For more information, contact Guest Services at 610.277.3825 x 241 or email guestservices@elmwoodparkzoo.org

At the other end of the park, between 6:30 and 7:30 pm, PAL, 340 Harding Blvd, will host the Montgomery County Planning Commission, who'll present "Montco 2040 - A Shared Vision" to Norristown residents. This workshop is open to the community. Light refreshments will be served. Meeting will take place in the computer room of GNPAL. They've been holding these workshops all over the county, asking other county residents what they want their county seat to be like. We actually had to beg them to come here to ask us. I know it's tempting to stay in and stay warm, but go and tell the County what we want for our town. Otherwise, the rest of the county gets to decide our future without us.

The event at Selma Mansion scheduled for Saturday, "A Selma Mansion Christmas" is off. Because of the early deep freeze, and because Selma has no heat, the decision was made to drain the plumbing to protect the pipes. Between that and the forecast, holding an event there Saturday isn't feasible. They MAY reschedule for next weekend elsewhere. I'll know for sure tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Good Day To Stay In

If you were planning on going to the budget meeting tonight, it's been cancelled due to the snow.

No word yet about tonight's Planning Commission meeting. The only thing on their agenda is Via Venuto's proposed plan to merge their property with the one on the corner (Markley and W. Logan). They want to knock down the existing buildings and build a larger restaurant with better parking. I think everyone in Norristown wants Via Venuto to come back to town, and bring business to the Logan Square corridor. The buildings in question aren't historic or even great-looking, so I don't think anyone objects.

Let me point out that the planning agenda was posted on Norristown's website LAST THURSDAY. See? Agendas CAN be posted in a timely manner.

As for the snow, check on your elderly and disabled neighbors. Remember they can't (or at least, probably shouldn't) shovel their walks and dig out their cars alone, and some can't afford to pay to have it done. Give them a hand.

Not sure I'll be posting a blog tomorrow. Got a morning appointment (assuming I'm dug out from the storm), then I'm off to Selma to help get it ready for "A Selma Mansion Christmas" on Saturday.

Stay safe. Drive carefully.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Norristown In The Snow

First snow of the season. I've been looking at people's photos of N-town. From Coffee Talk on West Marshall, to Jus' Java and Plymouth Produce in the North End, to the Times Herald photos of downtown, Norristown sure looks pretty covered in snow.

But if you have to drive in it, or find parking when it's deep, that's another thing.

How do we measure up compared to surrounding communities? Since I'm a musician, which means doing performances everywhere this time of year, and since, until recently, I commuted to Malvern, I've seen how many of those communities handle snowstorms.

First Upper Merion Township, which I think of as the gold standard. I was over in King of Prussia Saturday and the roads were already treated for the coming storm. Instead of using salt, UM puts down a chemical that sticks to the roads. Not only do they treat main routes, but I've even seen the telltale stripes from this chemical back in the developments. Unless we get deep snow, most of the time after a storm, the streets of Upper Merion are merely wet. If not, they usually plow the main roads fairly quickly. I don't know exactly what chemical they use, how safe it is in the groundwater, how much it costs, etc., but it sure does work well. And where there are hills, I've often seen big cans of cinders set up, in case anyone gets stuck.

Worst streets? The Main Line, pretty much the whole length of Lancaster Avenue from Wynnewood west to Tredyffrin. For all the times I've had to drive those routes in storms, I swear they don't salt or treat the roads in anyway, and I've rarely seen a plow during a storm. Tredyffrin puts down cinders and maybe a minimal amount of salt on their main roads, after they get slick. Even Lancaster Avenue (which I would have assumed was a Penndot route) is often a skating rink.

Norristown at least seems to salt the main streets, like Marshall and Fornance, and the plows are often out during the storms. Dekalb, Main, and I think, one lane of Markley, are Penndot's responsibility, but I've seen Norristown trucks on these routes as well, helping to keep them clear. Fornance was salted yesterday, and Marshall didn't look too bad in the photos. Some of Penndot's routes were bad yesterday--Dekalb didn't look salted, and my brother said the west end of West Main was icy and people were skidding into parked cars.

Our side streets are almost always hazardous during and after storms. I'm only 2 blocks from Markley, but sometimes the side streets are bad enough that I can't get to 202 for a day after a storm. I realized we have a lot of streets and limited resources, and it's only the start of the season, so we need to conserve salt, but it doesn't help our tax situation if people can't get out to work.

I'd give Upper Merion an A+ in snow and ice control. The Main Line gets an F. Norristown? Maybe a C. We could do much better, but we're definitely better off than a lot of communities.

Comment below or on Facebook and tell me what your street's like in the snow and ice.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Santa Comes To Norristown!

Not only will Santa be arriving this weekend, and sticking around for the festivities, but a symphony orchestra and The Norristown Chorale will give free concerts.

Tonight, Friday, from 6 to 8 pm at RESCHEDULED DUE TO RAIN to Thursday, Dec 12, 6-8 pm at Elmwood Park Zoo, come to the zoo's annual Holiday Tree Lighting. Carols, hot chocolate, s'mores, and photo opportunities with Santa and Anya, the reindeer. Admission to the event is FREE.

Saturday morning from 10 am to noon, Mt. Zion Health Ministry and TRUST for an Informational Forum will host "Get Covered America," a seminar about health insurance. I've been to one of these seminars and they're a great place to start if you need to buy health insurance under the new Affordable Care Act (however, I urge you to do your own research, too--and, the voice of experience here, DON'T let it go until the last minute). The event is at Mt. Zion, 1312 Willow St. For more info on Get Covered America, click here.

One of Norristown's best kept arts secrets is the fact that St. Patrick's Church hosts 2 concerts annually by the Ambler Symphony. They pass the plate for a freewill offering if you'd care to donate, but otherwise, NO CHARGE. If your kids have never heard an adult orchestra live, bring them to St. Pat's, Dekalb and Chestnut Sts. on Saturday afternoon, 2:45 pm, for an hour's concert of Christmas music.

Same afternoon at 4 pm, The Norristown Chorale will presents, "Where Are You Christmas?" at the First Baptist Church of Norristown, 445 Burnside Ave (technically, West Norriton). Admission is free; free-will offering accepted.

Ebenezer Concert Choir
Saturday night from 7 to 9 pm
, you're invited to "Winter Wonderland at Riverfront Park" (entrance at end of Haws Ave). Come and join the Dragon Boat Club of Norristown for their tree lighting, a night of singing Christmas carols (led by Ebenezer Choir), and the reading of "Twas The Night Before Christmas."  Hot beverages will be available. Bring a plate of cookies for a cookie potluck. Bring your own chair. Don't forget to have your child write to Santa and put the letter in Santa's mail. Rumor has it that Santa may arrive by dragon boat! (Parking lot will be closed for the safety of children.)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Justice System, Revisited (but not by the criminals)

Just a quick update today on the crime story I wrote last week. You'll remember the criminal was a drug user who stole money from a Norristown volunteer organization in August, then was arrested by 4 different police departments in the last 3 months, on 6 felony charges. Each time he was given unsecured bail and allowed to walk without paying anything. He didn't show for a court appearance in October, but a contempt charge and warrant were never issued.

Yesterday, he was to have 2 court appearances. He skipped bail and didn't show up for either. Big surprise. But at least this time 2 bench warrants were issued for contempt.

Montgomery County now lists their active bench warrants online and the list is pretty depressing. There are more than 4000 warrants outstanding in the county, some more than 20 years old. If you search on those who listed Norristown addresses, you get more than 800 names. Much of it, I assume, is because Montco courts keep letting criminals walk away after their arraignments, with no incentive, like having to pay a percentage of bail, for them to come back for their trials.

One would assume that most of these criminals are long gone, but really, in this day and age, no one can fly under the radar for long, and most criminals aren't smart enough to be good at it. Would it be such a bad use of our tax money to have someone spend a few days matching social security numbers, addresses, drivers' licenses, etc, to find out if these people are still in the area? Pay me minimum wage, give me access to the records, and I'd do it.

But if you want to do your part, go to the bench warrants list, press Ctrl-F, and type in the name of your street. You can go through the list that way, checking for addresses on your block. If you know that the person listed still lives at that address, you can click on the last name to submit a tip to the sheriff's department. You can also search by last name and city. Tips are kept confidential.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Arts Hill Challenge - Ways To Support Our Arts

Here are a few ways you can support Art Hill.

The 1st, obviously, would be donations. The Norristown Arts Council is currently running an online fundraiser to fund the 5th Annual Arts Hill Festival, and go toward operating costs of the Council. This month, a pledge of matching funds has been made by Gene R. Frank, PhD, and Susan K. Howard. All individual donations between $5 and $50 will be matched dollar-for-dollar, up to a total of $2500. BUT, if the Arts Council fails to reach its goal of $2500 in individual donations, they will receive no matching funds. The deadline for raising the $2500 is December 20th.

You can help the Norristown Arts Council work towards its mission of making Norristown Arts Hill a destination for all for as little as 5 bucks. If you're so inclined, go to https://www.wepay.com/donations/319748994 and donate. If you'd rather not donate online, you can send a check to Norristown Arts Council, 208 Dekalb St., Norristown, PA 19401.

Last year, the Arts Hill Festival featured more than 30 free performances and 30 vendors of art, food, crafts and services, with approximately 300 people taking part. They'd like the festival to grow in future years. They have also sponsored the Arts Hill Mural Project, and co-sponsored the Juneteenth, Norristown DanceFest and Movies From The Hill. They're involved with the design and development of the new River Trail Wall.

The Norristown Arts Council has just received its 501(c)3 non-profit status, so they'll be developing a membership of individuals, businesses, non-profits and other organizations. They're looking forward to more regular interaction with the public.

Besides donating, there are other ways you can help grow the arts in Norristown. On Thursday, January 23, from 6:30 to 8 pm at the Centre Theater, the Council will hold its Annual Meeting and annual election of members for the Board of Directors. They're looking for new blood. Even if you'd rather not be a Director, you can volunteer for a committee. More information on these positions and how to be considered for them can be found at http://norristownartshill.org/index.html

Get involved.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Communication Keeps Getting Worse

This blog is being posted late today for one simple reason. The agenda for tonight's council meeting wasn't available on Norristown.org until about 9:30 this morning, only 10 hours before the meeting is set to begin.

I don't know what's going on with the calendar on the website, but for more than a month, things that need to be posted -- council agendas, zoning and planning meetings and agendas -- aren't showing up until the very last minute, often on the day the event is supposed to take place.

I've noticed that other events aren't being posted either. Over a week ago, I submitted a notice for the Christmas event at Selma Mansion and it still hasn't shown up. I resubmitted it this morning. I can only assume that if one person has the job of updating the calendar, that person either isn't working for the borough anymore, or he/she has been given so much other work that the calendar is no longer considered to be a priority.

But it IS a priority. I know residents use the calendar because, for the last event at Selma, I asked people who came how they heard about the event. Many saw it on the town calendar.

I know I use the calendar each week to check for meetings and agendas. Other residents have told me the same.

What's on tonight's agenda? First, an "Executive Session Announcement." That could mean anything from the fate of our financial director to anything I've already read about on Facebook, like the tree lighting at the zoo this weekend. These "Executive Session Announcement" listings on the agenda need a bit more description, so residents know if it's worth their time to go to the meeting.

Also on the agenda, a motion to introduce the proposed budget ordinance for 2014. The ordinance is NOT available for taxpayers to review before the meeting.

J.P. Mascaro's trash hauling contract is up for extension. There's no motion associated with it, but the word "discussion" is written next to it.

There's a motion to lease purchase 3 new police cars. I hope that means more police presence on the streets.

And there's a motion to introduce an ordinance to adopt the 2012 International Property Maintenance Code. This, I think, is to follow standards for property maintenance used around America. You can read it here, but it's long. You probably won't have enough time before the meeting.

I can't make the meeting tonight, but would someone who goes please ask council to fix the problem with the calendar postings being so late? And ask that they post ordinances in advance of the meetings so we can be informed when asked to give public comment.

Then again, "Public Comment" ISN'T listed on this agenda. I guess that shows what they think of our opinions.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Zoning Hearing: N-Town vs. Gaudenzia

Okay, we've all had a long holiday weekend, but it's time I let everyone know what went on at that zoning hearing last week.

First Gaudenzia's lawyer, Vern Anastasio, got up and immediately said how fortunate we all were to have a multi-million dollar corporation in our midst. He repeated this many times. Remember that, we'll come back to it. He said Gaudenzia's plan is to consolidate 3 of their other locations at 166 W. Main, for a total of 72 adminstrative workers and 6 counselors, with an annual payroll of 3 million. He said that no medicines would be dispensed on the site, that services would be counseling only, and that Gaudenzia's clients were no different than the clients of a law firm (I was thinking they might even be the same people--like the drug user I talked about last week, who ended up needing a lawyer for 4 arrests).  In the 10 or 15 minutes that Mr. Anastasio spoke, he never mention the words "drug" or "alcohol" once. He said that an average of only 4.5 clients would be onsite at any one time, and would use the back door. That 96% of the activites at 106 W. Main would be administrative and only 4% counseling. And also that 25% of the total staff live in Norristown, with a combined income of 1 million dollars. He also repeated these points many times.

We also heard testimony from 2 workers at Gaudenzia who live in Norristown, 2 women, one black, one handicapped, chosen, I assume, to appeal to our emotions. They both claimed that Gaudenzia was the best company on earth, and that they'd hate to move out of Norristown if Gaudenzia can't stay.

The CEO of Gaudenzia testified. He explained that each facility was licensed separately, so that services in one facility couldn't simply be sent to another place. He said that since Gaudenzia has been at 106 West Main, they've turned the neighborhood around. He took credit for bringing Almaz Cafe and Bahn Mi Bistro to West Main (say what?). He said that Gaudenzia clients never hang around outside their building on Marshall St--they were clients of some other company. He also said that, since Gaudenzia is tax exempt, he'd pledge to pay the equivalent of what would be paid in taxes for that property to Norristown for the next 8 years.

The Zoning Board then asked for clarification on some points: Services? FINALLY the words "drug and alcohol counseling" were uttered. Building hours? 8 am to 8 pm, weekdays and some hours on Saturday for any employees who wanted to do extra work. Employees who lived in Norristown? It came out that the local workers lived in Norristown AND the surrounding area, but that it was about 24 employees, closer to 30%.

4 Norristonians, including me, gave testimony against Gaudenzia's plan. 3 were cross-examined by Mr. Anastasio with intimidating questions like "Who told you to come here tonight?" He of course didn't realize that the resident was a regular at zoning meetings, but his intimidation definitely kept others from going up to the podium and putting their opposition on record. I pointed out some questions that needed to be answered: What was the MAXIMUM number of clients that would be onsite at any one time? How many group therapy sessions and how many in each group? How many employees lived within Norristown's borders and how many were homeowners? I also suggested a compromise, mainly to see how it would be received--I suggested the 96% administrative staff stay at 106 W. Main and the counseling services be moved up into the healthcare district around Montgomery Hospital. If it were only 6 counselors, they wouldn't need that much space.

While cross-examining another resident, Mr. Anastasio said specifically that he would answer my question about maximum clients. Since there were only 6 counselors, they could only see one client at a time, the answer was 6.

The Zoning Board called the CEO back to the podium and reiterated most of my questions. Now we heard that the group therapy sessions could have up to 10 drug users in them and there could be 2 going at once. Group sessions would take place Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday (so the building wouldn't just be open for workaholics), mostly between 5 and 8 pm on the weekdays, but possibly in the afternoon, too. So there could be more than 20 drug users present in and around the building at one time.

That was Lie #1 exposed.

Lie #2? Employees who live in Norristown. Only 10 workers, with an average income around 20 or 25 thousand. They didn't ask about homeownership.

Lie #3 came out in the residents' testimony. Gaudenzia claimed their clients never hang around outside their building. One of the residents had family members who were Gaudenzia clients, and testified that his family members DID loiter around the building after their sessions. And seriously, how would the CEO know if they did or not? The danger of 20 or more of them coming out of the building and hanging around is, of course, that every drug dealer in the area will be there watiing for them.

But perhaps the biggest lie was #4. When the Zoning Board asked the CEO why the drug counseling activities couldn't be done in another part of town, after all of Mr. Anastasio's bragging about Gaudenzia being a multi-million dollar corporation with a local payroll of 3 million, the CEO claimed that they couldn't afford to rent office space for 6 counselors, not even in Norristown where rentals are pretty inexpensive, or where they could even buy one of those empty medical offices up on Dekalb Street, probably dirt cheap.

As for the suggestion of compromise, the CEO's attitude was juvenile. If Gaudenzia couldn't get its way, they'd take their marbles and leave Norristown altogether. They owned land near West Chester, he said. They'd build a headquarters there. (They can't afford to rent a little extra space in N-town for 6 counselors, yet they have the bucks to build a whole new headquarters buidling outside of West Chester?) If it were up to me, I'd call their bluff. Companies who lie and act like brats aren't exactly good neighbors. Norristown deserves better.

The Zoning Board decided to take 45 days to decide. They'll issue their decision on December 19th. At this point, I think maybe all residents can do is band together and send a petition around, like we did with Pennrose.  You all need to decide: Do we want drug users wandering around downtown, discouraging other businesses from coming to Main St.? Do we want a tax-exempt corporation who after 8 years will stop generating revenue for our town?

Friday, November 29, 2013

Upcoming Events in Norristown

Comet Ison burned up in the sun, alas, but there are lots of other things happening this weekend.

TODAY from 10 am to 1 pm at Jus' Java, Dekalb and Brown Sts., TRV Protection will have a BLACK FRIDAY Sale. TRV specializes in security and self-defense equipment. 15% off total purchase AND a free Kubotan (self-defense baton).

This is the last weekend for "A LESSON BEFORE DYING" at Centre Theater. I saw this play last Sunday and highly recommend it. Don't miss it. Tonight and tomorrow at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm. Buy tickets at the door or online at http://thecentretheater.ticketleap.com/

On Sunday, December 1, from 11 am to 2 pm, Elmwood Park  Zoo will host a Hanukkah Celebration. Free with zoo admission. The celebration will begin with the lighting of the Zoo's giant menorah, followed by music, games, food, stories and more. For information, contact Jessica Carter, 610-277-3825, ext. 228.

Sunday afternoon from 2:30 to 3:30, the Historical Society of Montgomery County, located at 1654 Dekalb St, will host a FREE program: "THE POW-WOW PRINCIPLE: Pennsylvania German Folk Healing." Open to the public. Journey back to the Old World origins of pow-wow. Learn how it evolved in Pennsylvania and quietly flourished, side by side with the culture's main-stream practices. From its beginnings in the 19th century, to the famous 20th century "Hex Murder" in York County, learn how pow-wow changed the ways in which Pennsylvania Germans were viewed. Presenter Canddace Kintzer Perry is curator at the Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center. Society Headquarters is handicapped accessible. See more information on Facebook.  or call Karen Wolfe at 610-272-0297.

Starting on Wednesday, Dec. 4, Elmwood Park Zoo's 12 DAYS OF DEALS is back, just in time for all your gift giving needs. They'll be offering special, one-of-a-kind items and experiences each weekday. Visit elmwoodparkzoo.org each weekday morning at 10 am to see the deal of the day. Each deal will only be good for 24 hours. The last deal wraps up on Thursday, December 19. For more information on Elmwood Park Zoo's 12 DAYS OF DEALS contact Guest Services at 610-277-3825 ext. 222, or email guestservices@elmwoodparkzoo.org.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Shopping Local For The Holidays

When people around here think about holiday shopping, they think King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting, or Chemical Road, or even just over the border, at the Walmart in East Norriton. No one thinks about doing their shopping here in Norristown. Shop at any of those other places and you're not only NOT bringing money into Norristown, you're likely sending it out of state altogether.

Give a gift to Norristown this year and do at least some of your shopping in town at our small businesses. Here are some suggestions:

1. Take a walk up and down West Marshall Street's business district. Most Norristonians still hold onto the old memory of West Marshall as a depressed place. Not so anymore. You'll find a variety of great little shops on these blocks, plus for instance, a terrific bakery with cakes for those holiday parties. Go stroll and browse, at least. Find out what shopping was like before the birth of the "mall."

2. We've got little produce stores all over town. In my neighborhood, I go to Plymouth Produce. I know I can get specialty produce there, like all kinds of dried fruits and chestnuts. They've got the spices and herbs I use in holiday cooking at better prices than supermarkets. Baked goods and fruit baskets are great gifts for co-workers, neighbors or party hosts.

3. Don't forget our flower shops. Anna Catanese, Blooming Affairs, Joseph Genuardi and others.

3. Go to your favorite Norristown businesses--from restaurants to hair salons to auto repair shops--and see if they'll sell you a gift certificate. With the economy the way it has been, lots of people would appreciate 10 or 20 dollars towards a meal or hair cut or oil change.

4. If you can't get a gift certificate, make up a certificate yourself, something like "This entitles my mother to lunch at the Norristown restaurant of her choice." I used to give coupons like this to my mom--a nice way to set aside time together, without my dad and brothers around.

5. Theater tickets make good gifts. Both Centre Theater/Iron Age and Theatre Horizon are in the middle of their seasons and would love to have you and a friend come to a play.

6. Don't forget our in-town charities this season. Our food banks and shelters need support. So do our non-profits, like ACPPA, The Norristown Project, The Norristown Preservation Society, etc. If you know someone who doesn't want a gift but you want to give something anyway, consider making a donation to their favorite Norristown charity in their name.

Shopping in Norristown isn't as hard as you think. It might take a bit more creativity, that's all. Every dollar spent here instead of at a big box store will help built our economy.

No Diary tomorrow. I'll be up early to sing at St. Pat's, then dinner with my family.

Happy and safe Thanksgiving and/or Hanukkah to all.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Tour of Our Justice System

(Or, One Reason We Have Criminals On Our Streets)

I've been following a Norristown police case--or I should say, Montgomery County, because the defendant's been arrested in 4 different communities over the last 2 months. The reason I began following it (besides being a mystery writer with an interest in police work) is that the person misappropriated a good chunk of money from a Norristown volunteer organization. We all know how hard our organizations work to raise money, so I take it as a personal affront against the town.

I don't say "allegedly misappropriated" because the criminal has admitted doing it. The funds were discovered missing over the summer, and the theft reported to the police, but that, it turns out was only the beginning of the story. I'm not going to mention names, because the defendant hasn't come up for trial yet and I don't want to jeopardize any of the cases.

The organization gave the Norristown police all the documentation they had, but before the paperwork was even done, the thief was arrested twice for other crimes. Here's an excerpt from a September Montgomery News article:

"A Norristown man was arrested Sept. 1 following a police chase by officers responding to a call at 8:41 p.m. to be on the lookout for a blue Chevy Suburban occupied by two white men involved in a retail theft at the Walgreens in East Norriton, police said. A Whitpain officer located the vehicle eastbound on Township Line Road...After a brief chase,...stopped and identified as the man involved in the retail theft, police said. He also appeared to be intoxicated and was taken to Mercy Suburban for a blood test, and charges of driving under the influence are pending against him, police said. In addition, he was charged with fleeing and eluding, receiving stolen property, possession of heroin, possession of paraphernalia and traffic offenses, police said... bail was set at $10,000 unsecured.

"The next day, Sept. 2, Hatfield Township police sent out a request to help identify a suspect in an attempted theft of a case of cigarettes valued at $1,650, which occurred in August, police said. From the photos and description of the vehicle, the thief appeared to be [the defendant] and the information was passed along to Hatfield Township, which obtained an arrest warrant, police said."

Here are the court summaries of those arrests:

Arrest: 9/1/13, Whitpain police
Felony - Fleeing from an officer
Misdemeanors - Receiving stolen property, DUI, 2 counts possession, 3 counts drug use, 2 counts of attempted theft, attempted receiving stolen property. Listed as using 2 aliases and as having a prior arrest in 2002.
Unsecured bail for $10,000 ("Unsecured" means the defendant didn't have to put a downpayment on the bail--he only signed a paper saying he'd return for his court appearances.)

While he was in jail, on 9/2, Hatfield police arrested him. 3 more felony counts - Petty theft, receiving stolen property, theft by failure to make required disposition of funds. Unsecured bail in the amount of $25,000. He was released on 9/12.

Meanwhile the Norristown detectives lost the documentation for the local case and the organization faxed them a second copy.

The felon's next court date was 9/23. He failed to show. This should have brought an automatic contempt charge and a warrant should have been issued for his arrest. That never happened.

Skip to the first week of October, the defendant was arrested AGAIN, in West Norriton. Felony - 2 counts of retail theft. At his hearing, his failure to show wasn't mentioned. He was again issued unsecured bail in the amount of $25,000 and let go.

Meanwhile, Norristown AGAIN asked the organization to fax their documentation.  Apparently we have a black hole down at 235 East Airy that swallows evidence.

On 11/16, the perp was arrested AGAIN, this time in Upper Merion on more counts of theft. I didn't get hold of those court documents to know the exact charges, but last Thursday, he was released on unsecured bail AGAIN.

The charges and warrant for the earlier failure to show still haven't been issued. Norristown still hasn't gotten their act together to file charges or issue a warrant for the misappropriation of funds.

So here we have a drug user charged with at least 6 felony counts, arrested by 4 different police departments (Norristown could make it 5), who has already failed to appear for one court date. He's out driving around Norristown and the surrounding area, probably planning where he's going to steal from next. Montgomery County courts just keep giving him unsecured bail and letting him go. Partially the fault of the judges', but mainly the DA's office, I suspect, for not connecting the dots and aggressively pressing the cases, and not following up to see that a contempt charge was issued.

I'm guessing if the felon were black or Hispanic, things would be different. All our guy seems to have to do is bat his baby blues at a judge and he walks.

As for the Norristown police? I don't know, maybe they don't think they have a strong enough case. Maybe they're waiting for the other charges to stick. But losing the documentation, more than once? Chief Talbot, please tell me that's going to stop.

So think about this when you consider whether we should have a drug counseling center on Main Street. It would sure be convenient for drug users like this man, going between the center and the places he steals from and the courthouse, who'll just let him go over and over again. He could do all his activities within 4 blocks.

Can you understand why new businesses won't want to come to Main St. if that center opens? Why existing businesses might leave?

Go to the Zoning Board meeting tonight at 7 pm in Municipal Hall and say no to Gaudenzia.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Are You Paying Attention?

I heard a rumor that a Zoning Board meeting is scheduled for tomorrow night (Tuesday) - [Update: CONFIRMED, Tuesday at 7 pm] - and that the drug counseling center Gaudenzia wants to set up on Main Street is on the agenda. I say "rumor" because the meeting and agenda aren't listed on town calendar. Not that THAT's usual. If you've been reading this blog, you know meetings and agendas haven't been posted until the very last minute all month.

But does it matter? Are you paying attention, Norristown? I've gotten the distinct feeling that you haven't been since the election. I don't mean paying attention to me. I mean paying attention to what's going on around you. Not just what's happening at 235 E. Airy, but all around town.

Saturday, the Norristown Regional Health Center hosted a program explaining the new health insurance law. This was one of the best publicized events in ages. It was shared all over Facebook, bouncing between 3 or 4 volunteer groups and many individuals like a ping pong ball. It was on the town calendar, Linda Christian included it in her newletter, Viviann Schorle put it in her Youth Network emails. I posted about it TWICE on the Diary last week. Yet, Saturday morning when only a handful of people showed up, and Linda Christian sent out an extra emailing and Facebook posting asking where everyone was, people responded that they hadn't known about the event.

Yes, I know the holidays are fast approaching and we've got our minds on other things. This week we'll be preparing for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, worrying about family coming to visit, or about traveling to visit others, or about shopping on Friday and the weekend. Worrying about the approaching storm disrupting all these plans.

But, honestly, certain members of Council are COUNTING on all this week's activities to keep everyone away from the zoning meeting. They don't want anyone protesting the Gaudenzia proposal. They could care less if the drug users that the counseling center brings in would then hang out on Main Street, attracting drug dealers, and scaring away patrons for our restaurants, scaring away prospective businesses from opening in our empty buildings. These Council members are counting on us to NOT be paying attention.

I'll post as soon as I know if the zoning board meeting is on or not, and the time. But maybe the best thing for our downtown this week might be if that storm hit in time to cancel the meeting altogether.

I'll end on a good note: I saw A LESSON BEFORE DYING at Centre Theater yesterday. The play and performance were excellent and moving. Better quality that most plays I've seen in Philly, and half the price, too. You've got one more weekend to see this first-class production--this coming Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm. Buy tickets online at http://thecentretheater.ticketleap.com/

Friday, November 22, 2013

This Weekend: Music, Sports, and Feed the Hungry

Another packed weekend in town.

Tonight at Norristown PAL at  340 Harding Blvd, an All Boys Lock In, hosted by Parents that Care. Open to boys ages 8-17 yrs. Parent must be present for sign up. Come out and enjoy a night filled with fun, food, and games. Contact PAL at 610-278-8040 for details.

I already mentioned the Health Insurance Seminar a few days ago. If you need to get health insurance, go and find out your options. Saturday Nov 23rd, 11 am-1 pm, Norristown Regional Health Center, 1401 DeKalb St. Questions? Call 610-278-7787.

The Centre Theater will be auditioning for its student production of "THE WIZ" on Saturday from noon to 4 pm, and Sunday from 3 to 5 pm. Bring photo and sheet music for the accompanist. Rehearsals will run through December and January, and the 6 performances will be late January, early February. This is a T.Y.A. Production (Theater for the Young). Make an appointment by emailing OneLoveClub@ymail.com, LDiggs_6@hotmail.com, BuckDaCowboy@yahoo.com, or learnthroughplayinc@yahoo.com.

Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 pm, a basketball tournament will be held at the Carver Community Center, 249 Jacoby St.  18 & up. 2 game elimination, $10 a man (I guess that means guys only). Contact Buddy Epps for details 610-279-4556.

Saturday night at 7 pm, Coffee Talk Artists' Co-op at 507 W. Marshall will host Vinnie Roggio and Band, Blues and Jazz evening. $5.00 contribution. For more info call: 610-272-4811.

Also on Saturday night, a Hip Hop Social II at the George Washington Carver Center, 249 Jacoby St. Music by DJ POODA, food, fun. Doors open at 7 pm. Whitney Winters, Blaq N Nappy, Tre Mega, Brock Brown, Nada, and much more. (Same time as the basketball tournament? Is that correct?)

Sunday, Nov 24th at the Norristown Arts Building, 619 W. Washington St, an Open Studios & Exhibition, Open Reception, from 1 to 4 pm. Participating artists will also have an exhibition on display at Pagus Gallery. Call 610-272-8484 for info.

Sunday from 1 to 6 pm, a Feed the Hungry Fall Holiday Dinner at American Legion Post #39, 500 East Marshall St. Turkey Dinner with all the Trimmings! Call Kenny (happy) Peterson, 267-507-8652, Rose Boyd Young, 484-213-6862, Tiffany Boyd, 267-975-3688. If you would like to make a DONATION for this event please call as well. They are looking for food items. It would be greatly appreciated if all food is fully cooked and ready to serve or donated early enough so they can cook it.

Next Wednesday, Norristown PAL will host a FREE 1 Day Basketball Day Camp in 2 sessions: 9 am to noon and 1 to 4 pm. The 1st 100 campers that sign up online get in FREE. www.motbasketball.com

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Saving Main Street WITHOUT Council

23rd St, Arlington, VA - 2 city blocks of international restaurants and other businesses 
I have a friend who lives in Wynnewood, and when I visit, I usually stop at a certain bakery and a certain pizzeria, both small businesses. What's special about them is that they offer gluten-free items that I can't get in Norristown, and for both, their food is so good that I look forward to going back.

Two weeks ago I had to go to Wynnewood, so I stopped at the bakery to pick up some of their incredible muffins to bring home with me. As I was paying for my order, I said that I wished we had a bakery like that in Norristown. The guy helping me (who, it turns out, was the manager) asked if there were any small retail spaces available in the borough. I almost shouted "The town's full of them!" but not wanting to scare away his interest, I described the downtown and Logan Square. He was actually familiar with Norristown and we ended up talking architecture (he loves our old jail building).

He gave me the bakery's card and when I came home I emailed the information to my councilwoman, Linda Christian, our Director of Planning, Jayne Musonye and to Ron Story, who mans our Small Business Assistance Center. Ron has helped to bring businesses such as Jus' Java, Almaz and Bahn Mi to town. Last I heard, Ron was following up on my lead.

I don't know if that bakery will end up opening a branch here in Norristown or not, but from the experience, I got to thinking. Several thousand Norristonians commute to work each day. According to the last census, our commuters travel an average of 27 minutes. That means half of us go a pretty good distance away. And many more of us travel a distance to visit friends and family, to bring kids to college, or on business trips. And probably in those locations, we all have a few favorite restaurants, specialty shops or stores that we patronize, especially if they sell items we can't get close to home. Some of them are bound to be the kind of small businesses that would go perfect on Main Street or in Logan Square, or in that little shopping area with the Thriftway on Dekalb, or in a neighborhood corner store like Jus' Java.

So let's say the next time you go into one of these favorite stores, you say something like "I wish we had a place like this in my hometown. You want to open a branch there?" If a thousand of us do that, and even a hundred businesses show interest, maybe we can get a dozen of them to move here. Then of course, we'd have to go out of our way to support them so they never regret their decision.

If you try this and get any leads, email them to Ron Story at rstory@norristown.org , and copy Jayne at jmusonye@norristown.org. To shy to ask on your own? Tell Ron about the business and he'll contact them.

Even if you don't have leads, think about what kinds of businesses you'd patronize if they came to Norristown. How about a sporting goods store? (I think that would be perfect in Logan Square.) Other ethnic restaurants? Greek? French? Thai? Indian? Polynesian? (I'd love to see Main St. become an international foods destination, like Arlington, VA, photo above.) An ice cream shop? A bicycle shop? A cheese shop?

Email all your suggestions to Ron. If you've been to a similar place, describe it to him. For instance, I'd tell him that I'd love to see a little breakfast/lunch place like La Madeleine Country French Cafe in Bethesda, MD, that's sort of like Panera but a hundred times better for the same price. Ron can at least check their website and see what I mean.

Waiting for council to take the lead isn't going to get us anywhere. Their answer in to put drug clinics on Main Street. If all of us put effort into scouting out businesses for Norristown, I'm guessing we could save our shopping districts all on our own. If Ron and the Small Business Assistance Center can't keep up, then maybe we have to bring realtors and businesses together ourselves. We'll see. But nothing's going to happen if we keep waiting for someone else to do it.

Quick note: I'll be teaching again tomorrow morning, so the Diary will be late.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

We're More Than Just Good Looks

I listened to the ceremony for the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address yesterday. The remark was made that the National Park Service takes on not only the onerous responsibility for preserving America's National Parks, but also for preserving America's national stories.

In Norristown, we applaud the efforts of anyone who'll take on the task of restoring our beautiful architecture. And why not? We LIKE our look. It's the reason Norristonians went to the trouble of applying for National Historical Register status for our historic districts, to protect our great old buildings from the wrecking ball. Our architecture needs this protection and preservation, if nothing more, as works of art.

Most of the time, though, the restorers are mainly interested in what function the building will serve after restoration--office building, apartment house, restaurant. They aren't concerned with the stories of previous occupants, of the family or organization that built the building, unless a story can be used to enhance the economic potential of the property. But, of course, not every building will have a famous war hero or notorious criminal associated with it, so the majority of Norristown's stories are in danger of being lost.

We're lucky in that we have our own NPS -- not the National Park Service, but the Norristown Preservation Society. As I've mentioned in a previous blog, the Society owns Selma Mansion, and is in the process of restoring it. In just the past month, the woodwork on the 2nd and 3rd floor exterior was repaired and painted. Above is a "before" photo. At left is the "after" photo. But there's so much more work to do on the building.

The Park Service has a budget from the Federal government, tens of thousands of skilled employees and eager volunteers, "Friends" organizations for most of the parks, millions of visitors each year, and the full support of the American people. The Preservation Society has whatever funds they can raise and a handful of regular volunteers. On the plus side, those volunteers include an historic preservation architect, a contractor, and a few people with experience in historic interpretation (that is, doing historical research and piecing the facts together for presentation to the public). They have an incredibly creative Events Committee, and volunteers who'll show up to decorate and man Selma for each event, even if it means spending hours being cold (keep your fingers crossed--the house may be getting heat soon).

Still, they aren't the SELMA Preservation Society, but the Norristown Preservation Society. They're interested in the fate of other endangered historic buildings in the borough, notably at the moment, the old Montgomery County Prison on Airy Street. And like the Park Service, they're committed to preserving the stories from Norristown's history, as well as our buildings.

I joined the Society's board a month ago, and I can give you hints as to upcoming events. First, Christmas at Selma on December 14 from 10 am to 4 pm. Kids activities, games, music, 18th century mummery (not the string band kind), Civil War history, and Yuletide traditions covering 2 centuries. Proceeds will go right back into the restoration. I'll post more details closer to the date, but put it on your calendar now.

On January 18th, the Society will partnering with The Norristown Project as part of the MLK Day of Service. Volunteers will work in 3 of Norristown's most historic buildings that day: the OIC (old Hancock School), Selma Mansion, and the Centre Theater.

If you're into ghost stories, the Society will be hosting late night and overnight paranormal investigations at the mansion, where you and your friends will be able to come hear about Selma's ghosts. Again, all proceeds go to the restoration fund. More information to come.

What can you do to support the Preservation Society?  If you're interested in volunteering at Selma, email NPS@norristownpreservationsociety.org. If you're on Facebook, LIKE their page . They post photos of Selma and items about Norristown history, plus information about upcoming events.

The best thing you can do right now is come to the events at Selma, and spread the information about them to anyone you know. The better the attendance, the faster Selma can be restored and the more resources the Preservation Society will have for preserving Norristown's architecture and history.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Health Insurance Seminar This Week

I'm posting this 4 days in advance because I want everyone who needs this seminar to get it on their calendars early. This coming Saturday, November 23, from 11 am to 1 pm, there will be a Health Insurance Information and Enrollment Event at the Norristown Regional Health Center, at 1401 Dekalb. Now, if you go into Google Maps and enter that address, it tries to send you to someplace on Main St. The NRH Center is actually at Fornance and Dekalb--the building directly across Dekalb from the old Sacred Heart Hospital.

I know this is an important seminar for many Norristonians because a lot of us are both self-employed and low income. And that, I personally found out in the last month, is a bad combination.

I truly believe that the Affordable Care Act is better than the old system of health insurance. I've got some pre-existing conditions and it's nice to know I can't be turned down for insurance because of them. Mammograms are now free. Colonoscopies are free, though you still have to pay for anesthesia and if they remove any polyps, it changes from a diagnostic procedure to a surgical procedue which is not free. Annual wellness exams are free, as long as your doctor codes it correctly (mine rarely does). But I do like that all children are covered in some way, and that kids can stay on their parents' insurance until age 26, because many recent college grads I know haven't been able to get jobs right out of school.

Anyone paying for their own insurance and earning over a certain amount per year will be able to get tax subsidies, applied monthy to their bill, so their premiums will be cheaper. It's hard to compare old and new plans, though. All the new plans seem to have higher deductibles.

If you're self-employed and buy your own insurance like me, you probably received a notice saying your policy is being cancelled and you have to enroll in a new policy by December 15th. The last time Blue Cross sent me such a notice, in late 2010, it said my police was being "discontinued" and that they'd work with me to replace it with a better plan. They offered 5 plans with 6 levels each--all except the prescription plans were cheaper, and they gave us more time to go through the process. Of course, what they didn't tell us was that they were doing it so as not have to grandfather in our existing plans in 2014. Now, boom, "cancelled," no real "help" offered, only one new plan/level is comparable to what I have, and it costs $1050 more per year.

I didn't earn enough in 2013 to qualify for subsidies in 2014. Pennsylvania opted out of Expanded Medicaid, so that's not an option. I don't qualify for regular Medicaid. PA's low income health insurance is only an option if you're desperate--I was on it once and it ended up costing me more in out-of-pocket than my Blue Cross premiums. I haven't heard from Blue Cross about whether they'll let me keep my old plan, and my deadline is less than a month away.

People talking about the Affordable Care Act on TV keep saying the segment of America like me is only a small percentage. That may be, but Norristown has a high concentration of low income, self-employed individuals. I know there are a lot of you out there in the same boat as I am--I've talked to a bunch of you in the last month. On the upside, I haven't had any major trouble with the Obamacare website yet, though I know people who have. I went through the application process, but haven't picked a plan yet.

So I'll be going to the seminar on Saturday. Hope to see many of you there.