Other cities and towns are turning their economic depression around--Oil City, PA; even Detroit, MI... and look at what Conshohocken has accomplished in the last 20 years. The difference between them and us is that they have leaders who believe in their communities.
I've heard it said, often, that our town council has no vision. I've said that they have no positive energy--that going to a council meeting is the most depressing and discouraging experience one can have in Norristown. After speaking with half of our council folks in the last few weeks, and observing the others, I've come to the conclusion that they've stopped believing that Norristown can change. One or two of them, perhaps, never believed it.
That's what differentiates them from all our volunteer organizations who put so much effort into making positive things happen.
That's not to say that council is doing nothing. Yet, they only seem willing to put Band-aids on problems, to take the path of least resistance needed to maintain the status quo. For instance, the issue about whether to let Gaudenzia open a drug counseling center at 166 W Main St.
Widepread public opinion in town is that our taxpayers don't want drug treatment centers here at all. Residents especially don't want the centers in our downtown. We want our downtown to become a retail, office and arts center. We don't want drug users loitering on our streets, discouraging new business.
Council, though, seems to believe that the presence of Gaudenzia's corporate headquarters at 106 W. Main (Masonic Hall) is the only thing keeping at least 2 blocks of Main St afloat. Gaudenzia owns their building and is renting space at Marshall and Dekalb for a treatment facility. What they want to do is own 166 W. Main as well, consolidating administrative and counseling into that building.
What would Norristown gain from this? Gaudenzia is non-profit, so we get no taxes from them. We'd get drug users loitering in our downtown, especially after group sessions, the frequency of which may have been deliberately misrepresented to our council people when Gaudenzia made a presentation to them a week ago Wednesday. The ONLY gain I was able to glean from council members was that they thought downtown Gaudenzia employees were the majority of patrons at Almaz Cafe and Banh Mi Bistro.
Now, I worked in offices for more than 20 years. I can tell you that in this day and age, the lowliest of office workers are more likely to bring lunch because they don't get long breaks and always have too much work to get done. The workers who do go out rarely go to the same restaurants every day. Unless I see a survey of patrons that covers, say, two weeks time, I don't really believe that Gaudenzia is solely responsible for keeping those restaurants open. But even if they were, lunchtime trade isn't enough. Banh Mi is reducing their hours next week and closing at 4:30 pm on weeknights, and that's a bad sign. We need to bring people into our downtown after work for dinner and shopping, and for that you need retail stores, more restaurants, nightclubs, and an active, vibrant arts scene.
Council, however, is trying to go the easy route, taking the path of least resistance. They're afraid that Gaudenzia will up and move out of town. They forget that the company owns property here--selling that property might not be easy, moving would be expensive. If Gaudenzia does sell their property, if it's not to another non-profit, we get tax revenue. If they rent out Masonic Hall, we get earned income tax and new businesses. If they leave the building sit empty, they're stuck with maintenance costs.
Council needs to quit courting big corporate interests. Corporations aren't good for Norristown. They don't care about the town--they come and go without a second thought, leaving gaping holes. We need to put our trust in smaller businesses that will become part of our community as Gaudenzia never can. They're just using us and not giving anything back.
Council thinks, keep Gaudenzia on Main and downtown will be just fine. We all know that's not true. Sure, it's an awful risk to lose another business, but if it's a business that isn't helping the community in any way, maybe it's time council stopped being so damned careful and started taking a few risks. At least then we could say they tried their best.