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?