Friday, November 28, 2014

How Banking Effects Norristown (and everywhere else)

I chose today's topic for a couple reasons. First, today is called Black Friday because it's the day that most determines whether retail businesses will finish the year "in the black"--that is, out of debt and making a profit--so the topic of money changing hands is appropriate. Second, somewhere in America today, it's a good bet someone will be watching "It's a Wonderful Life"--a great Christmas story, but also a story about banks.

So let's start by looking at Norristown's banking history.

For much of the borough's history there were 2 kinds of retail banks in town: National Banks, chartered under the Federal government, members of the Federal Reserve System; and Community Banks, which takes the funds of people who have savings accounts and invests in the community by giving loans to local businesses and developers. Savings and Loans (or Building and Loans as they were sometimes called) were similar to community banks, but their loans were mostly mortgages.

Norristown's boom times occurred pretty much between the mid-19th century and the 1970s (excluding the Great Depression and a few minor recessions) and it's no coincidence that for most of those years, the banks in town were mostly community banks or savings and loans. That is, the money local people saved was put right back into the community, and the profits made with that money mostly STAYED in the community, either as profits made by businesses, interest paid on the loans (which the banks shared with their depositors) or things like increased property values. Even the national banks in the area tended to invest locally. There wasn't much of a financial drain.

Up through the first years of the 1980s, I remember N-town having as many as 8 banks within its borders. 4 of them were downtown on Main Street. Savings accounts regularly earned around 5% interest.

Then deregulation happened in the 1980s. Big national banks began buying out community banks and each other to create huge financial mega-corporations. Yes, just like the evil Mr. Potter trying to take over Bailey Building and Loan in "It's a Wonderful Life." There are still a few community banks around now, like Penn Liberty, based in Wayne, but they're endangered species.

Now we have, I think, 3 banks left in town and they're all mega-corporations. Citizens Financial Group, Inc. is a British-owned American bank, headquartered in Providence, RI. Wells Fargo is an American multinational holding company, headquartered in San Francisco. PNC Corporation is the 5th largest  bank in America, headquartered in Pittsburgh. The best interest rate that any of my accounts earn is about 0.2% (National Penn in East Norriton). Most profits are kept by the banks to pay shareholders and top executive salaries. If our businesses take out loans at these banks, the interest they pay on those loans mostly leaves town, as do the profits collected for everything from minimum balance fines to bounced checks to ATM and safe deposit box fees.

Many developers who build in Norristown have found other sources of funding--direct taxpayer dollars--which they get from the state, county and borough. They raise some money through investors, but if you've ever been to Council meetings where one of them is seeking approval for a project, you more than likely heard words similar to "Sure, I can make the changes to the design you want, but I need another $150,000." I just heard one of these developers bragging about how Council will jump through hoops for her. Yes, we get a few more homeowners from some of these projects who then pay property taxes, but it takes at least a decade to get any real return on our investment and the projects haven't raised property values. When she comes back with another project, does she invest the profits from the last one? No, she asks for more public funding.

On the bright side, some of this public money is now available as small business loans. Some new ideas for financing our local businesses are being explored, like crowdfunding. But you can see how the evolution of the banking industry in the last 30 years has been a major factor in the economic downhill slide of Norristown and lots of other working class communities across the U.S. We need to come up with a lot more creative ways to keep money from being sucked out of our community.

Mr. Potter might have won for now, but as "It's A Wonderful Life" reminds us, good things can happen when a town comes together. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Events to Start the Holidays

Since most of you will begin your weekend tomorrow, I'm listing events for the coming 10 days today. No Diary tomorrow, but I'll be back with something suitable on Friday, so check in while you're standing in cashier lines at the mall. Or you could just do your shopping in Norristown--skip the lines and help our economy.

But let's start with the biggest news:

Back in the first half of the 1900s, weather permitting, Elmwood Park had an ice skating rink, which I think was down where the ballfields/basketball courts are now. This Friday at 1 pm, that tradition returns to the park, this time in the Zoo's lower parking lot. The rink is synthetic ice, so even if we have a mild winter, you'll still be able to go skating. It's for all ages and skill levels. The way it works is, you pay for a 2-hour session, extra if you need to rent skates. Costs and session times can be found at  http://www.elmwoodparkzoo.org/event/155 The rink will be open November 28-January 31. Extra days in the week between Christmas and New Year. You can book ice skating parties. For more information, contact Guest Services at 610-277-3825 x222 or email guestservices@elmwoodparkzoo.org.

SMALL BUSINESS SATURDAY. The Norristown Business Association will be at 31 W Main St, in front of Banh Mi Bar & Bistro from 11 am to 2 pm on Saturday, handing out info about our small businesses and about membership in the NBA. Raffle drawing at 1 pm. You can't win if you don't stop by. Come out and shop local, N-town (do it every day, not just once a year). It's important and something you can brag about. I'll be on Main Street on Saturday, practicing what I preach. If you see me, say hi.

NOTE: The Montco Historical Society program listed on the Town and Community Calendars for this week will actually take place on Sunday, Dec 14. It's a one-time event.

Monday is the first practice for the PAL Wrestling Team, to take place in the Eisenhower School Wrestling Room. 6:15-7:05 pm for rookies, 7-8:30 pm if you've wrestled before. Register NOW in person at GNPAL, 340 Harding Blvd, 610-278-8040 or at practice. Proper attire: shorts/sweatpants, t-shirt/sweatshirt, & sneakers. Practices will be Monday through Thursday next week, Tuesdays and Thursdays after. Cost is $25.00 and includes membership at GNPAL. For more info: Coach Chuck Springer coachspringer@gmail.com.
 

Tuesday at 10:30 am, Jus' Java will officially re-open its doors at its new location, 317 Swede. Stop by for the Grand Re-Opening Ceremony at 10:30 or anytime that day to welcome them back.

Tuesday, Council Meeting, 7:30 pm, Municipal Hall. No agenda yet.

Wednesday, 6:30-8:30 pm, the Greater Norristown NAACP will host the panel discussion "Know Your Rights" at the George Washington Carver Community Center.

Wednesday, 7 pm, The Montco Historical Society presents author Michael Harris, who'll speak about The Battle of Brandywine. Brandywine was a prelude to the capture of Philadelphia and the battle was one of the most important military event of the War for Independence. FREE to the public. Questions: Karen Wolfe, 610-272-0297.

Saturday, Dec 6, the Men of Excellence is holding their Annual Awards Banquet at noon at the Westover Country Club, 401 S Schuylkill Ave, West Norriton. $30 per ticket. Contact Dom Lewis or Doug White at 484-284-0852.

Travel safe this weekend and have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Update on Zoning Hearing

I forgot that I have an early meeting tomorrow morning so I'm posting Tuesday's Diary entry now. It's just a bit more info to add to the last blog on zoning issues.

Michael Allen from the Planning Department was nice enough to clarify my questions about the Cingular antenna tower. The permanent structure IS meant for the roof of the parking garage, or specifically, the roof of the elevator shaft connected to the parking garage. It would extend about 9 feet above the roof of the shaft. That makes SO much more sense. I wish they'd explained that on the agenda in the first place.

I did a drive-by of 1137 Markley today. It looks worse than photos of it that I found online. It's in really bad shape. I have to wonder if there are structural problems. It's got a red notice on the porch. Anyone know what that means? If you want to see the inside, check out this 57 second YouTube real estate video that was posted in August just before the current buyer bought it.

 

Tomorrow's Zoning Hearing

Before I get into today's topic, a reminder that there's a Council Budget Workshop at Municipal Hall tonight at 6 pm

Tomorrow night (Tuesday), the Zoning Board will conduct its monthly hearing at Municipal Hall at 7 pm. I noticed a few interesting items on the agenda (which you can read at http://norristown.org/userfiles/file/events/1129.pdf) that everyone should know about.

I'll start with the item that concerns me the most--yet another request for a variance by Cingular Wireless regarding the Montgomery Hospital parking garage. This time they want "a permanent facility that would consist of 12 panel style antennas which would be surrounded by a screening structure that would match the existing building. The height of the proposed antennas would be 90 feet and the top height of the screening structure would be 91 feet..."

In past proposals, the language always mentioned the roof of the parking garage, height above the roof, and total height. This time the roof isn't mentioned at all, making me wonder if this would be a free-standing structure. But if you look at a map of that block, you'll see that the only free area on the property is the wide, fairly nicely landscaped sidewalk that wraps around the garage on Powell and Fornance. Cingular doesn't say exactly where this permanent facility would be or how wide it would be.

Now, I've been meeting with a committee comprised of residents of that neighborhood, and representatives from the Norristown and County Planning Departments and Elon, the developer for the hospital site. We've been working very hard to come up with new zoning and a master plan for those blocks which will make the developer happy, the neighborhood better, and Norristown proud. What we've come up with ought to help stimulate retail development in the empty stores along Powell and Fornance. I'd hate to see all that hard work ruined by a 7 or 8 story ugly tower. Even if it's on the roof of the garage, it will still increase the height at least anther 3 stories.

I've sent off questions to the committee to see if any involved knows more about Cingular's proposal. I'll let you know what I find out.

There are 2 requests on the agenda to "allow for the operation of an existing duplex" at 719 Belair Circle and 1137 Markley.  The first is located off of Selma Street between Oak and Elm, in a little isolated group of houses built around 1959, with that one thing so rare in N-town--lots of parking. The houses all have driveways, some wide enough to accommodate several cars. 719 and its twin and a few other houses in that development look as if they were probably designed to be duplexes. Given all that, I'd be fine if it stayed a duplex.

1137 Markely, however, is a twin built in 1920 for single family use. It's between James and Harding Blvd, a VERY dense block to begin with. No off-street parking and on-street parking is a nightmare only made worse by the new construction and changes to the curb line. Previous owners (the new owner just purchased the property) let the house deteriorate, which you can see in this photo showing a porch wall leaning at precarious angle and front steps that seem to have sunk down a bit on the left side. This whole block is an example of the kinds of houses and areas of town that we ought to be reclaiming as single homes instead of encouraging higher density.

The only other item on the agenda is a request "to allow for a 1500 sq. ft. addition with the height of 20’ to the existing building to be used for storage...for an eight (8) foot high decorative metal fence along Mill Street and Lafayette Street to match the proposed PennDOT fencing" at 201 East Lafayette, which is owned by Duff Plumbing and Heating Supplies. (Am I the only one who, when I see their sign, can't help thinking of The Simpsons and expects the sign to say "Duff Beer" instead?). Anyway, the architect is Douglas Seiler, who's on N-town's Historic Architecture Review Board, so I trust him not to build anything ugly and inappropriate. I think decorative fencing will dress up that corner.

So that's the rundown. I know it's a busy holiday week, but get to the meeting if you can, especially if you live in the 3rd District and will be most effected by the antenna proposal and by the bad parking situation (and potentially really bad traffic situation caused by it) at 1137 Markley.

Questions about the hearing should be directed to Jayne Musonye, Director of Planning and Municipal Development, 610-270-0451.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Events For the Next Week

I'm doing my listing of events a day early because I'll be out teaching writing to 4th graders tomorrow. If I hear of other events in the meantime, I'll do another blog tomorrow afternoon or Saturday.

Tonight, don't forget about the Police Department's public COMPSTAT meeting, 6:30 pm at Municipal Hall Council Chambers. It's a good way to see firsthand how our police have changed their methods and why crime is down 23%.

Also tonight, also at 6:30 pm, come to a discussion of how an ArtPlace grant for art along the Schuylkill River trail could boost Norristown's downtown economy, hosted by Norristown Arts Hill. The discussion will be led by members of the Montco Planning Commission. At the Montco OIC (Basin and Arch--park in the lot off Basin), 2nd floor. Questions: Contact eric.malm@cabrini.edu .

Saturday from 11 am to 1 pm, YouthNET holds FREE Creative Workshops every Saturday morning for students ages 12-16 years old at 19 W Marshall St. Lunch is included.

Saturday from 7:30 to 9 pm, ACPPA is hosting a Latin Dance Class and Party for adults. Beginning Salsa class and Latin Dance Party. Couples and singles are welcome. $18 per person ($15 for ACPPA members). Register at this link.

Monday night starting at 6 pm, Norristown Council will conduct a Budget Workshop in the Municipal Hall 1st Floor Conference Room.

Tuesday morning from 8:30-9:30 am, the Norristown Business Association will hold their monthly breakfast meeting at Stoney Creek Office Center, Bldg 2, 2nd floor. You don't have to be a member to attend. If you're a business owner, nonprofit leader or just interested in developing a thriving business community in Norristown, come meet the NBA. The guest speaker will be John Lubinski representing one of N-town's newest businesses, Metal Supermarket. They'll also discuss the upsoming Small Business Saturday and their Light Up The Dark Contest. Please RSVP to info@norristownba.org.

Tuseday evening at 7 pm is the Zoning Hearing Board Meeting. The agenda is available at http://norristown.org/userfiles/file/events/1129.pdf . I'll cover the items in another blog before the meeting. Questions should be directed to Jayne Musonye, Director of Planning and Municipal Development, 610-270-0451.

Wednesday at 3 pm is the monthly meeting of the Norristown Schuylkill River Action Team at Barton Partners, 700 E Main St, #301. The team, in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, is working on developing recreational opportunities along the Norristown section of the river and Schuylkill River Trail, and on ways that improving the riverfront and trail can boost the town's economy. All Norristown residents are welcome to join the team. RSVP to Lizzie Hessmiller at lhessmiller@pecpa.org.

Thursday is Thanksgiving and Friday? Forget the insane crowds at the mall and shop in Norristown instead. Don't know where to shop in town? The Norristown Business Association has begun a directory of Norristown small businesses on their Facebook page. They'll be adding a new business each day, so check back often.

Saturday Nov 29th is Small Business Saturday. Shop the many small businesses we have in Norristown (do it every day, not just once a year). Next Saturday, the Norristown Business Association will be at 31 W Main St, in front of Banh Mi Bar & Bistro from 11 am to 2 pm, handing out info about our small businesses and about membership in the NBA. They'll hold a raffle drawing at 1 pm. You can't win if you don't stop by.

Theater classes for kids and teens will start at Theatre Horizon in January. Go to this link  for more info and to register.

Check the calendar links in the right column for more events at the library and elsewhere.



Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Litter From Store Circulars Piling Up Again

Most of you have noticed that as of 2 or 3 months ago, houses in the borough are once again having store circulars delivered to them. And once more, these circulars aren't being brought inside and are littering the whole town. We're getting back to looking the way all the naysayers expect Norristown to look and we'd better nip it in the bud quickly.

Frankly, I don't mind the circulars--I like getting the ones for the stores I go to each week. I recycle the rest, and the plastic bag can be recycled with grocery store bags.

Most homeowners I know bring the circulars inside the day they show up, though not all, which I don't get. Why would you want your property to look like a trash heap?

The main problem seems to be the landlords. As I've said before, the majority of housing units in Norristown are rented. If tenants don't take in the circulars--and many of them don't--only a handful of the landlords will pick them up, even if they visit regularly. It's like they're both waiting for the other to make the first move. Worst yet are the rental houses that are between tenants, like the one next to me.

Since my next door neighbor moved on September 30, workers and/or the landlord have been at the house at least 3 times a week as they fix up the place. The circular packages have been piling up on the porch. The workers have even thrown them off the porch into the side yard (for no reason I can see). The pages have been blowing all over. The clincher was when someone put a recycling bin on the front porch last week AND STILL DIDN'T PUT THE CIRCULARS IN IT. After a few days, someone eventually did clean up the porch slightly--and yes, I only mean "slightly" (why wouldn't they pick up ALL the papers?). Circulars still litter the side yard, and since the windstorm the other morning, they're all over the neighbors' yards as well.

I'm hearing the same thing from residents all over town. A lot of landlords just let the circular packages and other trash collect on their properties. Isn't that a Codes issue? Why isn't anyone being cited? We could be making a fortune in fines.

Still, you can't blame Council for this one. They tried to remedy the problem by outlawing the circular packages, which is why we didn't get them for so long. But the company who distributes the blasted things sued Norristown, so the circulars are back.

Council DID give us an out. If you don't want to receive the packages, place a sign “no larger than 18 inches by 6 inches” on your property that reads “No Solicitation or Handbills.” (Hey, landlords, you can do this, too.) If the company continues to deliver them, report them and they'll be fined $600 to $1000 for each property where they distribute unwanted advertisements. I'd suggest putting your sign inside a window or door glass, where it'll be protected from the elements, otherwise you might find yourself being fined for not maintaining the sign. The posting will also apply to slips of paper put in your door handle--restaurant take-out menus, etc., but not political handbills. We're stuck with them.

If you have a problem landlord who lets trash collect, feel free to print out this article and put it in his mailbox (though he'll probably just let it blow all over--maybe mail it to his residence instead). Or you can do what I'll be doing from now on. Until another tenant moves in next door, I'll do the neighborly thing and bring in nextdoor's package to recycle when I bring in my own. Unless the distribution company sues me for that, too.

Or how 'bout we organize a weekly town bonfire? I'll bring the marshmallows.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Last Night's Town Hall

Despite nasty rainy, cold weather yesterday, we still had a pretty good turnout for the Town Hall at the library last night. I define good as being better than the number that usually show up for Council meetings. We had at least double that.

I'd also rate as "good" the meeting itself. Not excellent, because there wasn't enough time for questions on topics that weren't on the agenda. I barely had time to shout out "What about leaf collection?" before the library threw us out. I had a few other questions and I'm fairly sure other attendees did, too.

But we WERE given a lot of information last night. Jayne Musonye, director of Planning, gave an update on most of the developments currently in progress in the borough. On the Montgomery Hospital site, they're currently removing asbestos and other hazards from the buildings, then will proceed with interior and exterior demolition. The planned development is 100 units. A committee of borough officials and residents are working on the language for the the zoning to make sure the development is good for Norristown and the neighborhood. A resident asked if it would include Section 8 housing. Jayne said because Elon is using state funding, Section 8 has to be allowed, although this will be a seniors-only community. I agree with her that it makes a difference. I think we need affordable housing for our seniors. I just hope they're decent places to live.

Luxor at Sandy Street will be 157 units of upscale, luxury apartments. The belief seemed to be that this particular developer had attracted other investors in places he'd developed before, so they're hopeful the same will be true in Norristown.

The Kennedy-Kendrick Project (also senior housing) had been waiting for funding, but should get moving soon. Ditto for the Condominiums at Courthouse Square (the top floors of the bank building at Main and Swede). The Municipality is working to find a good tenant for the first floor, one that will compliment the development, but also enhance Main St and be accessible to the public.

The Lafayette Street Project has begun outside N-town's borders (between Ford St and Conshohocken Road), but has apparently already stimulated investors who are now looking at properties along that corridor and between there and the river. Lafayette Street will eventually be a 4-lane boulevard between Ford St and the Dannehower Bridge. The extension will connect it to the turnpike. Jayne assured us that riverfront development will be smarter here than in Conshy. A public walkway is planned between the development and the river so residents will have access, and to prevent worse flooding.

Five Saints Micro-Distillery has been hard at work converting the Humane Firehouse at Green and Main. Once open, they'll manufacture bourbon, which will be sold worldwide, but also conduct tours, have a tasting room and maintain part of the building as a firehouse museum. They're on schedule to open next March. They'll provide jobs to the community, yet also be a place that will attract visitors to Norristown.

Let me say that I think Jayne Musonye is a real asset to N-town. I've seen her go to bat for the residents many times and that's because she's a long-time resident herself. You can tell how much she loves the town as she talks.

Next up was the Police Department. We heard a Crime Stats update (violent crime down 27%--part one crimes down 23%). He explained how COMPSTAT works and how the new community policing policy is making a difference, especially in neighborhoods most vulnerable to crime in the past. He reminded everyone that the COMPSTAT meeting on Thursday night is open to the public (6:30 pm at Municipal Hall).

Then Bob Glisson, Public Works director spoke. Markley Street is ahead of schedule and should be complete from Elm to Johnson Hwy by next September. After that, the next phase will cover Main to Elm.

As far as street paving goes, I was disappointed to hear that the only streets mentioned and apparently being worked on were Oak, Elm, and Willow. I wanted to ask why the main roads in need of paving--Swede and West Marshall, for instance--were being ignored, but as I said, we didn't get a chance to ask additional questions. Seems to me, if you want to project a positive image of Norristown to visitors--if you want people to shop on West Marshall or downtown--you'd make sure the roads they have to drive to get there don't bounce them around like they're in an earthquake. Well, if enough members of Council and Mr. Glisson had to drive over the mess on Swede next to the library last night, I hope they noticed the problem.

Lastly, Crandall Jones talked about administrative stuff. The Municipality's new website should be live in about a week. It will include a mobile app that will let you photograph, say, a pothole and send it directly to Public Works. (I can see the website crashing when thousands of photos start rolling in.) He spoke about the budget, explaining that they were still conducting an audit, so they're being conservative in expenditures until that's done. He encouraged everyone to come to the Citizens Leadership Academy when it's offered again.

As for leaf collection--it's a townwide problem. Many people, including myself, reported seeing the leaf collector out the 1st or 2nd week, but haven't seen them since. Mr. Glisson said the problem should be taken care of this week. Someone on James Street said he saw the collector yesterday--not his usual street cleaning day. If they're showing up on other days, that's a problem, because cars are only moved on street cleaning day. On my street, we have lots of cars parked in front of or on top of leaf piles on other days. If the collector doesn't come this week, or misses leaves on your street because they came the wrong day, call or write Mr. Glisson (and copy council) and complain. rglisson@norristown.org or 610-270-0437 .

So that was the Town Hall. A fairly good meeting, though maybe for the next time, a venue (GNPAL perhaps?) that will allow a longer meeting would be nice, so we can ask more questions.

Thanks to Linda Christian for taking photos last night. I forgot to bring  my camera.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Shop Small, Norristown


When I began making entries in my Norristown Diary, one of the first topics I tackled was why small businesses are good for Norristown's economy. I'm not sure how many read that blog, or were convinced of its message, but with the holiday season revving up and Small Business Saturday less than 2 weeks away, the topic ought to be revisited.

First of all, any community that depends on big corporations makes itself vulnerable. Towns all across America who experienced prosperity while their steel mills or coal mines or big factories were in operation, are now in decline since the company closed down or operations were moved oversees or their products became obsolete.

I was in the Detroit area for 2 weeks about 11 years ago. In Dearborn and Pontiac, Michigan, I saw empty car and truck factories, vacant store fronts and abandoned houses everywhere. Detroit itself was slightly better off. Auto company headquarters are still there, at least, plus lots of small businesses. But the surrounding 'burbs, developed to accommodate more and more car and truck factories, look like a war zone.

Norristown has seen this sort of thing happen on a smaller scale as our larger employers have closed down--Wonder Bread, for instance, and most recently, Montgomery Hospital.

It's a little hard to wrap your brain around (or it was for me), but money is a finite thing. A set amount of money changes hands in Norristown each day. Whether that money stays in the community or leaves town depends where it's spent. Spend your dollar at a nationally-owned company--say McDonalds--and a chunk of that dollar will go to the company headquarters in Oakbrooke, IL in profits and franchise fees. Their equipment, food and supplies aren't purchased locally either.

A company needs to provide 3 things to a local community for local economic growth--jobs, taxes, and profits need to stay local. In a corporation, profits are dispersed to shareholders, who could be anywhere worldwide. If you close down a factory, there go the jobs and local taxes. Even if the corporation maintains a local office, it's not giving as much back to the community as it's taking.

If you've been listening to the news, you've heard that casinos are closing in Atlantic City, but one economist I heard last week said that the casinos were never good for that community. They provide jobs, yes, but the lion's share of taxes go to the state and not the local government. Profits go out of state to corporate headquarters and shareholders, and often out of the country. Atlantic City was seeing a boom in dollar stores, pawn shops and poverty long before the first casino closed.

Jus' Java
Each small businesses may not provide many jobs, but spreading the jobs out among many businesses makes the town less vulnerable. Ideally, the best kind of Norristown small business is one owned by a resident homeowner. I'm not only talking about their dollars staying here as property taxes, but being homeowners, they're more vested in our community and less likely to up and move operations elsewhere.

But even if the business is owned by someone who rents, or lives in nearby suburbs, they're still more likely to put a good percentage of each dollar earned back into the local economy. Especially if they realize that by supporting other N-town small businesses, they help themselves.

Anna Catanese Flowers
Small businesses provide a cushion to a town's economy when big businesses move out. In Norristown, the more small businesses we have, the more reliable that airbag is in case of emergency.

So here's the bottom line, to grow our town's economy, we need to increase the amount of dollars coming into town and decrease the amount leaving. That simple.

You can help by shopping at Norristown's small businesses this holiday season. Sure, you can't get everything you need in N-town (not yet--give us time). Still, when you're entertaining, think, say, pulled pork from Sessano's or Banh Mi sandwiches or Mexican or Asian or barbecue take-out. We have 3 or 4 florists in Norristown, plus other residents who do flower and fruit arrangements. We have small businesses who sell Christmas greens and trees and other decorations--Plymouth Produce, for instance. We're even beginning to see a return of clothing shops to Norristown. (I'll see if I can come up with other store suggestions in a future blog.)

Just, before you run out to the mall, stop and ask yourself, "Can I get this in Norristown?" And yes, I understand price can be an issue, but don't assume our small businesses are expensive without checking them out. Personally, I'd rather spend a few extra bucks in town, especially for something made here, than imagine my dollars taking the next fast train out of N-town--maybe even headed out of the country--making our community poorer by the minute



Friday, November 14, 2014

Get-In-Touch-With-Your-Community Events, All Week

Did everyone see our first snow of the winter last night? And have you noticed that West Marshall and downtown are now are decked out with big lighted snowflakes on the light poles?  But it IS still fall, which means leaf collection--don't forget, if you want to get rid of your leaves, rake them to the curb for your regular street cleaning day (or put them on your garden beds to compost over the winter).

You can tell the holidays are close, though, because all of a sudden, N-town's event schedule is jam-packed. When you begin holiday shopping, remember that shopping at Norristown's local small businesses is the best gift you can give your community's economy this year.

Tonight from 8:30 to 11 pm is Movie Night at the George Washington Carver Community Center, 249 E. Jacoby St, 610-277-7480. $5.

Saturday from 9 am to noon, Norristown Council will hold a Budget Workshop, Municipal Hall, Conference Room.

Saturdays at 10 am and Thursdays at 6 pm, get in shape at the Step It Up Fitness Boot Camp at the Carver Center (249 E Jacoby) with professional trainer Blayne Pierce. $10. Continues through Dec 13.

Saturday begins open enrollment for health insurance again (frankly, I think it's cruel that they tell you the premium increases right before the holidays--or that they increase the premiums at all). You can get help at an Open Enrollment Event from 10 am to 2 pm at the Norristown Regional Health Center, 1401 Dekalb St, 610-278-7787. Please bring proof of household income, ID and SS cards, legal immigrant documents, employer coverage info, username and password if you already have a Marketplace account.

Saturday, 11am-12pm at the Montgomery County Norristown Public Library (Powell and Swede). Come learn about Diabetes. Dr. Paul Schick, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, Thomas Jefferson Medical College, will present information related to Type 1, Type 2, and Pregnancy Diabetes.  610-278-5100

Monday at 6 pm, Norristown Council will host a Town Meeting at the Norristown Public Library, 1001 Powell Street. The agenda will cover the Montgomery Hospital demolition and development, Luxor at Sandy Street, the Kennedy-Kendrick Project, Lafayette Street Project, the Condominiums at Courthouse Square, Five Saints Micro-Distillery, police update, street paving and Markley St, the budget, etc.

Tuesday from 1:30 to 5 pm at CADCOM, 113 E Main, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s bank examinations staff will provide an overview of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which encourages depository institutions to help meet the credit needs of local communities, including low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. All are welcome to attend. To register, click on this link

Tuesday night at 6:30 pm is the monthly Council Workshop, which will include a presentation of the 2015 budget. Budgets will be distributed to the public for their review (Public Comment for the budget will be on Dec 2).

Wednesday from 9 to 10:30 am, Latino Collaborative meeting at the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, 1605 Main St. Jennifer I. Rodriguez, Executive Director of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs for the City of Philadelphia will speak. Please register via email at Advolifeline@aol.com .

Wednesday, 6-7 pm at the Montgomery County Norristown Public Library--Artful Arrangements for the Holidays: Genuardi Florists will be on hand to demonstrate various ways of arranging your centerpiece for the holidays. 610-278-5100.

Thursday from 6:30 to 8 pm at Montco OIC (Arch and Basin), 2nd floor, the Norristown Arts Council presents an Art on Our Trails Mixer. The Montgomery County Planning Commission will lead a discussion about the role art could play along the Schuylkill River Trail in Norristown, and how it could help the economic growth of downtown.

Also Thursday night beginning at 6:30 pm, the Norristown Police Department will hold a public COMPSTAT meeting  in the Norristown Municipal Council Chambers. I went to the last one in August. This is a fascinating look into how our top-level cops analyze crime trends in the borough and come up with effective strategies to fight them. The meeting will likely run at least 3 hours. To submit anonymous tips on crime, call 610-278-TIPS(8477) or at NPDTips@norristown.org.

Every Monday through Thursday, 3:30 to 6:30 pm, NASD students, grades 5-8, can get FREE tutoring and homework help, plus do creative projects and activities at The Incite Institute on the Roosevelt Campus, 1161 Markley. Sponsored by the Men of Excellence. To register, contact Hakim Jones, hjones@nasd.k12.pa.us or call 610-630-5048.

Spread the word to your favorite Norristown businesses: The Norristown Business Association is hosting a "Light Up The Dark" holiday lights contest from December 1 to January 1. Just put lights (any holiday--Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwaanza, Solstice, etc--or more than one) in one of your store/business windows from 5 to 9 pm (or longer) every night during the month. If you want your display judged, you can read the rules at this link. Prizes will be given for most artistic design, most creative concept, most humor, and the display that projects the best image of Norristown. To enter your business, send an email to info@norristownba.org with the Subject Heading “Light Up The Dark.” Include your business name, address and phone #.

One last note: Jus' Java has reopened at their new location (317 Swede, across from the Courthouse). Stop by and welcome them back. (We missed you, JJ!)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Tax Dollar Diversion, Part 2

Let's start with a parable. Say you pay for your child to go on a cruise with over 7000 other kids (it's a really big ship). The deal is that you, the other parents, and your neighbors all take up a collection at intervals to send fuel to the ship to keep it moving. The ship's never in danger of sinking, the kids will never be thrown overboard, and you know they'll get home eventually, probably better for the experience.

Another ship's captain comes along and tells you he's got a nicer, faster ship and will go rescue some of the kids if you give him some of the fuel and pay his other expenses. But he's only got room for about 300 kids, which he insists on choosing himself--he doesn't want discipline problems or sick children or any others that could make his boat look bad. And of the 300 kids he takes, he claims the option to throw any overboard who don't measure up (with a life jacket, of course, so they can swim back to the 1st ship). Would you give him the fuel?

This is sort of how charter schools work. They take a portion of our tax dollars and, even if they turn out to be great schools, they only educate a tiny percentage of our kids--and usually only the ones who perform well academically anyway and aren't discipline problems. And if the kids don't measure up, they send them back to the public school they came from. That way the charter school can keep their rankings up by manipulating their student population. Meantime, the public school rankings drop because they've lost their best students, and the district has less money for the regular schools because of tax money alloted to the charter.

Still, if you're a parent of a smart student, vulnerable to boredom and bullies, I can't blame you for sending your kid to a place like Renaissance Academy in Phoenixville, which has a few hundred Norristown students enrolled. You want to make sure they're prepared for college.

Ditto if you're the parent of a special ed. student (assuming the charter school has a special education program). You want your child to have more attention and not be mainstreamed or bullied.

Humanus already provides staffing for special ed. programs, autism in particular. They say their proposed charter school will have an exceptional special ed. program. However, they can't only offer special ed. because charter schools in PA must be open to all students within a district.

Humanus has said they'd start small, with kindergarten and first grade classes and only about 100 students. Yet, our elementary schools are doing fairly well, as evidenced by our test scores. I question the need for another option for kids that age.

On the information I've received from Humanus, they point out more than once that Renaissance Academy is a long bus ride, which says to me that Humanus is most interested in those higher-achieving students already enrolled in Renaissance than in any of the rest of our 7000 students.

Humanus listed Chester-Upland schools as an example of a district that they say has benefited from charter schools, so I asked a friend of mine who teaches in Chester for her experiences. Ruth Sheets grew up in Norristown, went to Norristown schools, earned a BS in Education and a MS in Gifted Education. She's in her 20th year of teaching in Chester schools. I've seen her in the classroom and she's one of the best teachers I know. I've also taught writing workshops with her students and I found them to be creative and bright, though tremendously burdened with the sorts of attitudes I've seen in N-town. People have been telling them for so long that they're worthless that they believe it.

I'm just going to quote from Ruth's email.

"Charter schools were supposed to be a great thing because they were going to enable new ideas to be tried out quickly so that the ones that worked could be used in regular public schools. This is not what actually happened. The charters in Chester...do nothing different from what we do in the regular public schools. Their teachers do not have to be certified (only 75% do. I don’t know if the schools even have to inform families if their child’s teacher is certified). The turnover rate is high, or has been.... The children’s behavior is no better. The regular public schools here get back a lot of the students from the charter schools and those children are nearly always behind the regular public school kids."

I think teacher certification is very important. I have a BS in Music Ed--which involved loads of pyschology, educational law and theory and teaching methods classes, classroom observation and student teaching at both elementary and secondary levels. A 3rd of the credits of my masters equivalency were courses in music ed. and pedagogy. I substituted for a year in Norristown schools, then taught 2 years full time here. I've taught community college classes, Main Line School Night classes, Elderweek classes, classes in writing at Norristown and Bluebell libraries, and for the last 17 years, I've been in the Young Writers Day program, teaching writing workshops in districts all over the area (in fact, I'm teaching 4th graders in Haverford next week). Am I qualified to teach full-time in the public schools? No. Certified teachers not only have the diplomas, they have full-time classroom experience and continuing education credits that they have to earn every year. So please, don't tell me that ANYBODY can teach. Try it for a semester yourself. You won't survive. In NASD, our teachers have an average of about 10 years experience and are highly qualified. The quality of the education they provide is not the issue.

As for charter cyber schools? Even if I thought a child could get a decent education through a cyber school--and I don't--no student should ever learn in that kind of isolation, even if they have severe disabilities. There's too much social isolation in modern society as it is. Humanus, in their latest communication to me, say they are now NOT considering a cyber school.

As a taxpayer, I'd personally prefer that my money goes to fund our public schools and not be diverted to charters. I don't believe Norristown can afford to fund a charter school. Frankly, I wish there were no charter schools at all, so we wouldn't have to spend dollars on transporting students away from N-town and could use that money here at home. I'd prefer to see any new funding (hopefully we might get some under Governor Wolf's administration) go toward improving the schools we have, particularly towards fighting the stigmas that we have as an economically distressed community, and the poor school environments those stigmas bring.

I'd have no objection if Humanus opened a private school in Norristown. If it turned out to be a good school, I'd support it and recommend it.

Humanus will be giving their proposal to the School Board on Monday. Please express your own opinion, for or against, before then by emailing the Board Secretary at klally@nasd.k12.pa.us or call 610-630-5010.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

This Is About Your Tax Dollars-Part 1

Two weeks ago I received an email about a proposal that would change the allotment of tax dollars in our school district. Since then, I've talked to many residents about it--parents, non-parents, my councilwoman--and to educators in other districts where it's been tried before attempting to write this Diary entry. It's a lot of information, so I'm splitting it into 2 days.

A man named Tom Gradowski emailed me that he and his partners were applying to open Humanus Academy Public Charter School in our district. Phase one would be a brick-and-mortar school in Norristown, phase two would be a statewide cyber school. The B&M school would draw students not only from Norristown but from Methacton and Upper Merion. He thought I'd might like to express my thoughts about the venture.

The proposal Mr. Gradowski sent me had some interesting comments, so I asked him a bunch of questions. It said that NASD "has been consistently ranked as one of the lowest performing school districts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." I knew that wasn't true, but even so, I went to www.paschoolperformance.org to double check. It's fairly easy to find schools ranking lower than Norristown--Chester, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, and in lots of the smaller districts. Remember yesterday I said N-town High ranked 61.7? Dismal yes, but way better than the ranks in the 30s through 50s of many of the high schools in the districts above. We're nowhere near one of the lowest performing districts.

So I asked him what his source was. He said "PDE data and other sources" and said it was not up to date (which pretty much disqualifies his supposed data right there). He didn't say what years he was talking about (his use of the word "consistently" above would indicate that he thought we were one of the lowest districts for many years running). I could find no evidence of his claim, for any set of years, at all.

The very next sentence read "Unfortunately, NASD has struggled to meet the diverse educational and personal needs of its almost 7,000 students. Of the entire district, approximately 72% of the student population is composed of minority students, and nearly 70% of all students receive free or reduced price lunches." So I had to wonder what exactly he sees as unfortunate--that we struggle or that we have minorities or that some kids get lower-priced lunches (which is not a school district program, but paid for with Federal funds). Frankly, I think Norristown's diversity is an asset and not unfortunate at all. As Gotwals proved this year, poor minority kids are just as capable of learning as anyone else.

I asked if Humanus had any experience running a school, public or private, anywhere else? I'd already found out, and he confirmed that Humanus is a for-profit corporation, incorporated in Wyoming in 2012. Their HQ is in King of Prussia. They provide Special Education staffing for public schools in 14 states, including PA. They've only been in business since 2007, have 50-100 employees, and take in about 5 million in annual revenue. But experience running a school? No. The charter school would be listed as non-profit.

He sent the names and resumes of the team that would run this proposed school. The CEO of Humanus, James Stewart, was listed as have 20 years of executive-level experience in healthcare staffing firms. If you go to http://www.zoominfo.com/p/James-Stewart/1656535318, you can read that most of his jobs before Humanus were as a wellsite geologist and asbestos consultant. The document assured me that Mr. Stewart had "developed a personal interest in the needs of academic institutions and their students." (I have a personal interest in a lot of things--astronomy, for instance, but I don't profess to be qualified to be a rocket scientist.)

Only one member of this team seems to have any educational experience at all--Stacey L. Cruise. She has a Masters in Education Administration and is apparently working toward her doctorate in the same area. She has apparently only been an administrator, and only of charter schools.

I asked what educational experience any of the team had, specifically classroom experience or public school experience.  Mr. Gradowski sent me another name--Darlene Beasley--who he said would be their principal. He said she was a "certified turn-around specialist" and "successful educator" in the Philadelphia schools. Ms. Beasley, I found out, was principal at Barry Elementary. I couldn't find test scores during the years she was there, but their latest ranking is 56.6, with math, reading, science and writing scores all in the 20s. (N-town's lowest elementary ranking is Whitehall at 74.9, whose lowest individual score is reading at 52.3.) Ms. Beasley, as far as I could find, has only been an administrator, never a classroom teacher.

That's enough to digest for today. I have more information, which I'll post tomorrow, along with how charter schools effect districts and insights on how charter schools are working out in other districts..

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What Happens in our Middle and High Schools?

Yesterday I covered our elementary school test scores. Today I'm going to talk about our secondary schools.

I hate ONLY talking about test scores, because I've been a teacher and I know there's more to learning assessment than PSSA tests. I know there's more to teaching than simply making sure students can spit out answers for an exam. I know the ability to spit out such answers doesn't necessarily mean students will retain the knowledge, or the ability to perform the math functions (at least to be able to balance a checkbook), or to go on after graduation and, essentially, continue to teach themselves, which ought to be every school's main goal.

But, without the opportunity to observe classrooms, I have no other benchmarks available to me than test scores. And our secondary schools have fairly low ones.

In the 1970s, after our new high school opened, NASD switched from having junior highs to having middle schools. It was a national trend and we hopped on the bandwagon along with everyone else. What most residents noticed was only that the grade structure changed from 7-9 grades to 5-8. One of the actual locations changed to, from Rittenhouse to Eisenhower.

Behind the scenes, though, there were profound changes in curriculum. PA state law said that junior highs were required to include certain courses, so there was continuity in the transition from elementary-style learning to high-school learning. But when middle schools opened, PA legislators used the change in name as an excuse to save funds, no longer requiring much more than the core English, math and science courses. Some districts, like Upper Merion, were small enough and wealthy enough to make up the difference. Big districts without enough tax base, where 80% of the kids are economically disadvantaged, like Norristown, are still trying to reconnect the dots 40 years later.

Stewart has a ranking of 67.8, with scores of 67% in math, 49 in reading, 39 in science, and 48 in writing. That science number breaks my heart, after all the 70-85% numbers from the elementary schools. 84% of the kids are disadvantaged, but then, 96% of Gotwals are, and Gotwals isn't letting it stop them from improving.

Eisenhower, which now has the pretentious title of "Science and Technology Leadership Academy," earned science scores of 20%. TWENTY PERCENT. Plus math at 57%, reading 44%, writing 51%, with an overall ranking of 55.7. Basically put, it looks like only about half the students at Eisenhower are learning anything. Eisenhower's the only school without a 100% promotion rate.  My thought is that they need to shift the focus back to preparing students for high school and ditch the fancy name.

East Norriton has the best ranking, but it's still only 69.8. Math 73%, reading 55, science 43, and writing 61. They have less disadvantaged kids, only 66%. They also have a different racial demographic than the other 2 schools--more whites, less blacks, though Hispanics are about the same. All 3 middle schools have about 10% of students who are still learning English.

Norristown High's ranking was 61.7. Reading, at least, came back up to 65%. Math 55 and science 41. The rate of attendance is down to 90% (the rest of the schools are at 95%). We only graduate about 87% of the students, and only 40% are considered to be college-ready.

Roosevelt Alternative School is, in my opinion, a failed experiment that should have been ended long ago. There's only 130 students there. They have a 76% attendance rate. Their test scores are so horrible, I'm not going to print them here. Go to www.paschoolperformance.org if you want to look them up. If my child were forced to go there, I'd sue the district.

I taught middle school at Stewart. I know that age span is the most difficult to teach and needs very special teachers. It also needs very supportive parents--a real challenge in a district like ours where parents often have more than one job, and where many households have only one parent.

I also know that if you ask kids that age and in high school why they don't like school, they'll usually give one of 2 answers: either they're bored or they're bullied. We need to address both those problems.

Thing is, when I look at other things that need improving in Norristown, I usually feel like I have enough access to be able to help if I can. With the schools, as a resident and taxpayer, I feel cut off and helpless.

Monday, November 10, 2014

NASD Schools Pumped Up Their Test Scores

I want to talk about our schools this week, for 3 reasons. One is that the 2013-2014 PSSA test scores were in the news this past week. Another is about the conversations I had about with my neighbors in the 3rd district while working at the polls last Tuesday. The 3rd reason I'll reserve for later in the week.

The Inquirer ran an article last Thursday on the Delaware Valley's test scores and it noted that 2 of our schools, Gotwals and Cole Manor, "showed the biggest increases" (over last year's scores) of any schools in the entire region. So I had to go look for myself.

If you go to www.paschoolperformance.org, you can look up any public school funded by taxpayer money in PA, regular or charter. It not only gives you test scores but all kinds of demographics, if the teachers are certified, what the promotion and attendance rates are, etc.

I checked out all of our elementary schools, plus Renaissance Academy in Phoenixville where a lot of Norristown students go, and PA Virtual Charter School, a cyber school in King of Prussia. All the schools claimed a 95% or higher attendance rate. All the public schools had a 100% promotion rate--the charter schools don't list a promotion rate.

All of our schools showed at least a percentage point or more gain in at least one area, most in all 3--math, reading and science.

Still, you can't simply compare the charter schools and public schools. Gotwals, for instance, has over 500 students, grades K-4. Renaissance has 999, but they're K-12, 8 more grades. PA Virtual Charter says they have over 2700 students, grades K-12, with 96% attendence. I have to wonder how they could prove that. Anyone can sign on to a computer. Doesn't mean you stick around for lessons, which might explain why PA Virtual Charter had the lowest scores of all the schools I looked up today.

Gotwals's teachers are 100% certified and are considered highly qualified. Charter schools aren't required to hire certified teachers. Renaissance does better than most, with 95% certified and highly qualified.

Demographically, Renaissance students are 19% economically-disadvantaged, compared to 96% at Gotwals. The racial makeup at Gotwals is 33% black, 54% Hispanic, 4% white, and 9% other races. Renaissance is 19% black, 3% Hispanic, 63% white, and 14% other. At Gotwals, 18% of the kids are learning English as a second language. At Renaissance, only 1% are ESL.

But let's compare their scores. Gotwals overall ranking was 87.9, with (rounded) scores of 74 in math, 63 in reading and 85 (!) in science. Renaissance's ranking was 92.5, with 88 math, 86 reading, 77 science. PA Virtual's rank was 63; 57 math, 66 reading, 58 science.

STEM seems to be working, because in science, all but 2 of our regular elementary schools out-performed Renaissance (I love to think we have a town full of budding science geeks). Yet all of our schools all seem to have below average reading scores. The higher ESL ratio would account for only a part of that. Perhaps we need more town-wide literacy projects. How about an annual children's book fest? Some reading challenges with great prizes? Create a culture where reading is more socially acceptable--where the library is a place parents take their kids regularly.

One thing Renaissance has that Gotwals doesn't is a dropout rate. This isn't just parents taking their kids out of Renaissance, but the fact that charter schools can kick students out. A charter school is allowed to say who stays and who goes. They can pick the best and brightest students and reject the discipline problems or non-English speakers or kids with learning disabilities. Basically, they can manipulate their school population until they're assured of producing good test scores, rejecting any students who'll bring their scores down. I'm not saying Renaissance does this, but other charters do. There are no laws in PA saying they can't.

I have to say, though, I think Gotwals and Cole Manor did a phenomenal job in the 2013-14 school year. And our science scores in most of the rest of the district were awesome. Now, let's work on reading.

More on schools later this week.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Church Bazaars, Archaeology and Other Events This Week

You have your choice of 2 church Christmas bazaars this weekend. Go to both. I didn't get to St. Francis last year, but I can attest that the food at St. Pat's was delicious. And don't forget that this is the last weekend for The Syringa Tree at Theatre Horizon.

Tonight from 5-8:30 pm and tomorrow from 10 am to 8 pm,  St. Patrick's Church will hold their annual bazaar in the church basement (enter from Dekalb or Chestnut). Basket chances, silent auction, jewelry booth, Tombola, atttic treasures, fun for kids, bake table, religious items, crafts and gift ideas, plus all kinds of take-out or eat-in food. Silent auction prizes include hotel stays, gift certificates, St. Joe's basketball tickets, and more.

Also tonight from 6-9 pm and tomorrow from 10 am to 7 pm, St. Francis Church (Buttonwood and W Marshall) will hold their Christmas bazaar in the school gym. Crafts, food, games, raffles.

Last chance to see "The Syringa Tree" at Theatre Horizon this weekend. Tonight at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 and 7:30 pm. Tickets at this link or call 610-283-2230.

Saturday from 10 am-3 pm at Selma Mansion (1301 W. Airy), the Norristown Preservation Society in partnership with The Norristown Project is asking for volunteers to come help do some archaeology. They need to dig out window wells on the outside and a trench in the cellar, then sort through the dirt for possible artifacts. You can learn a bit about archaeology and help solve some of the mysteries of the old mansion. Dress warmly in clothes that can get dirty. Part-day volunteers are welcome as well as full day. If you have work gloves, something to kneel on, or a garden trowel, bring them. Meet inside at 10 am for an orientation. Food and drinks will be provided.

Saturday night from 8-11 pm at August Moon, Cryin Sam 2nd Saturday Jazz and Word, this month featuring The Nimrod Speaks Quartet and Poet Evelyn Phoenix. Entertainment fee $10, 2 drink minimum. Doors open at 7:30.

The Planning Commission meeting is Monday this week due to Veterans Day on Tuesday. 7 pm in Municipal Hall. Agenda at http://norristown.org/userfiles/file/events/1117.pdf

Monday night at 7 pm, the Valley Forge Chapter of Vietnam Veterans will hold their annual Veterans Day service at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Main and Swede.

Municipal offices will be closed Tuesday for Veterans Day.

Tuesday at 6 pm, the North End Town Watch will meet at Montgomery Hose Fire Co, West Freedley and Pine. They meet the 2nd Tuesday of every month. All residents are invited to attend.

Thursday from 11 am to 1 pm at Restore Montco (533 Foundry Road, West Norriton), you can support Habit For Humanity's effort to end substandard housing in Norristown by crafting your own framed jewelry holder with Darla DeMorrow of HeartWork Organizing. Tickets are a $50 donation to Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County. Seats are limited, so reserve your spot now at www.restoremontco.org.

The Lt. Patty Simons 19th Annual Food Drive has begun. The Drive provides 72,000 meals to needy families throughout the local area. This year’s drive will benefit The Salvation Army-Norristown Corps, The Patrician Society, Catholic Social Services and Eagleville Elementary School’s Snack Backpack Program. Food for the drive will be accepted at all participating police departments and businesses until Wednesday, Dec. 17. On Thursday, Dec. 18, a parade of police cars and motorcycles will lead a flatbed tractor-trailer loaded with donated food and toys from GNPAL to The Salvation Army on Swede Street in Norristown.

This past week's Council Meeting was recorded and can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IR309kvU4G4. It's about an hour and a half in length.

As always check the calendar links in the right column for weekly doings at the Library and elsewhere.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Getting The Word Out Is Half The Battle

Full disclosure--the Norristown Business Administration became my employer this week, but the stuff I'm about to tell you happened before that, so I can't take credit for the result.

In September, I went to Riverfest and got into a conversation with Council reps Linda Christian and Olivia Brady. I can't remember why now, but we were talking about jury duty. I think maybe we were saying how lots of jurors come into town every week and we want them to have a good experience here. We especially want them to eat in our restaurants, then go home and tell their family and friends how good the food was.

I mentioned that every time I'd been called for jury duty, I was given a little flyer with a map of eating places within a couple blocks of the Court House. The second time, I recall the cafeteria at the Court House was being remodeled, so we HAD to go out to eat and that flyer saved a lot of time. But apparently, whoever provided the flyer stopped years ago.

Linda Christian thought it was a great idea and suggested that the N-town Business Association might want to take on the project. I'm a member of the NBA, and the next week we had our September meeting, so I suggested it.

Only one month later, at our October meeting, Ed Turner, president of the NBA, came in with a full-color 5x7 postcard showing the map and description of most of the eateries between Cherry, Walnut and Oak Streets (shown above). The other side of the card shows mouth-watering photos of some of the food these restaurants dish out.

It was discovered that a few places had been forgotten, plus there's a new Mexican restaurant across from Banh Mi. They'll all be added to a later edition along with Jus' Java when they reopen (they're going to be where Caffe Galileo was, on Swede across from the Courthouse). But having to add new restaurants is a GOOD problem to have. Hopefully, more dining places will open downtown in the next year.

Meantime, that postcard will be given to jurors (and anyone else who wants them). Maybe we can make them available at Borough Hall, too, and at small downtown businesses and the restaurants themselves. The more we spread the word about the good eats to be found here in town, the better for our economy.

So kudos to the NBA for making this happen in 6 short weeks. Check out their website at www.norristownba.org and LIKE their Facebook page. We'll be posting info soon on how to become a member for 2015.




Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Norristown's Voter Turnout in Numbers and Attitude

Yesterday was my first full-time experience as an Inspector at the polls. Here are a few of my observations.

District 3-3 has an incredible amount of people named Davis, and the majority of them seem to be related. There may actually be more Smiths or Jones than Davises, but the cool thing about the Davis families is -- THEY SHOW UP TO VOTE. Whatever they're teaching their kids about the democratic process, they're doing it right. The rest of us can learn a lesson from them.

The church that wins the prize for the most voters showing up in the 3rd district is St. Pat's. At one point there were so many parishioners standing around chatting after they voted that someone said they might as well just send for Father Puleo and let him say mass. Which would have been rather unconstitutional given the whole separation of church and state thing. But anyway, congrats to St. Pat's churchgoers for coming out.

We had many people ask if we had "I Voted" stickers. Our standard response by the end of the night was "This is Norristown. We don't do stickers; we do tattoos." (Just kidding, of course.)

Of the 584 people our table checked in yesterday, only one person had a lousy attitude. Everyone else was polite and patient, even if we had problems finding their names on our rolls. Most people were smiling, a lot of them joking. Most were happy to see and greet their neighbors. They made our jobs much, much easier and very enjoyable. Voting SHOULD be a happy occasion.

Now the numbers. My co-workers said 3-3 had a really great turnout for a mid-term election. We seemed busy enough to me that the hours went by pretty fast. When I crunched the numbers, our turnout rate was about 40%. I think 3-1 did about the same (they had more voters than 3-3, but I think they also have more people registered).

If you look at the chart above, you can see a history of mid-term versus presidential election turnout for the whole US. Up through about 1828, the mid-term turnout was actually HIGHER than the presidential turnout. (Worth noting, I think, that 81% of electors turned out to vote in Abraham Lincoln, but only about 62% to vote in Obama, and that was the highest presidential turnout since 1968.) The midterm turnout plunged in 1902, and since 1970 has hovered around 40%.

So yesterday in Norristown's 3rd district, we were only about par with the national average, and THAT, I was told, was better than we usually do. There was a lower turnout for the primary last spring. Lots of room for improvement.

But I have to say, I loved meeting so many of my Norristown neighbors yesterday. I've said it before, we have wonderful, friendly, caring residents in this town. We need to never forget that.


Monday, November 3, 2014

Council's Nearly Useless Agenda

1029 W. Main St. 
The agenda is available for the Council Meeting, which will be on Wednesday night at 7:30 pm. You can view it at this link. I've read it through and I still have very little idea what's going to happen Wednesday night. Here's the gist:

Okay to be fair, the first item is fairly straight forward -- "Motion to award the contract for the Main & Marshall Street Lighting Improvement Project to AJM Electric of Chester, PA for a not to exceed price of $98,804." And the HARB certificates near the end are pretty standard.

But the rest is anyone's guess. Take the next 3 motions on the agenda, all listed under the vague sub-header "Council." The first is "Motion to approve the Waiver of Conflict regarding 1029 West Main Street." Like most reisdents of Norristown, I'm no lawyer. I'm not sure what a waiver of conflict is, let alone how it can apply to a place. 1029 West Main is owned by L & M Partners, a Philadelphia development firm. It's the only property they own in Norristown. The house is listed as about 3333 square feet of dwelling, 787 s.f. office, and the rest unfinished basement. Would it have been that difficult to put an extra sentence on the agenda explaining what residents need to know about this item? For instance, what is the conflict that's being waived? What if anything is L & M proposing to do with the property?

Next item: "Motion to approve the Waiver of Conflict regarding Laborers' Local 135." I DO know this union local is headquartered on Sandy Street in Norristown and they seem to be involved with the building trades. Otherwise, I have no idea what this item means.

Next: "Motion to approve Resolution 14-139--participate in the Borough Elected Officials Program (BEOP)." I tried googling "Norristown Resolution 14-139" and "Norristown Borough Elected Officials Program" and "Norristown BEOP" and came up blank each time.

Next, under the sub-heading "Public Safety," the item "Motion to advertise a proposed Ordinance regarding House Bill 80/Lost and Stolen Firearms." Now, you can read PA House Bill 80 at this link, but the language isn't particularly easy to understand. Like I said, only a very small percentage of residents are lawyers. Unlike Council, we can't turn to the borough solicitor sitting next to us and ask for a summary of what it means. Even if we did understand the bill, there's nothing in this agenda item that explains what Norristown's ordinance regarding the bill would be.

And lastly, my favorite item on the whole agenda--under the sub-heading "Code"--which merely reads "Contractor's License." That's it. No other explanation.

And yet, the Public Comment for Council Meetings is still BEFORE any of these items come up on the agenda. How is anyone supposed to make an informed comment when information is impossible to obtain before the meeting? As I said above, would it be so difficult to add ONE sentence to each agenda item, to explain the context and meaning as it applies to the average taxpayer?

I really appreciate that this Council seems to have fixed the problem of agendas that were being published too late, but if these new early agendas don't communicate anything, why have them at all? Council reps keep saying they want us to participate in our government, yet won't tell us what that government intends to do in time for us to participate. Some people in this town would say that's intentional--that our elected officials are trying to keep us in the dark. I hope not. Though, even if it's just indicative of our town-wide communication crisis, it's got to stop.