Roadmap to revitalization
● By Steven Hoffman
Officials are in the process of updating Oxford Borough’s revitalization plan, and a public information meeting took place on May 14 to share details with the community.
Justin Smiley, AICP, and urban planner with the Chester County Planning Commission, and Jaime Larzelere, a community planner with the Chester County Planning Commission, helped borough officials reach this point in the process of updating the revitalization plan. Smiley said that a revitalization plan is a strategic planning tool designed to assist with economic development and future growth for the next five to ten years.
The revitalization plan was met with enthusiasm by those who’ve reviewed it.
“I’m really impressed with what they came up with,” said Oxford Borough Council member John Thompson.
“It gives us a different way to approach things,” agreed council member Susan Lombardi. “I’m looking forward to implementing this.”
During the presentation, some goals and the actions necessary to achieve those goals were discussed.
For example, in order for Oxford to capitalize on its location and attract and retain businesses, the borough should begin a marketing initiative specifically for downtown Oxford, including taking advantage of the locational resources for marketing. Other recommended actions to spur economic development include extending the longevity of Oxford Mainstreet, Inc., implementing downtown enhancements such as new entertainment or recreational uses, and continuing community and business collaborations.
Another major goal that has been identified is for Oxford to enhance and maintain the infrastructure and transportation. There are four steps that will help achieve this goal: Improve parking in the downtown core, as designated in the 2012 parking study; maintain existing road, sewer, and water infrastructure; develop a traffic study, including the traffic signals, for the uptown area; and improve service to the public transportation that is available in Oxford.
Several residents in attendance asked questions about transportation—there is only limited access to public transportation in the southern part of the county.
Smiley said that there has been a lot of discussions at the county level about ways to increase access to public transportation.
Another major goal outlined in the revitalization plan concerns housing and public service—specifically, how can Oxford achieve a diversity in available housing options and maintain quality-of-life standards for residents.
There are four recommended actions: Bolster code enforcement to facilitate better rental property registration and inspection programs; continue police presence borough-wide to promote safety; perform a “fair share analysis” to measure the amount of existing affordable housing; and improve the public parks and increase opportunities for open-space preservation.
Those in attendance at the meeting were very optimistic about Oxford’s future, and that the revitalization plan will serve as a roadmap to a more vibrant downtown.
Council member Gary Tozzo said that one of Oxford’s strengths is its location—the borough is situated about halfway between Philadelphia and Baltimore, and Lancaster and Wilmington, Del. are nearby, too. He would like to see the borough attract a large employer to the business district.
“We need a cornerstone business that anchors everything else,” Tozzo said.
Oxford officials and business owners said that they believe Oxford already has some of the building blocks in place for a more vibrant downtown.
Thompson credited Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. with doing a good job of attracting businesses, and added that he would like to see more businesses that are prepared to last year after year, which would reduce the turnover in some buildings.
Thompson said he thinks another one of the strengths of the borough is the police department.
“I think we have one of the best police departments,” he said. “They do a lot for the community.”
“I think we have a well-defined Main Street,” said borough manager Betsy Brantner. “It’s very obvious where it is. It’s also a beautiful place.”
Brantner, like Thompson, said that the 24-hour protection that the police department provides is an asset to the community. Another strength of the borough, Brantner said, is that “we try to include everybody in the community” with different events or activities like the First Fridays, the Movies in the Park series, or the community garden.
Brantner said that she would like to see a long-term solution to the parking issue. The borough just received a grant to allow for a parking management study, which should be a small step in that direction.
Jerome Rodio, the owner of J & K Slightly Touched, said that one of the borough’s strengths is certainly the fact that business owners work well together and cooperate with each other on various projects.
Several people commented about how well the various groups in town, from the Oxford Area Chamber of Commerce to the Oxford Rotary to Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. to the borough itself work well together on many different endeavors.
“People in this community come together,” said resident Peggy Ann Russell. “Oxford has a lot of heart. We have diversity. And we have unity in that diversity. I think that’s a strength.”
Russell said that she would like to see Oxford have something for children in the community to do during after-school hours.
Lombardi expressed a similar thought, saying that she would like to see Oxford have something for everyone in the community—some activity to meet the needs of each age group, from youngsters to senior citizens.
Larry Drennen, whose family owns Oxford Feed & Lumber, said that the committee working on the revitalization plan is comprised of a good cross-section of people, which will help make for a better final plan, especially with the assistance of the county Planning Commission.
“It’s exciting to have a professional group out of West Chester helping us with a plan,” Drennen said. “It will be a good roadmap for us.”
From Drennen's perspective, one of the priorities for Oxford should be deciding on a long-range plan to provide for adequate parking in the business district.
“We've done some short-term things,” Drennen explained. He added that he’s optimistic about some of the things that are being worked on with regard to parking. State Rep. John Lawrence is assisting with this.
Oxford Feed & Lumber has been a cornerstone of Oxford's business community for decades. Drennen said of Oxford, “If you give to this community, the community gives back.”
Lombardi said that in the last few years she has seen more and more people getting involved and investing themselves in the community.
“I think we have some good things happening here,” she said.
Smiley said that West Chester University has offered to provide Oxford with assistance on a market analysis that will look at what the borough has and what the borough needs.
The next step in the process is a detailed analysis and preparation of a draft of the revitalization plan. A second public information meeting will be held in September, with the goal of having the updated plan adopted by Oxford Borough Council in November.
All urban centers in Chester County must have revitalization plans in order to qualify for funding for community development projects, so there will be dividends for completing the update.
Brantner said that Oxford recently surpassed the $4 million mark in funding from the county for a variety of streetscape and infrastructure improvement projects.
“That’s a huge help for a small borough,” Brantner said.
According to Thompson, Oxford has changed a lot since he was a kid, and he expects even more change in the near future.
“I think we’re going to see a big transition in the borough,” Thompson said of the next five to ten years.
Rodio said that the revitalization plan can be a roadmap for future economic development, and will help Oxford continue to make progress.
“If we can improve one or two or three things, take small steps, then we’re going forward,” he said.
Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats
One component of the update to the revitalization plan is a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis that was conducted.
Strengths that were identified include the work of Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. and the Business Improvement District; strong community involvement; the historic character of the town; common goals among stakeholders; prosperous surrounding communities, and a strong residential community.
Weaknesses include not having a major employer downtown, the high property-tax issue, parking, public relations, perception issues, code enforcement, affordable housing, and traffic flow.
Some of the opportunities that were identified include using underutilized buildings (particularly the second floor of some buildings), Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB), marketing the downtown, possibility of using Keystone Opportunity Zones to attract businesses, youth and adult recreation centers, marketing themes, fair share analysis, and the possibility of attracting a large employer to the downtown.
Threats to the borough’s future include the lack of market rate housing, Oxford Mainstreet, Inc.’s operating budget and the funds involved, poor business retention, existing businesses not in borough’s vision, deteriorating infrastructure, inconsistent policing, the perception of high crime rates, and traffic flow.