Oxford officials optimistic that revitalization plan will be guidepost to bright future
● By Steven Hoffman
At a special public meeting on Sept. 22, Oxford Borough officials got their first look at the complete draft of a revitalization plan, and the reaction to the plan was overwhelmingly positive.
Borough manager Betsy Brantner said that the new revitalization plan will be an asset to officials as they plan for the borough’s future. The last time that Oxford updated its revitalization plan was 2003.
“I believe the plan is a step in the right direction to move the revitalization of the business district forward,” said Oxford Mayor Geoff Henry. “It is my hope that the plan, or parts of the plan, will be implemented over the next five years instead of sitting on the shelf.”
Jerome Rodio, the owner of J & K Slightly Touched and a member of the committee that assisted with the revitalization plan said, “I think the county did a fantastic job. They outlined the strengths and weaknesses that we have.”
The presentation was led by Justin Smiley, AICP, an urban planner with the Chester County Planning Commission, and Jaime Larzelere, a community planner with the Chester County Planning Commission, both of whom worked with borough officials on the preparation of the revitalization plan.
“What this plan does,” explained Smiley, “is spell out the tools for economic development.”
Smiley added that the plan was focused on how to market Oxford Borough to attract and retain businesses. The plan includes strategies and the actions necessary to implement those strategies.
The revitalization plan notes that, “Oxford Borough residents have voiced the aspiration for downtown Oxford to incorporate recreational and entertainment opportunities, additional parking, and more restaurants and retail.”
Some of the catalyst projects that would enhance the borough's downtown that are identified in the plan include a parking garage, a movie theater in the downtown along Third Street, and a mixed-use project with retail on the ground level and apartments above that.
The plan includes some recommended actions to encourage economic development, such as extending the longevity of Oxford Mainstreet, Inc., which works to bring economic development to town; increasing downtown enhancements, such as new entertainment and recreational options; and continuing the community and business collaborations that have been successful for Oxford in the past.
Some other recommended actions include bolstering code enforcement to to facilitate better rental property registration and inspection programs; continuing the police presence borough-wide to promote safety and dispel the perception of criminal activity; performing a “fair share analysis” to measure the amount of existing affordable housing; and improving the public parks to increase opportunities for open-space preservation.
Some of the people who know Oxford best, such as longtime council member and business owner Randy Teel, shared some of their insights about the opportunities and obstacles for Oxford.
Teel said that one issue that he has seen develop is the large amount of rental units in the heart of Oxford’s business district. At one time, more space in the buildings in the business district was reserved for retail and office space. But now, the percentage of rental units in the business district exceeds what is recommended. Not only does that take up space in buildings that could be utilized for other uses, the residents of the rental units often take up the available parking in the downtown, creating times when convenient parking is difficult to find for customers. The revitalization plan sets a high priority on targeting underutilized properties located in the downtown, particularly the second floors of the buildings that can be used for office and retail space.
Parking has certainly been a topic of much discussion in Oxford, as it is in many small towns.
Vernon Ringler, who has been a business owner and property owner in downtown Oxford for nearly five decades, said, “The thing we hear at every revitalization report is that we need parking in the center of town.”
Despite the fact that parking has long been identified as an issue that needs to be addressed, Ringler noted that there is actually less parking available now than there was 30 years ago.
Ringler said that people familiar with the town and the parking that is available usually can find parking spots that are convenient enough for them. But there is a lack of free parking, Ringler said, that is visible to a motorist just passing through town. He said that a visible parking lot somewhere near the center of town would be an asset for the business district.
“I think there are some [properties] that aren’t necessarily historic that could be used for parking,” Ringler said.
His wife, Ediene, identified an issue that sometimes gets overlooked. She said that she would like to see more efforts made to protect and preserve the large stock of Victorian-style or historic buildings in town. The revitalization plan noted that Oxford has “a diverse and historic housing stock,” with more than one-fourth of the buildings constructed before 1940.
While the 100-page revitalization plan won’t offer any magical solutions to Oxford’s long-term needs, the work of preparing the document will produce dividends.
One of the major benefits for a municipality to have an updated revitalization plan is that it is helpful to secure county and state funding for projects.
“The revitalization plan is required by Chester County to continue to be eligible for grant funding,” said Brantner, explaining that since 2002 Oxford Borough has received more than $4.5 million in Community Development Block Grants and Community Revitalization Program grants.
This funding has enabled Oxford to undertake numerous projects that have improved the streets and sidewalks and upgraded water infrastructure and the stormwater systems throughout the borough. Pine Street, North 4th Street, North 3rd Street, South 3rd Street, Old Street, and Market Street have all been improved significantly because of these projects. The county also recently awarded the borough $575,000 for streetscape improvements to Wheeler Boulevard that are slated to begin next year.
The borough wouldn’t have been able to undertake most of these projects without funding from the county. Brantner said that the projects have had a major impact on the borough.
“The borough has leveraged these grants to keep the borough on the path to revitalization,” she said, explaining that property values in the borough have increased by 18.08 percent from 2002 to 2014.
Brantner thanked the county government for the support throughout the process of developing the new revitalization plan.
“Chester County provided, free of charge, two very competent planners to work with the borough on this, and just as importantly gave the Borough access to data which enables us to see our accomplishments and the areas that need improvement in the future,” Brantner said. “Our borough is continuing to thrive and continuing to grow because our county provides us with amazing support that enables us to plan wisely for the next five to ten years.”
Count Rodio among those people who is very optimistic about what will happen in the borough in the next few years.
Now that the updated revitalization plan has been unveiled, there is a 45-day review period for the public to comment on it. Oxford Borough Council is expected to formally adopt the revitalization plan at a meeting in November.