Kennett area leaders turn out for economic development study meeting
● By Steven Hoffman
The first of three public meetings to unveil the results of an economic development study for the Kennett Square area took place at the Genesis HealthCare building on Feb. 11. While it will take several more months for the study to be completed, the presentation of some of the early findings attracted a large crowd of more than 100 community leaders.
The seeds for the economic development study were planted last year when Historic Kennett Square, Kennett Square Borough, Kennett Township, Genesis HealthCare, and Longwood Gardens all agreed to partner on the study, which was funded in part by a Vision Partnership Program Grant from the county.
“There is tremendous growth in the borough and in the township, and we thought it was important to put together a plan to help guide us,” explained Tom Sausen, the vice president of the board of Historic Kennett Square, at the beginning of the Feb. 11 presentation.
The economic development study focuses on seven areas that local leaders identified as potential locations of growth: the State Street corridor, the Cypress Street corridor; Birch Street from Walnut to Broad streets; the area known as Millers Hill on the eastern border between the borough and the township; the Ways Lane area in Kennett Township; the former NVF site in the borough; and the area on the west side of Mill Road in the township.
Todd Poole of 4Ward Planning and Mark Keener of the RBA Group, are the consultants hired to complete the study, and they led the presentation. Poole has conducted similar studies in areas all across the country, including Bethlehem, Pa., Hoboken, New Jersey, and Kalamazoo, Michigan. Poole and Kenner have frequently worked together on projects, and are working collaboratively on the study for Kennett Square.
Poole talked about how regional trends can influence the residential and commercial development for a town as much as national trends or societal changes that are at work. For example, this region has a surplus of office space.
“There is no need to build major office space now except for medical office space,” Poole said, explaining that technological changes allow workers to do their jobs without needing to be in an office. That means that companies aren’t looking for as much office space as they once did.
There is a national trend where big box retail stores are finding it difficult to make gains from one year to the next. In Kennett Square, fifty-three percent of the businesses in the borough are small and employ four people or less. That reduces Kennett Square’s risk of being hit hard by a retail downturn that impacts the big box stores.
“You’re well-positioned not to be harmed by that kind of contraction,” Poole said.
Across the country, light industrial space is being redeveloped as more flexible space where artisans can do their work in what is called “maker-space.”
The industries that people are finding work in are changing, too. Since 2009, the greatest employment growth has been in the retail trade, health care, and social assistance.
Poole explained that Kennett Square officials want to bring in businesses that are appropriate for the area. For example, Kennett Square does have strong household spending, which is good for restaurants, cafes, spas, and live performance venues.
Another aspect of the presentation focused on the need for affordable housing in the area.
“There is not enough housing for people who want housing,” Poole said, explaining that people are traveling to work in Kennett Square because there is not sufficient affordable housing for them to live closer to the area. “Having quality housing at affordable price points is an economic development strategy.”
Another factor that Kennett Square officials will need to consider in the future is the aging of the population. Poole explained that 10,000 people are turning 65 every day, and contrary to the popular belief, senior citizens are not overwhelmingly flocking to warmer states like Florida and Arizona. Rather, most people tend to stay within 60 to 90 minutes of where they lived and worked so that they can be close to the people and things that they are familiar with. Poole said that it’s very important for a town to have a mix of younger families and older residents, and Kennett Square is very appealing for people of all ages because of its amenities.
The presentation included a discussion about the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the area. Poole and Keener will provide a full analysis as part of the economic development study, and they asked attendees about their opinions of the advantages and disadvantages of the area.
One weakness that Poole identified is a lack of public transportation, particularly when considering that many millennials are choosing not to own cars. A potential threat to the area is the potential for over-development, which could jeopardize the historic character of the area.
Sometimes, the lines are blurred between strengths and weaknesses and opportunities and threats. The redevelopment of the 26-acre NVF site, for instance is an opportunity—but it is also a threat if the redevelopment isn’t handled properly.
After the presentation, Poole was asked what surprised him, in a good way or bad way, about Kennett Square since he started the work on the study. He replied that he was surprised at how recent some of the successes of the revitalization effort occurred. He explained that he would have thought that some of the important components of the revitalization would have occurred twenty years ago, instead of more recently. He also said that he was surprised by the pockets of poverty that still exist in the community.
Poole added that he believes Kennett Square is a very quaint, charming community that is a great place to live, work, and raise a family.
Kennett Square officials are very pleased with how the economic development study is being developed.
Mary Hutchins, the executive director of Historic Kennett Square, said that early work on the economic development study has already produced useful information that will help officials in the Kennett area set priorities for where and how the Kennett region grows.
“We’re finding it all very interesting,” Hutchins said. “We’re very pleased with the consultants and we’re confident in the process.”
An online survey is being set up to help the consultants get opinions from residents. Interviews with stakeholders in the community are also continuing as work begins on developing a plan of action for the Kennett Square community. The consultants will be working with local officials on a review of zoning ordinances. A workshop for the consultants to meet publicly with local officials and residents for a second time is planned for April 7.