Study: Kennett Square region has strong opportunities for economic development
● By Steven Hoffman
What will the Kennett Square region look like in five, ten, or twenty years?
That question is at the heart of the Kennett Region Economic Development Study, a 234-page analysis of the economic, labor, real estate, and land-development conditions of Kennett Square Borough and Kennett Township that will help local leaders plot a course for the future. The study is expected to be finalized this month, and on Sept. 8, the third and final public forum regarding the plan took place at the Kennett American Legion building. The study indicates that the Kennett Square region is rich in possibilities and opportunities, and will continue to be a hub of commercial activity and a center of arts and culture.
Local officials selected 4Ward Planning and the RBA Group to serve as the consultants to help develop an economic vision for the Kennett Square region. The goal was to develop a road map for future commercial and residential development that would also preserve the historic charm and character of the community. Todd Poole, the managing principal of 4Ward Planning, and Mark Keener, the director of urban design with the RBA Group, led the presentation at the Sept. 8 forum. Poole has conducted similar economic development studies for communities all across the country, including Bethlehem, Pa., Hoboken, N.J., and Kalamazoo, MI., and he and Keener have previously worked on studies together.
Local officials identified seven locations to be analyzed for potential growth in the future: the State Street corridor; the Cypress Street corridor; Birch Street from Walnut to Broad street; the area known as Millers Hill on the eastern boundary 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. The study included a project goal for each of the locations, as well as actions that should be taken at the local level to achieve the goals.
Poole said that the vision for Millers Hill, a one-mile stretch of westbound Baltimore Pike, is to transform it into a beautiful, landscaped gateway. Millers Hill could be the site for up to 200,000 square feet of medical and technical service buildings or corporate back office operations. Two goals that local officials identified for Millers Hill are to introduce sidewalks or a walking trail to connect this area to the borough’s downtown, and to enhance the sense of hospitality for visitors along the corridor.
Next, Poole and Keener talked about how Way’s Lane could be transformed into a new kind of village that could be the home to affordable housing and mixed-use projects in the future.
“This is a place where private and public investment will have to be utilized,” Poole explained.
Way's Lane would be the ideal location for a small university, community college, or technical school campus. There is a need for entertainment options, perhaps a movie theater, to serve the Kennett Square community, and Way's Lane would be a suitable spot for that, too.
The Creamery has already demonstrated a successful redevelopment of a former industrial site on Birch Street. Poole and Keener said that Birch Street could evolve into a “fascinating and fun mixed-use district.” It could be the home of pop-up arts and culture activities throughout the year. Local officials should be proactive and do what they can to reduce the red tape to encourage unique projects in this area.
State Street in Kennett Square Borough is already a charming district that blends the historic character of the town with modern retail concepts.
“There’s something precious here and cultivating that is important,” Keener explained.
Poole noted that there is more demand from people who want to open a business on State Street than there are spaces available—an enviable position for a town to be in.
“You don't have a recruitment problem,” Poole said. “You don't have enough space for all the businesses that want to be here. People want to be here.”
In the future, one challenge for local officials will be to find creative ways to make the most of under-utilized sites that exist State Street. This could include relocating some businesses to other parts of town so that each parcel and building on State Street is utilized to its fullest potential.
Poole said that the lack of adequate parking in the downtown area is an ongoing need that will eventually have to be addressed. The best option could be a private-public partnership on a new parking garage located in the area on the western part of State Street heading toward the Rite Aid. The parking structure could be designed to blend in with State Street, with retail space and apartments included.
Cypress Street, which the study described as largely just a way through town right now, could be transformed into a more attractive in-town thoroughfare with some reinvestment. One possible enhancement is to add a two-way cycle track along Cypress Street.
Poole and Keener combined Mill Road and the former NVF site because of their proximity to each other, and because future development in both areas could be connected to each other.
Poole said that there are some remarkable opportunities for the redevelopment of the 26-acre NVF site, which has been extensively rehabilitated over the last decade.
“It is a home run site for future development,” Poole said.
The study envisions the NVF site and Mill Road as a potential new neighborhood that could include a mix of retail, apartment buildings, and duplexes. A portion of the NVF parcel is still not suitable for housing because of the lingering impact of its previous use as a heavy industrial site. However, there are ways to make good use of the property. One possibility, Poole said, is to have an aquatic center included in the plans. Aquatic centers are very popular in many areas of the country right now, and the demographics of Kennett Square would suggest that it would be a good use here, too.
“We think this is a long-term home run project,” Poole said.
A question-and-answer session followed the presentation by Poole and Keener. Concerns were raised about the impact that the residential growth could have on schools. Others said that they were worried about increased traffic in the area.
A question was raised about whether one target area for future growth was more important than all the others. The presenters explained that each area is important in its own right, so there wouldn't be a need to prioritize one over another.
“You don’t have too much that’s missing for a town this size,” Poole explained. “People want to be here.”
Overall, Poole said, the Kennett Square region can expect to add between 600 and 1,150 housing units over a ten-year period.
Keener and Poole made it clear that the Kennett Square area has a number of strengths moving forward. Overall, there is regional affluence that equates to a high level of spending power. The region is also fertile ground for entrepreneurs. Another strength is the number of affluent baby boomer households in the primary market area. As these baby boomers increasingly retire from their jobs and contemplate downsizing, most will seek to remain within an hour of where they currently live. The Kennett Square area is in a good position to attract these downsizing boomer households.
The study included an analysis of socio-economic trends in the region. There is a rising incidence of poverty, so in the future officials should “recognize the needs of this socio-economic group.” There is also a demand for rental housing, and in the future there will be an increase in the number of smaller households.
Poole said that the study is intended to be a tool for local officials to utilize, and now that it is complete, local officials can start to work on laying the groundwork for future developments. The study included action plans and timelines for actions to be taken, which will serve as guidelines for local officials when they need them.
“This is the beginning for your communities,” Poole said. “This study is not to be put on a shelf. It is to be put into action.”
The increased collaboration between municipalities—particularly Kennett Square Borough and Kennett Township—will be vital to the effort. Kennett Square Borough mayor Matthew Fetick said that the strong relationship between the borough and township will be a major asset moving forward since it’s imperative for neighboring municipalities to work together on planning.
“We have a fantastic relationship between Kennett Square Borough and Kennett Township,” Fetick said.
This study, which was started in 2015, is a collaboration between Kennett Square Borough, Kennett Township, Historic Kennett Square, the Chester County Planning Commission, Genesis HealthCare, and Longwood Gardens. A Vision Partnership Program grant from the county helped fund the report. The full study will be made available on Historic Kennett Square's website once it is finalized. That could occur as early as next week.