Leading Downingtown's revitalization efforts
By J. Chambless
Downingtown's commercial district is unique. (Photo by Steve Hoffman)
When the Station Taproom opened on the west end of Downingtown’s business district, it marked an important next step in the borough’s revitalization efforts. The Station Taproom quickly started attracting large crowds with its tasty menu offerings and a large selection of craft beers. The success of the Station Taproom led the owners to consider an expansion, and the The Bottle Room soon opened. The Station Taproom and The Bottle Room illustrate the vibrancy of Downingtown Borough's business district.
“The trend is that people want to come to small towns such as Downingtown to have dinner and to shop,” explained Steve Plaugher, the manager of the Downingtown Main Street Association. “Our restaurants are doing well, and we are working to improve the selection of retail stores to draw more shoppers. Our west end has really taken off, and that’s something that we’re all proud of.”
The Downingtown Main Street Association is at the forefront of the community's effort to revitalize Downingtown's business district. One of its primary goals is to attract new businesses, like the soon-to-be-opened Farmhouse Coffee and Espresso Bar.
Another goal of the organization is to work with Downingtown Borough officials to help facilitate improvements in the borough. One example is the Armor Alley Pocket Plaza, which will undergo more redevelopment and beautification enhancements in 2017. Plaugher explained that a state grant for $108,000, and some matching funding will result in about $127,000 in improvements to Armor Alley Pocket Plaza. The plaza is located in the 100 block of East Lancaster Avenue and connects the business district with Milltown Square. The redevelopment includes demolition of existing concrete sidewalk and brick planter boxes. They will be replaced by a walkway of new pavers, landscaping, painting, benches, lighting and fencing to give the plaza a brand new look.
The Downingtown Main Street Association is working with PennDOT for approval of a mid-block crosswalk on Lancaster Avenue to connect the Armor Alley Pocket Plaza with the municipal parking on the south side of Lancaster Avenue. The crosswalk is designed to allow safer access to the business district. More community events, including summer concerts, will be held in the plaza.
According to Plaugher, one of the major strengths of Downingtown is the convenient access to major roads and public transit, and some significant improvements could be looming on the horizon. A new train station could rise up on the site of the former paper mill at the gateway to Downingtown. A new developer is currently in the process of acquiring the parcels, and PennDOT supports the construction of a new train station. There could also be a mixed-use development with both commercial and residential spaces included.
Carl Hamilton, the owner of Dane Decor on East Lancaster Ave., one of Downingtown's more prominent businesses, said that the borough is already a hub of activity because of the train system and proximity to Route 202 corridor and other major roads. Downingtown has a diverse industry base, Hamilton said.
“This has become a real suburbia of all this industry,” Hamilton explained. “Downingtown also has some interesting restaurants and unique shops. Victory Brewing brings in customers from far away.”
Plaugher has lived in Downingtown for close to 40 years and knows the borough very well, thanks in part to his former career as an officer with the police department. After retiring as a lieutenant in the department in 2008, he decided that he wanted to continue to serve the community and accepted a job as the assistant borough manager. Plaugher became the manager of Downingtown's Main Street Program in 2013. A few months after he took over that role, the executive director position of the Downingtown-Thorndale Regional Chamber of Commerce opened up and Plaugher took on those duties as well.
He sees a great deal of value in the Main Street Program, which was first introduced in Downingtown in 1993. The organization continued its work to revitalize the downtown until 2005, when the Downingtown Main Street Association ceased operations until 2011, when a group of local business owners and residents brought it back. The organization's absence was felt during those years.
“Once the program was in limbo, it became clear that the borough does a great job of moving things forward, but the borough only has so many employees and they can only do so much work,” Plaugher explained. “You need a Main Street Program trying to get the borough revitalized.”
Every downtown is going to have its own unique set of challenges. One challenge that Downingtown faces—indeed that most small boroughs face—is encouraging property owners to invest in improvements for older buildings.
Another challenge for Downingtown is that the borough doesn’t have a classic business district that allows pedestrians to easily walk from one end to the other. The east side of Downingtown’s business district is separated from its west side. Plaugher said that walkability is a key component of a vibrant downtown, and Downingtown officials work to maximize how pedestrian-friendly the borough is. Increased pedestrian traffic is an ongoing goal, and Plaugher explained that they want to attract more restaurants that will result in additional foot traffic in the evenings. One example is Amani’s, a popular restaurant in town that features the work of award-winning chef Jon Amani. As restaurants boost the pedestrian traffic in the evenings, some of the other businesses will likely stay open later.
The Downingtown Main Street Association also helps organize community events to bring visitors to the downtown.
A Fine Arts Festival takes place Memorial Day Weekend—this year on May 27 and 28.
“We have artists from around the region with their work on display,” Plaugher explained.
The Summer Jam Series of outdoor concerts take place in Kerr Park on the last Friday of the month in June, July, and August. In addition to the music, there is plenty of food and craft vendors at the event, along with the popular Station Taproom Beer Garden. In September, the Chamber of Commerce presents the Downingtown Fall Fest with music, food, and crafts, and the famous Victory Brewing Company Beer Garden. This is the biggest event of the year.
Business owners are supportive of events, too. At Dane Decor, they organize and display entries in the Downingtown Art Gala. Art teachers from local schools will be selecting the artwork by students of all ages to be displayed in the Downingtown Art Gala.
Business owner Kevin Matthews, who opened the Downingtown Running Company in 2008, is supportive of a variety of events. Some of his personal favorites involve outdoor activities, such as the Victory Run 5K or the Downingtown Good Neighbor Day, the latter which benefits the ambulance and rescue squads in the Downingtown Area School District.
Matthews said that having Kerr Park right in the town is a great feature. He said that he's very happy that he decided to locate his business in Downingtown.
“There’s a real community atmosphere here,” Matthews explained. “A lot of people like to support the downtown. There has been some positive revitalization. We have a lot more shops and restaurants coming into town. We’re finding a younger generation and new families.”
Plaugher said that Downingtown has many strengths that make it a great community in which to locate a business.
He explained, “We have train service. We have excellent schools. We have a good park system, great police and fire services. It’s a safe community.”
Plaugher lauded the members of the Downingtown Main Street Association’s board of directors for all the hard work in trying to make a difference in the community.
“Our board is very engaged in the community,” he explained. “I like to see the impact of all our hard work. I like to see the projects get completed that make Downingtown a vibrant downtown.”
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email email@example.com.