Revitalizing and re-imagining downtown Oxford
By Steven Hoffman
For the last 18 years, Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. (OMI) has served as a catalyst for economic growth and revitalization in Oxford's business district. Brian Wenzka took over the duties as Executive Director of OMI in late September, and he sees plenty of possibilities for the future as the efforts to revitalize and re-imagine downtown Oxford continue.
Wenzka, a resident of Atglen, said that before he even joined OMI and got an up-close look at the business district's attributes, he was impressed by the efforts to revitalize the downtown and to showcase what is unique about Oxford—the shops, the restaurants, the architecture of the buildings, and the people who call the borough home.
“I've noted the progress over the years,” Wenzka said during an interview in mid-November. “We want to continue to create an environment for businesses where they can thrive.”
Oxford has seen significant changes since OMI was originally founded in 1999. One of the primary responsibilities for the organization is to attract new businesses to town to boost the local economy and to create jobs locally. Oxford now has a solid core of businesses to anchor the commercial district—there are 27 businesses that have been in the Business Improvement District for more than ten years. In the last five years, another 27 businesses have opened and approximately 190 new jobs have been created as a result. Additionally, OMI has helped plan and promote community activities like the popular First Friday events that attract a lot of visitors to the downtown, and has also played an instrumental role in getting streetscape and facade improvements that have enhanced the look of the town.
“I'd like to think that the property owners see the value of what OMI is accomplishing,” Wenzka said. “We now have quality restaurants, unique shops, two breweries, and a winery…some key experiences and conveniences that are vital to revitalizing small urban centers. A thriving downtown center needs to be the community’s economic engine that will, in turn, help move the whole community forward.”
While this is his first time leading a Main Street Program, Wenzka has a number of different professional experiences that are useful to performing the job—including nonprofit leadership, a formal design background in landscape architecture and horticulture, as well as his current role as the mayor of Atglen Borough, which has given him plenty of insights into how small-town governments really work.
“Community development is what gets me up in the morning,” Wenzka explained. “I enjoy working with local government and the residents that live in the community to implement projects that have a lasting impact and improve quality of life.”
The new OMI executive director has a strong background working for organizations that benefit the community. He previously served as the Executive Director of the Octorara Community Recreation Commission (OCRC) from 2001 to 2006. OCRC was multi-municipal park and recreation authority encompassing six municipalities and the school district that, in 2006, merged with the now YMCA of Greater Brandywine to create the Octorara YMCA. For the next several years, Wenzka filled numerous leadership roles in the YMCA, implementing programs across Chester County. Wenzka also serves on the board of SAVE (Safety Agriculture Villages & Environment), the Kennett Square-based organization that advocates for smart growth and downtown revitalization efforts. Wenzka was also appointed to fill a vacancy as the mayor of Atglen Borough three years ago. He recently won another full four-year term as mayor in the election in November, but he said that he will most likely resign from the post early in the year to focus on Oxford and the goals for OMI. He is most proud of working with the Atglen community to shift the culture of leadership in town, help set a new vision, and ensure the borough council there is more reflective of the whole community. He feels like he can now step away from serving as mayor knowing that the leadership in place will continue progressing forward in the right direction.
Now that Wenzka has spent a few months getting to know Oxford and its people, he sees many similarities between Oxford and the Octorara Communities.
“The Oxford community is similar to the Octorara community in that they both have strong roots to their past, immense community pride, and a commitment to leverage all of that in a way that retains their community’s identity, while finding ways to make sure their communities are relevant and sustainable for generations to come,” he explained.
Wenzka credited former OMI executive director Donna Hosler with easing the transition to the role, giving him a good working foundation in which to plan several community activities, including the recent annual Country Christmas Celebration, in the latter months of this year.
“Donna has been great through the transition,” he said. “It's been incredibly valuable to have her guidance as I learned all the details and moving parts of this role.”
Mary Lou Baily also helped Wenzka get acclimated to the new job. Baily joined OMI in August 2016 after serving as the chairperson of the organization's Promotions Committee. She has a background in non-profit management, fundraising, marketing and event-planning.
Wenzka said that one of his first goals after joining OMI was to restructure its small staff to maximize the service to merchants in town and to be best positioned to execute the revitalization goals for the next several years.
Baily is transitioning to the position of Main Street Manager in the revamped OMI office effective January 9, 2018
Wenzka also enlisted Jane Edgington to serve as the new office administrator for OMI. She comes to the job with a background in human resources and recruiting. Edgington will be tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that the administrative activities within OMI run efficiently by providing a consistent support structure to the office environment, our staff, and our volunteers.
“I've attended Oxford events and I really enjoyed them,” Edgington, a resident of West Grove, explained. “I loved the community feel that Oxford has.”
With Baily overseeing the promotion of Oxford's events and working closely with merchants and Edgington handling the duties of running the OMI office, Wenzka will focus on providing the overarching vision for Oxford's downtown, and engaging with developers to maximize the potential of the properties in town. Wenzka said that Oxford is about to enter the next level of redevelopment, which means that the focus is no longer just on making sure that the storefronts are filled, but that all floors in each property in the business district are being utilized to their fullest potential.
“Donna Hosler did a great job of getting the storefronts filled,” Wenzka said. “The merchants that we have are amazing. We continue to get calls about available space in town.”
As the start of the new year approaches, Wenzka is very optimistic about Oxford's opportunities. Much of the preliminary work has already been accomplished on the effort to construct a new parking garage and transit facility near the business district that will finally—after literally decades of discussion about the parking issues in town—offer a solution to what has been a persistent shortcoming. A groundbreaking on a project that would add more than 350 parking spaces to the downtown should begin in 2018.
“The parking garage is so important,” Wenzka said. “Solving the parking issue opens up opportunities for downtown Oxford. Prior to council committing to the project, it was difficult to engage developers because they knew off-street parking wasn't available. The conversations have shifted and are now more about the opportunities for developers, rather than the obstacles.”
A parking garage would certainly help with the effort of attracting an anchor tenant like a restaurant or a larger business that would employ dozens of people. Bringing a business to town that employs more people would help increase the foot traffic in the borough during the day, helping the other businesses. Having more employees in town would also boost tax revenues for the borough without burdening local residents. One issue that has been a concern for borough officials is the unusually high number of tax-exempt properties currently in the borough. The borough forfeits about $800,000 in tax revenues as a result of the tax-exempt status of these properties, so it makes sense to maximize the existing spaces that are available for retail and commercial activities. While there are certainly benefits of having tax-exempt properties in a community, there must also be sufficient commercial activities.
“Our goal is to find a better balance,” Wenzka said.
He believes that Oxford has a number of buildings in the downtown that will be attractive to developers looking for a spot in a revitalized urban setting. One example is the building on Third Street that currently houses the Oxford Area Sewer Authority's offices. It is in a prime spot for redevelopment, and it is a one-story building in the midst of three-story buildings, so there is a great deal of untapped potential. “It’s a property with low historical significance, and high vertical potential in the heart of downtown,” Wenzka said.
There are plenty of other spaces available in the downtown that could be used for professional space, office space, or market-rate apartments.
“We have a lot of upper-floor spaces that are under-utilized,” Wenzka explained.
Maximizing the use of buildings in the commercial district is where some of the re-imagining of downtown Oxford comes in. The historic Oxford Hotel is currently on the market, and represents an opportunity for a new use because of its historic importance to the town and its location right in the heart of Oxford. Could the Oxford Hotel be suitable, for example, for a high-end restaurant on the first floor with rooms available on the upstairs floors? There are plenty of options—and opportunities for creative redevelopment projects. Having a vision and engaging the right developers is the first step, Wenzka noted.
The Oxford Arts Alliance has also made a major impact on the downtown, attracting large crowds to its programs and events. It would not be surprising to see the art community to continue to flourish and grow in Oxford.
“There's a surging artisan feel to town,” Wenzka explained. “We're aware of that, and we're looking for opportunities to leverage that as a unique draw for downtown.”
The new OMI executive director would like to introduce some form of entertainment in town in an effort to attract regular visitors in greater numbers.
“We don't know what that form of entertainment is yet,” he explained. “But giving visitors more reasons to come and extend their stay can only help strengthen the downtown economy.”
As Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. approaches its 20th anniversary, officials believe that Oxford is on the cusp of being the next revitalization success story in Pennsylvania. It is uniquely positioned as a gateway to Chester County, with a close proximity to Lancaster County, Maryland, and Delaware, making it an attractive destination for visitors from throughout the region.
Wenzka said that he believes that Oxford has done a great job of protecting and promoting what is unique about it, and he wants to continue that work.
“Oxford has a rich history and it's surprisingly diverse,” Wenzka said. “Everyone and anyone can call Oxford home. I think that's something that defines the community’s character. The opportunity is to pull it all together in a way that makes Oxford relevant and sustainable for future generations.”
OMI is located at 13 South Third Street in Oxford. For more information about OMI and its work, visit the Facebook page, website, or email info@OxfordMainstreet.com. The telephone number is 610-998-9494.