Ideas shared at economic development open house
● By Richard Gaw
As part of the continued outgrowth of the 2016 Kennett Area Economic Development Study, a working document that paints the big picture of what the Kennett Township and Kennett Borough will look like in the future, its major players turned the crystal ball over last week to a new set of architects – local business owners and residents, who shared their ideas and preferences.
The Economic Development Community Workshop, held on Sept. 13 at the American Legion Hall in Kennett Square, was an all-day event that served as part of an on going litmus test to gauge the public's opinion on topics that included infrastructure, housing, commercial growth, street design, parking, traffic calming and the beautification of the township and borough. The event invited experts in town planning to help facilitate informal conversations, and those in attendance were asked to place dot stickers beside photographs that displayed several options for housing, parking and infrastructure.
The event targeted three sections of the borough: the Birch Street vicinity; the State Street-Cypress Street corridor; and the former NVF site along West Mulberry Street.
“In each of these specific areas, we have themes and topics that are directly related to the idea of this workshop, which is to ultimately make changes to the zoning codes and related ordinances, to encourage economic development,” said Nate Echeverria, the Kennett Area Economic Development Director.
Kevin Meyers, an urban planner for the Chester County Planning Commission, served as a facilitator as part of the commission's Vision Partnership Program, that provides funding for municipalities to do planning work.
He said that the workshop is the third leg of planning – the implementation stop-off point that has followed the passage of comprehensive plans by the borough and the township, and subsequently, the approval of the 2016 economic study.
“The purpose of this workshop is to amend the zoning and subdivision ordinances to open the way for future planning, where the rubber hits the road,” Meyers said. “Were trying to get a better sense of what residents and business owners are interested in seeing, in different areas of the borough, moving forward.”
Of the many topics that served as conversation points throughout the afternoon workshop, the issue of providing opportunities for affordable housing in the borough was front and center. While a few stations at the workshop gave attendees the chance to give their preferences for housing types, the reality is that the cost of these town homes, units and apartments is way above the price range of the area's minority communities and those of the millennial generation, whose desire to be a part of the Kennett community is met head-on with their inability to afford it.
“Chester County is, in general, a wealthy county in the state, and housing affordability is tied to that number, according to what incomes provide,” Meyers said. “There's building costs, building codes, and the subdivision and land development process. All of those things contribute [to costs], and it's hard to differentiate the one that contributes most to the affordability of homes in this area.
“It's not clear yet who's up first in making that affordability happen,” Meyers added. “The creation of the lack of affordability isn't pointed in one direction. You can't say that it's the county's fault, or it's the developer's fault, or it's the municipality's fault. It's a conglomeration of all of those factors.”
Nando Micale, an architect and planner with the firm LRK in Philadelphia, has been hired by the borough and township to develop zoning recommendations for the State Street-Cypress Street Corridor. He said that an effective way to make housing more affordable through re-working of zoning laws.
“Zoning can be a tool for affordable housing, but the big issue is density, because many developers want the increased density to provide affordable housing through a financing structure,” Micale said.
“There are two tiers of dealing with affordable housing. One, you can include it in the zoning, and two, you can begin to be proactive about the types of developers who can be brought to the table.”
The workshop also attracted several local business owners. Shannon Blake, the owner of Penny Lane Emporium, a children's shop on State Street, believes that the key component of planning for the future of Kennett Square will be to showcase the borough's accessibility to neighboring towns.
“There are people in a lot of local communities who don't make Kennett Square a part of their regular stops,” Blake said. “Hopefully, this economic plan will attempt to pull those people here and show them that Kennett Square is not about just mushrooms, but a great shopping and food scene, that's not far from Hockessin, West Chester and Wilmington.”
Heather Robitzer, the owner of No. 109, a women's clothing and accessory boutique on State Street, said that finding solutions that help local business owners in the borough will come from the owners themselves. It's not just about opening a door and expecting the customers to come in, she said.
“You need to be a part of the community so you know who you're trying to reach, and you need to find a niche that isn't already here, because there's a lot of repeat businesses,” Robitzer said. You need to find something original and unusual. The part I enjoy about the local business community is that a new business owner will be well received [by their fellow owners] if he or she takes the time to know what would turn a potential customer on.”
Gary Smith of the Chester County Economic Development Council, who has been helping to invigorate the urban centers of the county for the past 42 years, traced the start of what has been a success story of economic development in the borough and the neighboring township to a phone call he received in the mid-1980s from Michael Walker, who between 1985 and 1998, grew Genesis Health Ventures from a $32 million business to a $2.4 billion public company.
“Michael said to me, 'Can you help me build a facility in Kennett Square that can help rebuild the town?'” Smith said. “It has done that. It has built a new population. We've watched retailers come to town. We've watched Main Street programs grow and expand. We've watched Genesis continue to reinvest in the community.
“It's our pleasure to constantly keep working here to make sure that we have this resurgence of economic opportunity, and continue to make Kennett the pulse of southeastern Chester County.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.