What does it take to be a Main Street Finalist? (Part 1 of 3)
On May 1, 2017 the Borough of West Chester was recognized as a 2017 Great American Main Street Award winner, as a result of its successful revitalization movement that began in 2000. West Chester is a designated community through the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED)’s Keystone Communities Program, and is a positive example of working smart and living happy in Pennsylvania. We will be featuring a three-post blog series dedicated to West Chester and its revitalization. For this post, we spoke with BID Executive Director Malcolm Johnstone.
Downtown Driving Change
West Chester’s selection as a Great American Main Street semifinalist speaks volumes to the efforts undertaken by the West Chester Business Improvement District (BID) since its establishment 16 years ago. Led by BID Executive Director Malcolm Johnstone, West Chester’s remarkable revival began in 2000.
“The town was almost becoming a ghost town,” Johnstone said. “There used to be five department stores — then there were zero. There used to be three or four hotels — the last one closed in the 1970s. There had been a theater with 1,500 seats — it closed in the 1980s and was not replaced.”
Low commercial property values prevented property owners from investing in or rebuilding their structures. Damaged structures simply became teardowns.
The tipping point was the intersection of High and Gay Streets — the borough’s epicenter. At the end of the 1990s, the buildings on all four corners were vacant.
“To have one of your main intersections vacant was just preposterous and unacceptable,” Johnstone said. “Now, we have all four corners occupied — including a Starbucks, Iron Hill Restaurant & Brewery, and Lorenzo and Sons Pizza.”
Johnstone credits West Chester’s substantial turnaround to multiagency collaboration between entities such as DCED, the borough of West Chester, the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce, and the West Chester Police Department.
“The partnerships we have garnered with DCED are second to none, in my opinion. With the Keystone Communities Program we’ve been able to attract close to $1 million in funding and grants, which is really effective in a town of around 19,000 people.”
West Chester’s revitalization is still ongoing. Five years ago, West Chester opened Hotel Warner, a repurposed, 80-room hotel in the former theater that closed more than 30 years ago. About a block away, a second hotel is on the drawing board — a 120-room Marriott.
“Having 200 hotel rooms in town will be quite the shot in the arm from an economic standpoint,” Johnstone said.
“The energy of downtown is what I love so much. It’s this wonderful place — a little slice of paradise. I can recharge my batteries by walking down the street. I imagine people who climb mountains or go waterskiing get the same feeling; for me, it’s simply walking down the street.”
If West Chester is selected as one of three awardees at the National Main Street Conference in Pittsburgh on May 1, 2017, it will be the first time in nearly 20 years that a Pennsylvania community has earned this distinction. For more information on the West Chester BID and its efforts, visit downtownwestchester.com. To find out more information about the Keystone Communities Program, visit dced.pa.gov/kcp.
Malcolm Johnstone has been a downtown development specialist since 1985 and joined the West Chester Business Improvement District (BID) as executive director in June 2001. He previously served as manager with the Pendleton Downtown Association and the McMinnville Downtown Association — both in Oregon — and the Coeur d’Alene Downtown Association in Idaho.
Johnstone is certified in Professional Downtown Management by the National Main Street Center and is a regular presenter at National Main Streets Conference. He also provides training and presentations for several statewide programs around the country.