Saturday, March 3, 2012

County Seat To College Town

County Seat to College Town

Some years ago on the front page of The Pottstown Mercury (its name then) a story like this appeared.

Pottstown to become a county seat in the newly carved out county made up of land taken from Berks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties with Pottstown at the geographic center. 

April Fools Day quickly showed through the intent, though, in fact, that image described was just what had been going on here for very many decades. Pottstown really was the industrial, commercial, professional, and banking hub of that designated area. We had little interface with Norristown nor Reading, each their County's seat. We felt as outsiders but we didn't object too much since we were self sufficient in our vibrancy. Pottstown's population rose above 30,000 finally topping out later at 32,000 before falling to 22,000 now. All walks of life inhabited Pottstown and lived in the surrounding townships. Though the poor were present, they seemed not to be totally destitute because an unorganized safety net operated quite effectively.

Up through the 1950's from Colonial Times the poor and needy were essentially disappeared into the community through the humanitarian work of the churches and, somewhat under the radar, by funding from social clubs. Clubs were allowed back then to operate games of chance overlooked by governmental authorities up until gambling became a no-no. The county had taxing power throughout the entire population and homelessness with its connection to the poor was not isolated to specific areas. 

Church parishioners began urban flight as the Green Wave of the effluent flowed to the suburbs, building homes there, while still maintaining church buildings in town. No longer did these parishioners need to be daily exposed to the poor so naturally many adopted an "out of sight out of mind" attitude. Once, what was a duty now was someone else's problem, the Town's  or the county's. During the grand heyday of Pottstown's industrialization, work was more than plentiful and money flowed even into the causes which helped feed the poor. When industry folded or moved away, jobs became non-existent, gifting ceased, and the poor and homeless expanded in numbers and needs. Tent cities cropped up along the Manatawny and Schuylkill waterways in Pottstown since it was here the county established numerous agency offices which administered to the poor. Agencies begot more agencies which drew  like a magnet those in need as their rolls burgeoned. 

All the while the county measured the number of those poor and equated that as a sign for more section 8 dwellings needed. The spiraling just continued as Pottstown declined and, along with it, rental rates dropped compared to other towns in the county. Section 8 became a better buy here for the county so they promoted its acceptance which enhanced the spiraling down. Though mostly ignored, it is the ultimate responsibility of the county to care for the homeless and protect the poor. The county is the agent of the state and federal government for the dispersal of grant moneys designated to care for them. One has only to diligently follow the money trail from its source to its use, to see if it's spent properly.

The continued concentration here of the homeless, the poor, and section 8 took an additional toll on Pottstown's economic health. High Street was once a hubbub of retail activity but, a slow decline in people with disposable income shopping, caused weak shops to close up. The sidewalks which used to be filled with working people shopping was now populated with the poor who had no money to spend. In fact, the art of pan handling started cropping up, the million dollar Town Center Park began to be their meeting place, and sometimes they chose to sleep there.

Just as High Street declined so did the residential areas once the backbone of the Town's tax base. The school district, which receives four out of every five tax dollars, continued to raise taxes yearly to 
defray the extra costs to educate students of the transient poor whose children's needs exceeded the norm. Retired home owners were caught with their fixed incomes while their taxes rose along with the
costs to keep up their property. Their "For Sale" signs joined those signs already erected on properties foreclosed on by banks when the mortgager, many out of work, could not pay their mortgage. The gross asset value of Pottstown continued to decline year after year; therefore, taxes must rise year after year just to remain even.

What would change this image ? 1-Bring back industry along with its jobs, 2-eliminate taxation based on property values, 3- demand the county to equitably distribute the care for the homeless poor throughout Montgomery County, 4- revitalize the High Street corridor to bring back retail, professional, and commercial vitality through an infusion of grant moneys, 5- embrace thoroughly the concept of Pottstown truly as a college town, 6- expect every public exposure of Pottstown, a college town, to be expressed in a positive light. 

Ronald C. Downie

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