Jared Adkins had a vision for his distillery: a sunny, inviting space, in a neighborhood where people could wander in to enjoy craft cocktails and learn about his spirits. As he explored the suburbs of Philadelphia in search of a home, his pitch was rejected four times.
Then he got to Phoenixville, where borough officials not only said yes, but put him in touch with the owner of a vacant building he’d seen on the way into town — and pretty much welcomed him with open arms.
Bluebird Distilling, which opened in 2015, was the first distillery in Phoenixville. But it’s only one piece of a movement that has turned the borough of 17,000 into a destination for eaters and drinkers, especially beer lovers. One half-mile stretch of Phoenixville’s downtown is now home to four breweries, three winery tasting rooms, Bluebird Distilling, and The Foodery, a store selling more than 1,000 choices of bottled beer.
Phoenixville is a robust example of a trend urban planners are seeing throughout the region and the country, said Karen Cilurso of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission: community rebirth built around food and drink.
“We’re seeing a food tourism sector now in more of these places,” she said. “People want an experience, to sit outside and watch people walk by, and they want to enjoy something that’s homegrown and affordable. The same way people don’t want to drive an hour to work, they don’t want to drive an hour to be entertained. And it’s so contributed to the revitalization of places like Phoenixville.”
Many such communities have blossomed outside of Philadelphia. Collingswood, N.J., is home to a restaurant boom years in the making, with more locally owned shops and eateries that draw customers from around the region. This year, West Chester was recognized by a national Main Street organization for its dining scene, which attracts food tourism and has powered that borough’s economy. Kennett Square, Ardmore, Conshohocken, Media, and Doylestown have all benefited from a surge of new restaurant activity.
In Phoenixville, these new establishments have created jobs, given the downtown new vibrancy, and attracted new residents. Home values are rising, and new luxury apartment buildings are filling up, with 2,000 more residential units planned. Phoenixville’s population, about 15,000 in 2004, is on track to hit 20,000 in the next five years, said Borough Manager Jean Krack.
It didn’t happen by accident or overnight. Borough officials, looking to revive the downtown and fill empty storefronts, years ago revamped their zoning laws and tax code specifically to encourage the development of restaurants and other businesses.
“When you sell a home, the number-one conversation at the closing table is the breweries,” said Jennifer Daywalt, a longtime area real estate agent. “Which ones are coming, comparing them to one another.”
More are on the way. The Conshohocken Brewery will expand to Phoenixville this year, and new brewery Rebel Hill plans to open as well. That’s in addition to Stable 12, Root Down, Crowded Castle Brewing Co., and restaurants like Guatemalan Kitchen, Vecchia Pizza, and Downtown Bangkok Cafe. Sly Fox, the pioneering brewhouse launched in Phoenixville in 1995, is just outside of the downtown area.
Located about 45 minutes northwest of Center City, Phoenixville is a former steel town. After the 1987 shutdown of the Phoenix Iron & Steel Co., the jobs disappeared, families left, and storefronts along Bridge Street closed. Local developer Manny DeMutis, who grew up in town, remembers a time in the early 1990s when the borough couldn’t afford to keep streetlights on at night.
Borough leaders hired a consultant to draft a plan aimed at supporting growth while preserving attractions like the historic Colonial Theater. Investors like DeMutis started buying property. By the late 1990s, Phoenixville had created a Main Street Development Corp. and begun a series of community programs like murals and First Friday events with live music.
In 2010, the borough rewrote its zoning code, simplifying the guidelines to attract new businesses, said Krack. The borough also started offering tax incentives to business owners who rehabilitated abandoned buildings.
Bluebird founder Adkins, who recently moved to Phoenixville, said that when he began searching, many municipal officials warned he’d face an uphill battle with zoning restrictions. “Instead of people being open to fitting it in somewhere, the response I got was, this won’t fit in,” he said. “Phoenixville had open arms.”
Recent changes to state liquor laws also unlocked the market for smaller businesses in Phoenixville and other towns. In 2015, breweries were given the go-ahead to sell beer by the pint, and to create satellite locations, which has led to the opening of more brewpubs around the state. Micro distilleries were allowed to apply for affordable licenses to sell directly to customers, similar to the existing laws in place for wineries, which has ushered in a craft distillery boom.
Phoenixville’s downtown sits where the French Creek and the Schulykill converge. It offers access to a paved trail along the river that runs for miles through Chester County and beyond, along with kayaking and fishing — experiences that are attractive to many of the borough’s newcomers.
“A number of those same people have an interest in good food and beer, and that palate is now being met,” Adkins said.
Since 2004, Phoenixville’s assessed valuation has increased by almost $200 million, Krack said. Homes that could be bought for under $100,000 a decade ago are going for close to $300,000, according to Daywalt, and many storefront buildings that were once priced at $300,000 now cost more than twice that. The growth has led local leaders to start looking at whether enough affordable housing remains in the area.
But to many businesses, Phoenixville still offers relative affordability and an opportunity to spread out. At The Foodery, the first suburban outpost of the Philadelphia chain of craft beer stores, customers can sample beer on tap and browse the vast shelves of a 28-yard-long beer cooler.
“Everyone is pretty much amazed when they walk in,” said general manager Nikita Borovik. “You couldn’t fit this anywhere in a city.”
Borovik said that Foodery patrons include everyone from construction workers to young working professionals to township employees. Krack often sees people working on laptops at the Iron Hill Brewery’s bar. At other local brewpubs, Daywalt sees families brunching with young children.
“Years ago, you’d never take your kid to a bar. It would be taboo,” she said. “Now a lot of these places have a different atmosphere; there’s food for them to eat, it’s encouraged.”
Last month, a craft bar crawl among six establishments drew more than 800 people, Adkins said — so many that organizers ran out of the T-shirts promised to patrons who completed the event. On First Fridays, families and couples stroll in and out of restaurants and bars, go to movies or concerts, or browse the shops. During weekend festivals, Bridge Street is often closed to traffic to accommodate thousands of people and live music.
When Andrew Deery opened his BYOB, Majolica, in 2004, he had few neighbors on Bridge Street. He built a loyal following, he said, possibly because there were few similar options anywhere in the area. These days, Phoenixville has so many choices that customers sometimes have trouble parking. But he thinks the infusion of brewpubs and other eateries have made the borough well-rounded and more appealing to different types of people.
“We very much appreciate the availability of places for our patrons to get drinks before or after dinner,” said Deery, whose restaurant is next door to the Black Walnut Winery’s tasting room. “They complement our other businesses, and they add to the commerce downtown.”
DeMutis, the developer and lifelong Phoenixville resident, said the key to the borough’s newfound vitality is that quality brewpubs and restaurants have moved in, companies operated by craftsmen who stand behind their products.
“Phoenixville has developed very slowly over time and has been able to keep its character and charm,” he said. “The businesses coming in see that, and as a result, everyone who comes here has become an investment partner in our town.”