Hopeful signs of a resurgence for Pottstown

Run-down buildings line the borough's pockmarked downtown streets, bordering sidewalks cracked by weeds. Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest in the state, but Pottstown, one of its biggest municipalities, looks more like the town that prosperity forgot.

Thus the opening of a newly constructed bank branch on High Street constitutes a major event for a town with high aspirations for revival.

"You don't see a lot of brick-and-mortar bank branches being opened these days," said Steve Bamford, executive director of Pottstown Area Industrial Development. "And when you do see a brick-and-mortar bank branch opening, it's rarely downtown."

The opening of the Tompkins VIST Bank on Thursday was one of several recent developments, including new restaurants, and local officials see the town luring other interested parties.

"It's very encouraging," Bamford said. "They see an opportunity here."

They also likely will see challenges. Among the 339 municipalities in the eight-county Philadelphia region, Pottstown ranks No. 332 for median income and home values, according to the Nielsen service.

Its saga is a familiar one to towns along the banks of the Delaware River and the Schuylkill.

Named for the Potts family, which built the first metal forges in the nation in the early 18th century, Pottstown became a manufacturing powerhouse with the arrival of rail lines in the mid-19th century. It was the town that produced the metal locks for the Panama Canal and Golden Gate Bridge.

As with so many former factory towns, Pottstown's economy has struggled in the last half-century. From 1960 to 1980, the borough lost more than 13 percent of its population, falling from 26,144 to 22,279.

"They were an economic hub for industrial activity, and that activity went away," said Aliyah Furman, the Southeast regional director at the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. "That took a huge economic toll."

Then, in 1981, the city was dealt another blow when SEPTA shut down its diesel-powered train lines, ending commuter rail access to Philadelphia. From 1980 to 1990, the city's population fell by an additional 4 percent.

But similarly situated towns have had different experiences. Take Phoenixville, 15 miles away. It lost its train service in 1981 and was devastated by factory closures.

But in the last decade, it has undergone extensive revitalization. New restaurants and boutiques line its downtown, and its population increased by 10 percent from 2000 to 2010.

Bamford said that he believed the divergence between the two cities' fates had more to do with location.

"They are located to our east and a little closer to some major employment centers in Valley Forge, King of Prussia, and, to a lesser extent, Collegeville," he said.

Pottstown's economic difficulties have also been compounded by crime, which has been higher than in most of the county's other towns. As of 2015, the borough's sex-crime rate is more than triple the Montgomery County average, and its assault incidence is nearly five times as high.

"The two areas where we've historically had the most issues are Norristown and Pottstown," said Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, whose office recently announced the opening of a prosecutorial unit dedicated to reducing violence in Pottstown.

The city had struggled with a wave of gang violence, culminating in the arrest of more than 40 people in May 2015.

"We heard from the community about the struggles that they were having," said Steele. "We need to do something about that, and we have."

In the last year, violence in Pottstown has been on the wane, and so has the economic impact, Steele believes.

"The business community may not have looked at Pottstown as an area that they want to go to because of some of the criminal element," he said. "But I think that's changing, and I think that's something this effort can help with."

In addition to the new bank branch, a gastropub and an Asian-fusion restaurant are planning to open on High Street, and a total of 11 buildings have been bought by investors in the last 20 months.

"These buildings are getting in the hands of investors who have the capital and wherewithal to really improve and maintain the buildings and attract businesses to our downtown," Bamford said.

Scott Bentley, 59, of North Coventry, the CEO of VideoRay, which produces remotely operated submersibles, moved his company to Pottstown from the Phoenixville area in 2012.

"We're near the community college, and at one time nearly half the company was taking classes," said Bentley, who also owns a Pottstown-based keg manufacturer. "Nice restaurants are just a short walk away."

Pottstown is also the venue for the Steel River Playhouse and the Pottstown Rumble - the borough's well-known annual volleyball tournament. Some community members are refurbishing a carousel originally built in 1905, hoping to give downtown a new attraction.

Still, the city faces obstacles. While a new exit off Route 422 should help motorists, the town lacks rail access. The town's generally low property values have resulted in high real estate taxes for schools and local government, and its tax rates are among the highest in the region.

But inexpensive real estate might lure buyers, and many believe the town is poised to become more like Phoenixville or West Chester, its more prosperous neighbors.

"It really has the potential there," said Furman. "I think that it will get to that level one day, and that day will be in the near future."

dblock@phillynews.com

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