How West Chester, Pennsylvania, Turned its Sleepy Downtown into a Popular Destination
It’s another busy Friday night in downtown West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Gay Street, the burg’s main drag, is filled with couples out on dates, a smattering of families, and throngs of students from nearby West Chester University. A group of teens lines up for scoops of Mocha Chip and English Toffee Crunch at Scoops ‘N’ Smiles ice cream shop. Over at the circa-1916 National Guard armory, now repurposed as the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center, film fans watch a series of short flicks, part of the West Chester Film Festival. At Sedona Taphouse, diners wait to sample some of the more than 50 beers on draft. Want a table? Good luck, the host will tell you there’s a 40-minute wait.
West Chester, located about 35 miles west of Philadelphia, is often held up as a poster child for idyllic small-town living—albeit one with big-city vibes. And it’s easy to see why. It’s got a supremely walkable downtown of approximately 20 square blocks, lined mostly with a mix of commercial and residential structures built between 1830 and 1930. (There are even a few that date to the 1790s.) More than 4,000 of the town’s 6,000 buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of a historic district, including its centerpiece, a Greek Revival courthouse designed in 1846 by Thomas U. Walter, architect of the United States Capitol Dome.
Although Gay Street is considered the town’s primary artery, both High and Market streets—as well as connecting side streets—are populated with more than 60 restaurants and nearly as many retail shops, offering everything from vintage clothing to gourmet chocolates. Other than a lone Rite Aid, not a single national retail store occupies space downtown.
But just 20 years ago, things weren’t quite so lively in this town of 20,000, which serves as the Chester County seat. By the end of the 1990s, the borough (as larger towns in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are officially known) had lost about 1 percent of its population since the start of the decade, while surrounding Chester County had a population gain of 15.2 percent. Vacant storefronts were a common sight. In 2000, West Chester property crime rates were higher than the state average.
For the few retailers who remained, business was rough. “It was dead,” says Holly Brown, who has owned the building housing Kaly’s clothing boutique since 1993. “There were really just a handful of retail stores. There was no restaurant scene.”
In 1997, when Kevin Finn and his business partners were considering opening up a brewery in a former Woolworth’s on the corner of Gay and High streets—one of the town’s most prominent intersections—three of the four corner buildings were vacant and had been for years. They ended up taking a chance on the property because the price was right, but, as Finn recalls one of his partners saying, “It was almost like you’d expect tumbleweeds to blow down the street.”
So what happened over the past couple of decades to transform West Chester into the vibrant place it is today? Some locals will tell you the dual economic engines of a growing university and a busy courthouse have helped. Others will say it’s just a reflection of a broader national trend: the renewed appeal of small-town life, of “living in a community instead of a cul-de-sac,” as local urban planner Ray Ott, who played a key role in the downtown’s revitalization, likes to say. Or it could be due to the efforts of a stubborn group of business owners and town planners who looked around their struggling but historic community and thought, “We need to do a much better job of promoting this place.”
As is often the case, there’s no single answer. When it comes to West Chester’s slow-but-steady progress, the answer is: All of the above.
Sixty years ago, if you had visited downtown West Chester on a Friday night, you would have encountered an equally bustling scene. That’s when Mosteller’s Department Store was open late, and families would come into town to browse its four “selling floors” of everything from ironing boards to pots and pans to prom dresses. Many would take in a movie at the Art Deco Warner Theatre, the place to be on a weekend night since its 1930 debut.
“Oh, it was booming back then,” says Patrick Comerford, who until recently owned and operated a women’s clothing boutique on High Street. “It was a great town, a farming community. … I used to ride my bike all over town. A kid on a bike in a little town—you can’t beat it.”
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But in 1973, Exton Square Mall opened a half-dozen miles from the borough. And like so many other communities across America, West Chester’s downtown withered, as consumers traded mom-and-pop shops for national chains and easy parking. A weak national economy also affected local small businesses. Mosteller’s held on until 1981, but vacant storefronts were already becoming the norm.
“In the late ’70s and ’80s, [downtown] was 60 percent vacant,” says local developer Scott Zukin, whose father, Stan, ran the family realty company at the time. “You’d buy a building and whatever price it was, it was too expensive, because you couldn’t rent it. You had to beg people, ‘Please set up a business. Just try it.’”
West Chester’s decline wasn’t as steep as that of many American downtowns. West Chester University, located less than a mile from the borough’s center, provides a captive audience of 17,500 students (today’s enrollment), and the courthouse attracts its share of lawyers and judges with money to spend. The county has long been one of the wealthiest in Pennsylvania; its household median income tops $100,000 today, according to U.S. census data, compared with an average of $62,000 for the rest of the state. But until more recently, those consumers were choosing to spend their discretionary dollars elsewhere.
Longtime retailers such as Brown and Sandra Riper, who has owned Sunset Hill Jewelers on North High Street with her husband, Joseph, since 1983, knew that the business community had to be more aggressive about attracting visitors.
“The mall has a corporate entity inside of itself that advertises and organizes things,” says Riper. “The downtown needed that same thing. One store doing one thing at a time isn’t effective, but if you do a [downtown-wide] Christmas promotion or summertime promotion or sidewalk sale, that’s something else. The strength is in our collective effort.”
The Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce had worked to promote the area, but its focus was on the broader borough, not specifically downtown. After several attempts to establish a volunteer advocacy group just for downtown, local business and property owners, city planners, residents, university representatives, and government officials outlined a plan for a Business Improvement District (BID) in 2000. The organization would have a full-time leader and a board composed of local stakeholders. It would raise money by levying an annual assessment on all commercial property owners within the boundary of the district—about 170 at the time. The BID’s goals were to help recruit new businesses to downtown, promote existing ones, and concentrate on preserving and enhancing the unique historical character of the area.
Later in 2000, the BID hired its first director, Malcolm Johnstone, a native of Southern California with a degree in classical guitar and composition. Johnstone, a history buff, had multiple years of experience as a downtown development manager in Oregon. When he arrived in West Chester, Johnstone says, “the business community’s morale was in the toilet. People asked me, ‘Why would you want to move here?’”
But Johnstone and his wife fell in love with West Chester’s architectural charms. He realized the value of promoting downtown as a historic shopping and dining destination, an experience totally different from the suburban strip mall.
One of the BID’s first accomplishments was to print a widely distributed brochure to help encourage people to open a business or visit. “It immediately helped to announce to [potential] businesses and visitors that this is a new day in West Chester,” Johnstone says. “That you can look at West Chester through the lens of all the positive things we have to offer—a beautiful, historic streetscape, some very interesting existing businesses, and a family-friendly downtown. Those were elements that people wanted to hear. Simply by doing a professionally done brochure, we began to change people’s attitudes.”
Johnstone also sought help from the Pennsylvania Downtown Center (PDC), the statewide partner of Main Street America, a National Trust program that helps revitalize historic downtowns. Through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, the PDC provided guidance on securing facade improvement grants that would go to existing or potential businesses interested in fixing up storefronts. Dozens of businesses took advantage of the grants in the program’s first two years. “With those types of partnerships, it became relatively easy to let [potential business owners] know that West Chester would be a good place to establish a business,” says Johnstone.
All building improvements had to be approved by the borough’s Historical & Architectural Review Board (HARB), ensuring that the town retained its historic character. Carol Quigley, HARB’s chair, says that over the years, many property owners have bought into the importance of historic preservation and its contributions to the town’s success. “Historic preservation is absolutely the No. 1 characteristic that has enabled West Chester to do what it’s done,” says Quigley, whose group publishes a 78-page guidebook for businesses looking to update properties. “If you don’t have a built-in environment that people want to be in, it’s not likely to yield a great deal of success.”
Quigley says that West Chester is lucky to have preserved its historic architecture over the decades. “We don’t have too many of those awful one-story additions that got stuck on historic structures in the ’50s or ’60s [and] really mucked up storefronts, like you see in any number of downtown historic environments. It’s actually pretty clean in an architectural sense. There is more to preserve and less to correct. And I think that has been absolutely helpful to the businesses that have moved in. We are very lucky that we don’t have too much that needs to be undone.”
After Finn and his partners successfully repurposed the 1928 Woolworth’s building into Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, other restaurants followed. Suddenly, West Chester was becoming a legitimate dining destination.
Meanwhile, the BID, which by that point was a member of Main Street America, began a “Clean and Green” program to help clean up the streets and plant flowers along its redbrick sidewalks. A steady stream of annual events produced by the borough and the local chamber of commerce—a restaurant festival, Christmas parade, bike race, gallery walks—and myriad ads placed in regional publications helped bring visitors into town. New businesses were opening up, rehabbing vacant properties into retail shops and restaurants. As more places opened and funds from assessments increased, the BID’s budget grew from $99,000 to more than $400,000 annually.
In 2012, a local developer transformed what remained of the old Warner Theatre—much of which was demolished in 1986—into an 80-room boutique hotel. (The Hotel Warner is a member of Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust.) Visitors from other parts of Chester County and beyond began snatching up and rehabbing the borough’s historic rowhouses, so they could walk rather than drive downtown. Today, West Chester is considered among the fastest-growing boroughs in Pennsylvania, with a roughly 8.5 percent population growth rate since 2010. Meanwhile, median home prices have soared to about $500,000.
In 2017, the National Main Street Center (which runs Main Street America) recognized the West Chester BID’s revitalization efforts with its Great American Main Street Award, bestowed annually on communities whose successes serve as a model for comprehensive, preservation-based commercial district revitalization.
Julie Fitzpatrick, executive director of PDC, has seen West Chester’s rise since its bleaker days. “I always think of revitalization as a continuum,” she says. “When done well, you’re dealing with both fixing issues and building off existing assets. I think West Chester has done a really good job of finding that balance. When their revitalization efforts first began, they were dealing with higher crime rates and vacancies and they decided to fix those by focusing on core blocks within the downtown. They were able to attract the right retail businesses and also create a restaurant destination. Pairing those up, they’ve been able to create a regional destination not just serving the local market, but the expanded regional market, as well.”
Downtown West Chester seemed to be firing on all cylinders. And then the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring of 2020. That March, the state required retailers to temporarily shutter their businesses. West Chester University held classes virtually. Restaurants closed. “It was just brutal,” says Comerford. Around the same time, Johnstone, who had overseen the BID for nearly 20 years, was transitioning to a new job in the county.
John O’Brien, a former state congressional staffer in his 30s, took over in July of 2020 and immediately went to work, trying to connect businesses with grant opportunities and loans. He worked with older businesses to help them improve their websites, social media presences, and Google profiles in order to beef up online sales. The BID sponsored an aggressive ad campaign in an effort to convince residents to shop local. The organization also created the Gay Street Open-Air Market by closing four blocks of Gay Street and allowing restaurants and retailers to set up tables along the sidewalks and spill into the street. “A lot of restaurants told me that that’s what saved their businesses,” says O’Brien, who grew up in town and attended West Chester University.
Incredibly, more businesses ended up opening in West Chester in 2020 than closing.
One of those was the David Katz Gallery, which opened on East Gay Street in June of 2020. Katz, a Philadelphia transplant, says it may sound counterintuitive to open an art gallery in the middle of a pandemic, but he realized his decision was the right one during a BID-sponsored Gallery Walk held last fall. “It was unbelievable,” he says of the event, which encouraged people to tour downtown’s art galleries. “Everybody came out. … The people here are so warm and welcoming, and it’s such a beautiful town. When my mother visited, she asked, ‘What is this, Switzerland?’”
O’Brien says the pandemic remains a challenge, particularly for retailers, who no longer compete as much with the mall as they do with Amazon. “The BID has really worked to get our retailers online,” he says. “To really be successful today, you need a hybrid between online and brick-and-mortar. You can’t just rely on brick-and-mortar. We try hard to make them understand the value of that.”
Retailers and restaurateurs also mention competition from surrounding boroughs as an ongoing challenge, as other towns have tried to emulate West Chester’s successes.
“As we open back up, there’s a stronger need for the BID to help promote and come up with creative ideas,” says Sandra Riper, who has been active with the organization from its start. “What we didn’t have for a long time was competition. West Chester was the superstar. Then Kennett Square got a little stronger, then Pottstown got stronger, and Phoenixville got way stronger, so now there are a lot of cute little downtowns all in this 35-mile radius. So we have got to constantly step up our game and come up with reasons to come to West Chester. … There is definitely competition, some rivalry between towns. It’s not quite the [Philadelphia] Eagles versus the [New York] Giants, but … .”
O’Brien agrees, and says he’d love to see the BID do more promotions and host more events, such as beer festivals, classic car shows, and anything else that will bring people into town. “When I was a kid, you just didn’t come here. We don’t necessarily take for granted that we can’t go back that way. We always have to be willing to reinvent ourselves just a little bit.”
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