Since March, the spread of COVID-19 has changed the trajectory of the Borough Business Development Committee’s (BDC) plans. In February, when life was normal, Ursinus College, Collegeville Borough, Barth Consulting, the Montgomery County Planning Commission (MCPC) and the Collegeville Economic Development Corp. (CEDC) were all working together on Collegeville’s Revitalization plan.
But now our lives — and these groups’ immediate focus — have changed.
Although the Borough and CEDC’s major revitalization partner, Ursinus College, remains committed to helping us develop our Main Street, they currently need to focus their efforts on the effect of the pandemic on their fall enrollment. They are looking at whether the campus will be allowed to open, and if so, what changes need to be made in their infrastructure so that the students, faculty and staff can be kept safe. This could mean ensuring that each student has a private room, which increases their need for dorm space — and their need to house students in their Main Street buildings.
New Priorities for the BDC
At the April 27 BDC meeting conducted via Zoom, the Committee narrowed their revised priorities to two areas:
- Working with Mike Lowery of the Montgomery County Planning Commission on the new Collegeville Revitalization Plan, and
- Doing everything they can to support our borough’s current small businesses, including helping them reopen in this new COVID-19 reality.
With this new focus, the BDC reluctantly made the decision to recommend to the Borough and College to not renew their contract with Barth Consulting which ended April 30th, 2020, even though it was felt that Steve’s vision and advice have been extremely valuable.
Barth Consulting Concludes Their Work
During their year consulting with the Borough and College, Steve Barth and Michelle Shire of Barth Consulting assisted the Borough and College with numerous development issues, such as research into zoning and finding sufficient parking capacity for the 400 block of Main Street. “Last May, we set you on a course to revitalize your Main Street,” Steve stated. “We helped the College, Borough and BDC solve issues and provided you with advice and ideas.”
On the 400 block of Main Street, the side of the street with Forno Antico and Marzella’s is zoned Main Street Commercial (MSC) and Residential, while the other side is zoned Residential and Office. Steve’s recommendation is to create a zoning overlay for the residential side of the street so both can eventually support retail. “We need to complete the zoning work before any development begins on that block,” Steve explained.
Steve also identified 400 – 500 possible parking spaces using shared lots, including the Masonic Temple and other existing lots with the owners’ permissions, along with creating new lots on the College-owned properties.
One of Steve Barth’s strengths is his ability to envision what our Main Street can be, combined with his knowledge of development.
For the revitalization of our Main St. to be profitable enough for a developer to take it on, it needs to have the capacity to provide a large amount of residential space above with retail and restaurants at street level, similar to the new buildings in Phoenixville’s commercial district. One way this can be done is to keep the look of the architectural styles of College’s current buildings on Main St. and construct infill buildings with compatible architecture in between.
“Once you select a developer you can create a magical community,” Steve told the group. “Mike Lowrey from Montco Planning and I have worked together (to create visualizations). The College now owns about 75 percent of the buildings on the 400 block. Their footprint comprises about 4.7 acres that we have to build on from Sabre’s Jewelry to Marzella’s. With that density, we can fit from five to 15 different stores there.” The current College buildings enjoy a large set back from the street, which Steve recommends that we keep to provide outside dining, greenery, and visual aesthetics.
Barth Consultants also followed up on the Ursinus College’s U-Imagine students’ research into the 25 top American College Towns. He has created a master document summarizing all the characteristics the towns have in common. For example, all were one to two blocks from the campus, included apartments above the retail stores, and featured micro-breweries/wine bars, coffee houses, bakeries, ice cream shops and other interesting retail shops.
Ursinus College’s Current Emphasis
- Campus closed to students – To keep everyone safe from the threat of COVID-19, the College closed in March. The faculty, staff and students have all been working remotely. The College’s Task Forces are researching and recommending plans for their fall opening, although it is currently unknown what form this will take.
- Campus grounds open to the public – Although many colleges have closed their campuses, Ursinus College has left their campus grounds open for our residents to walk, jog, and enjoy. They urge everyone to take precautions to be safe and keep their social distance while on campus.
- Revitalization planning continues – Although it is not now their priority focus, the College continues to work toward Collegeville’s Main Street revitalization. They have narrowed down their search for developers to two firms. Those companies will be invited to discuss potential plans for the College’s buildings on the 400 block of Main St. (Note: We’ll report on this in a future post.)
- Work on the Commons resumes – With the Governor’s guidelines now allowing construction to resume when precautions are met, work will resume May 8th to complete the new Ursinus Schellhase Commons buildings.
- Main Street sidewalk replacement begins – This week, the College began to move forward on replacing sidewalks through a Multi-Modal PennDOT grant they received. The college will contribute $300,000 and the grant provides them with $600,000. Sidewalks include those from 5th to 9th Ave. on the campus side of Main St.; 5th to 8th Ave. on the campus housing side of Main St., and some sidewalk sections on 6th Ave. near Main St.
Visualizing the Revitalization Plan
Also at the April 27 BDC meeting, Montgomery County Planning Commission (MCPC) Planner Mike Lowrey focused on the importance of visualization to convey the many positive attributes of Collegeville Borough within Collegeville’s Revitalization Plan. Mike had previously created a detailed overview of the plan for the Committee for their review. In April, Mike’s work included how the Committee can utilize the many technical resources available to us through the county like visualization software.
“I can use City Engine — ESRI’s advanced 3D modeling software — to build a 3-D visualization of your business district, including incorporating Steve Barth’s sketches to create a visual, virtual, view of Collegeville’s Main Street. This visualization can include both the current and revitalized views, and will be included in your master plan.” MCPC also has the software to create “story maps,” which are a wonderful tool to promote (the) borough and business districts. “Residents and visitors can click on the links to see, hear and read about the history and unique character of your town,” Mike explained. As an example he pointed to this story map for the Borough of Ambler.
We can also use this software to create a virtual link tying in Collegeville’s trail connection with our planned Creekside Park on First Ave.
“Collegeville’s unique partnership with the College and Borough is the borough’s greatest strength,” Mike noted. “Collegeville is fortunate to have the College campus, trails, parks, good restaurants, and safe and walkable streets within (the) borough.”
Previously, Steve Barth had pointed out that a number of our Main Street sidewalks had eroded due to broken curbs and the resulting water runoff. Mike pointed out that the borough is eligible for MS4 (municipal assistance) grants to fix the sidewalks, and suggested that the borough apply.
Businesses Face Challenges
BDC Head Cathy Kernen discussed the challenges faced by our small local businesses due to the state-mandated pandemic shutdown.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of supporting our Borough businesses through the COVID-19 shutdown and recovery. Our Stay-at-Home order now continues until May 8th. More businesses may be allowed to open by mid-summer, but will need to continually sanitize, employees and customers will need to wear masks, and everyone will need to maintain social distancing,” she said.
“Businesses dependent on specific numbers of customers to make a profit, such as restaurants, fitness centers, and drive through chains will need to determine if they can continue in business in this new reality. Shopping Center management may need to reduce their rents to make it viable for tenants and may be required to change building ventilation to maintain safety.”
Social distancing orders will likely only be lifted when enough people gain immunity by catching and surviving the virus and an effective vaccine is widely available. This could be two years or more.
“It is estimated that 20 to 30% of our businesses will not make it through this quarantine. We have some wonderful businesses in the borough and they need our support,” Cathy concluded.
Continuing Business Support
At this time, we’re asking the Collegeville community to come together to provide strong and continued support to our existing businesses to help them financially through this trying time. We need to make a commitment as a community to help. Some suggestions from the BDC members:
- Shop locally on-line where you can. Or, with the recommended protection, at businesses with protective procedures in place.
- Take advantage of restaurants that provide contact-free curbside pickup. This pick-up alternative greatly helps the restaurants, since the third-party delivery services can charge the restaurants up to 30 percent in fees.
- Where available, buy gift certificates for all your favorite stores and services.
- Like and Share your favorite business on social media. Add photos of you and friends picking up, tailgating or eating at home.
- Go to Google My Business and claim your listing if you have not done so already. A large majority of shoppers find your business by asking Google near me questions in their searches. Questions like: restaurants near me, Mexican restaurant near me, hair salon near me and so on. Make sure the result that shows up is both correct and tells potential customers what you want them to know about you.
- Be sure the information on your website and social media pages is up to date. Do you have special hours at this time? Pick up specials?
- Post often to social media. If you have no web post to share on Facebook, Instagram and/or Twitter, create a post with a good photo, a (very) brief description, and a link to your website or ordering service
- Make sure your business is visible on Third-Party Apps like Yelp! to capture users who do their business and restaurant searches from there.
- Explore allowing restaurants to expand their dining areas outside into their parking lots. Can the Borough work with Troubles End Brewery, DaVinci’s Pub, My Friends Tavern and other restaurants to create temporary outdoor seating for the summer months?
- Create collective promotions. Invite our local businesses to a Zoom meeting to discuss challenges, solutions, and promotion ideas — Especially digital communications. The CEDC — and customers as well — can promote businesses more easily if your digital communications are up to date and you post weekly on Facebook and Instagram.
Created in January 2018, the Borough of Collegeville Business Development Committee oversees economic development and business recruitment in the borough. It is made up of volunteers from the borough and administered by a Borough Council member.