CHESTER >> Patrick Harker, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, paid a visit to Chester in April to survey downtown revitalization and discuss the role of the Fed’s outreach programs in the city’s economic development.
The visit included meetings with area business and civic leaders, followed by a tour of the burgeoning arts community in the city’s historic 500 block of Market Street and 600 block of Edgmont Avenue, today both the Avenue of the States.
After the meetings and tour agenda, Harker and Community Engagement Associate Sydney Diavua spoke with the Times about their visit in the Crozer Building, the city’s lone office high-rise.
“One thing people don’t know about the Fed is that we do have a community development function that is committed to helping communities through our research, ability convene people in a political way, and to bring facts to bear,” said Harker.
“The solution is going to come from the creative energy of the people here, and it’s here – that’s what I saw today,” he said. “That’s a good asset to this city, and we’re here to help anyway we can.”
The officials’ visit was part of getting a first-hand look at what Diavua says is the story the Fed looks for in its research on consumer and small business credit, and other financial data for residents and businesses of low- and moderate-income communities in the district. “Forming research-informed practice and practice-informed research around community development … that’s what you saw in Chester today,” she said.
The Philadelphia Fed is familiar with the challenges of aging industrial communities. Its Third Federal Reserve District covers Pennsylvania to roughly the longitudinal line of Pittsburgh, southern New Jersey and Delaware, and with that many communities once based around steelworks, shipbuilding and other industries that were familiar sites in Chester’s past.
Its means of addressing those challenges include a biennial conference, Reinventing Our Communities, and the recent launching of the Economic Growth and Mobility Project, “a multilevel effort to bring entrepreneurial solutions to achieve inclusive economic growth and create pathways out of poverty.”
The Economic Growth and Mobility Project promotes three points in communities: Job creation, workforce development, and infrastructure. “In pathways to development, no single thing is going to solve it – it’s having the jobs; having the people with the skills; and being a place where people want to live and raise their families,” said Harker, calling those three components the bedrock of communities experiencing revitalization.
“One thing that struck me was (business and civic leaders) know it’s not going to be what it was; nothing’s ever going to be what it was,” he said. “So they’re trying to create a new future in a way that’s unique to Chester, using the assets that Chester has.”
Compared to some of the aging industrial communities in rural areas of the district, Chester meets or has immediate potential to meet the criteria for growth outlined by the program. As a riverfront city with direct connections to the Interstate Highway system, railways and broadband Internet access, it has feasible infrastructure to support growing sectors of the economy. Those sectors, such as healthcare and technology, are established in the city’s region, along with trade schools and community college campuses to prepare for openings in those fields.
The Fed looks at “research around job creation, particularly jobs that may not require a four-year college degree,” said Harker. “Something out of high school that someone can enter into the middle class and have a path to success.”
Harker sees the burgeoning arts community in Chester as a promising means to attract people back to the city that has seen its population cut in half since its 1950 Census peak.
“It’s not like there’s a choice between new industry, new health care, or art. All those can happen at the same time and I would argue they have to happen at the same time,” he said. “Along with those three principles – skills, jobs, workers – you need a place where people want to be, and the art … is part of it.”
“In Lancaster, they’re also taking an arts approach; learning how to build an arts corridor in their Central District,” said Diavua. “Places like Lancaster, Reading and Allentown are taking an asset-based approach to what they have, instead of looking at what’s deteriorating and what they don’t have.”
Harker cited an arts corridor as an anchor for downtown retail development in a time when big box stores and online shopping have lowered the consumer appeal of a small, general retail business. “I would argue those art galleries are examples of very specialized retail … and they’re building a cluster,” he said.
“Where people are successful, it’s not one-off retailers; there’s a cluster that draws people to them. It’s not just retail, it’s also food and entertainment – that mix of things is what is to make a successful downtown retail environment.”
Another asset Harker cited for Chester is an “anchor-academic institution,” Widener University. “Franklin and Marshall (College) has been very important to the story of what happened in Lancaster. The commitment that I have heard from Widener is very encouraging.”
For the Philadelphia Fed, a stronger Chester means a stronger Mid-Atlantic region. “One thing that the Philadelphia Fed promotes – and it’s important to promote – is that we are a regional institution,” said Harker. “We cross three different states. We will do well together as a region,” cautioning against a zero-sum game mentality of particular communities or states in the region succeeding at the expense of others. “The only way the region will prosper is if all the communities in the region prosper, and that’s what we’re committed to.”