Sunday, May 11, 2014

This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

It was with no small degree of regret that I wrote last week's article about Marta Kiesling's departure from the Steel River Playhouse.

It marked another chapter in the never-ending story of How Pottstown Shoots Itself in the Foot Every Time; this time at an institution that had appeared to be immune.

I've known my share of theater people and accept as a given that they can be, no pun or insult intended, mercurial.

When you think about it, they kind of need to be in order to undertake the various quick changes of character and costume that are the mark of a successful theater person.

And I've also counseled tough love when The Mercury's arts editor tore her hair out over the organization's apparent inability to get us promotional materials in a timely enough manner to put them on the cover of our Thursday arts section where, we all agree, they belong.

But I never cotton to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Like your children, its possible to love and appreciate them for who they are, even when they drive you nuts.

I always just considered those frustrations to be part of the price we pay to have Steel River in town.

And we definitely want Steel River in town.

Now I know there are plenty of people involved in that organization's success, and I know that as the contact person with The Mercury, and the person out front with the community, it is possible for me to get an outsized impression of Kiesling's importance at Steel River.

But my gut, which is not insubstantial, tells me good or bad, that she was at the center of the action and what we'll get without her remains an unknown.

Since no one on the board of directors there has denied Kiesling's assertions Steel River is pursuing a "new direction," and that's why she says she left, I find myself asking one question: "What was wrong with the direction they were going in the first place?"

Here we have a home-grown theater organization, deeply embedded with the schools and the community, producing first-rate productions that introduce local kids and their parents to the miracles of live performance in a way no class in the works of Shakespeare ever could.

Here we have an organization that, despite being in debt, operates in the black and successfully renovated and occupied a downtown building in Pottstown, which is what we say we all want.

And here we have an organization that put on these first-rate productions using a hybrid of professional and local people which were not so ridiculously expensive that going to a show did not necessarily mean your youngest could not go to college.

I have to wonder, what's wrong with that direction?

What's worse is we've been through this before, but as usual, Pottstown's long-term memory is limited to how great it was when we had factories and cruising.

Does the name Pottstown Symphony ring a bell?


Here we had a home-grown, albeit quirky, organization that was kept going largely by the energies of a nigh-inexhaustible enthusiast and a new, "professional" person was brought in to "take it to the next level."

Well intentioned?




Successful here in Pottstown?

Not a chance.



The sad fact of the matter is, we do not have enough of an upper class, or upper middle class, with enough disposable income here, that is inclined to spend that money here to support local organizations with delusion of grandeur.

We only have enough money to support those organizations that we already know and whose mission is familiar and useful and affordable.

Until we bring in better paying jobs, such constructs are built without an economic foundation on which to stand.

We can do a lot of things in Pottstown folks, no question, but the ones that work are the ones that involve everyone because that's the only way we can afford it.

Dropping in out of the sky with a model that worked somewhere else, a place where there was a critical mass of people with enough money to spend on something that may not be familiar won't work in Pottstown, unless its a chain restaurant, for which we seem to have an inexplicable desire.

The power of advertising I suppose. Homogenizing America one town at a time.

Talk about setting the bar low.

"We need an Olive Garden! We need an Olive Garden!"


Why? So they can take our money and ship it out of our community to some company that's traded on the stock exchange?

Better to eat at Henry's Cafe. Better food and better for your community.

Anyway, back to the arts and what will and won't work here.

Case in point, Jamey's House of Music, the failure of which I also had the displeasure of reporting last week.

Would it have been cool?


Would I have loved to have a place where you could see everything from country to world music while eating Asian/fusion cuisine?


But I had my doubts.

The numbers don't lie and when you look at Pottstown area demographics, you see the truth of the matter.

The median household income in the borough is around $43,000 with 18 percent below poverty. That's "household" income, not individual.

Among families with children, judging by the school's free lunch program, that poverty rate is closer to 70 percent.

Anything that doesn't have a lot of local support from day one is in for a rough ride and not many arts organizations have enough spare cash lying around to keep things afloat until they build a following.

And each failure, just builds on Pottstown's reputation for failure.

Blame The Mercury if you like, but I say blame human nature. We remember the one day of car wreck coverage, whether it involves actual cars or organizations, better than we recall months of quiet, competent, successful operation.

Beyond that, set economics and demographics aside.

Because people will continue to insist on being people, and the ability of people to willfully blind themselves to the big picture so they can be king or queen for a day is truly awesome and terrible to behold.

I'm witnessing it now even in a comparatively small and well-established operation, the Pottstown Schools Music Association, which is currently eating its seed corn in a nasty squabble over who will be the next president of that organization.

Both candidates, who are not only friends but relatives, insist they are mystified by "the drama" of the whole thing -- secret e-mails, commandeered voters, flexible eligibility requirements.

But neither of them, or the people working the levers behind the scenes, is leader enough to say "you know what, the organization and its mission (the kids? You'll remember them?) is more important than who the next president is. I'll step aside so we can put this behind us and we can all start working together again on the actual mission."

Instead, we're apparently going to behave like the middle schoolers who are supposed to be among our constituents. Great example for the kids by the way.

Who, I have to wonder, wants to become the head of any organization that way?

So even though the only things that have ever worked in Pottstown -- particularly where the arts are concerned -- are those which involve the maximum number of people; people who only have so much to give, be it time or money, from the smallest to the largest organizations, we continue to fracture ourselves into smaller and smaller camps, with fewer and fewer followers, speaking with smaller and smaller voices.

Frankly, its an indulgence we cannot afford.

And we wonder why we can't have nice things.  


  1. Phoenixville is successful in bringing people with money to their town to spend it. Why can't Pottstown use that as a model? If Steel River was flanked by a couple upscale bars, that would attract people with money to spend. You know how I know this? Because I go to events in Phoenixville (The Firebird Festival, The Sly Fox Goat Races, The Dogwood Festival, The Zombie Run) and then I go to their local places and spend money. They have decent fun places to spend my money. I'm sorry, but a car show and a couple places that sell consigned goods on high street isn't going to attract anyone. Pottstown needs fun "cool" events and then places that will entice people with money to stick around and take a walk and spend some of their money after the event. I'm very sad that the plans for a music venue in Pottstown failed. I believe a place like that would have been a step in the right direction as far as bringing those with money to spend to our town to spend it.

  2. Number 1 - we need jobs. We don't need a carousel, miniature golf, arts, fancy bars, etc. 80% of the effort of everyone that wants to make Pottstown a better place needs to focus on industry which will bring jobs. Jobs create money. Money buys houses SO rentals decrease. With home ownership comes home prices rising, With home prices rising comes a middle class household. A middle class household will demand bars, arts, miniature golf. Am I the only person in this town that realizes that the town is trying to make improvements in the wrong order? They are trying to paint the house before the walls are up.

    Every time a home is foreclosed in Pottstown and the bank sells it to an investor the entire blocks home value decreases. This means unless you have owned for a long time you can't sell. This means the HOMEOWNER not investor will have little chance of getting a mortgage because the home won't appraise for the value. This means that the only people buying downtown homes are investors for cash. This trend has NO chance of changing until jobs come to Pottstown

    The reality is not many if anyone in Pottstown who is not a real estate professional understands this. If they did they would focus only on jobs which in turn would help housing. Instead we talk about arts and cafes. How long have all of you been focusing on the arts, cafes and fancy bars? many years. How has the condition of the town improved in those years? Point made. Force your leaders to narrow their focus on 1 item. JOBS!!

    Every week another home goes from a homeowner to investor. Your home value declines more and this is not on the discussion board for Council or anyone else at Borough Hall.

    1. I agree, that jobs paying a living wage are the single most important thing this town needs. In fact, I have a post I wrote before this one, which I have pushed off until next Sunday which devevs into that subject.

      Thanks for commenting

  3. Jobs in Pottstown will not come back. The only reason that people need to live in Pottstown is to send their kids to school. Having said that, the town needs to attract people with money. Then Pottstown needs to provide a place for them to spend it. Government can't create jobs. Now, if their was a train station where people can commute to the higher paying jobs, and live in Pottstown because of their quality schools, then you would have something.

  4. Government can provide opportunities for industry to choose Pottstown. Short term tax breaks, recruitment, etc. This has not been accomplished. There is no reason for anyone with money to choose Pottstown if it wasn't for a job, School system is rated low, taxes are high, negative comments abound about the town on the internet. The train would be great but that idea probably has a lower chance of success then a few mid size manufacturing companies providing jobs. Evan have you ever done a tax comparison showing the housing value one could get in Boyertown or Limerick, etc for the same millage rate that Pottstown has? Example : A home accessed in Pottstown for $100,000 would pay the same taxes for a home accessed for $225,000 in Boyertown. The issue is also the $100,000 accessed home in Pottstown could only be sold for $70,000 on the current open real estate market because there are few buyers.

    1. I have never done such a study, no, although I agree with your premise.

      I do think Pottstown has an asset that can attract a certain sub-set of people with money, those who love old houses.

      If any of you follow The Mercury's Instagram account, you know I have been walking around town taking photos of the town's remarkable and often ignored architecture.

      Not everyone is a fan, but those who are should be marketed to.

      Also, I agree with you that Pottstown schools reputation is bad, but I consider that reputation undeserved.

      I send my son to schools here. Are there things about it I don't like? Sure. But I challenge you to find a parent who likes everything about their child's school district.

      The school district's reputation is a result of 50 percent of its student body rotating every year. I've seen test results that indicate that students the district has from the beginning of their education score comparably on state tests to those in OJR of Spring-Ford. There are just not enough of them.

      I know this explanation will not change a larger reputation built on test scores, but here on the Internet, its best to provide it nonetheless.

      I also agree that while government can provide some jobs -- military, large agency jobs -- that it functions best when it provides a fertile environment for private investment.

      And while its not hard to poke holes at things like the Colebrookdale train and the carousel (full-disclosure, I've done work for the carousel), remember that our latest economic coup, Video Ray, discovered Pottstown because of Steel River Playhouse.

      Anyway, I'm delighted to see so many thoughtful comments being posted. Please keep them coming.

  5. Pottstown does have old houses. I will just add that Boyertown, Gilbertsville, Phoenixville all have old houses so why would someone chose Pottstown over those places if they do not have ties to the Pottstown community? Pottstown would need to offer something and the best way to tie someone to a community is their job. Pottstown doesn't need a homerun like a Mrs Smith or Firestone. They need a lot of singles - like hiring 30-50 employees. I am naïve of any companies that have opened in Pottstown in the last 5 years who employ 30-50 employees. Are there any?

    1. The company I just mentioned, Video Ray, has more than 30 employees.

      Ground was just broken at Haggerty Steel in the Circle of Progress, where a craft distillery is also getting up and running.

      I agree with you, jobs are key. All I'm saying is that attracting people with money usually means people who aren't coming for jobs, but something else.

      And they would come to Pottstown over Glbertsville or Boyertown IF we market those old houses as an attraction. Those other towns are not doing that.

      I have long said some Realtor could make a very good living becoming a specialist in old houses, going to old home shows, advertising as such and Pottstown would be a bonanza for someone who knew how to tap into that market.

      These homes are unique and irreplaceable, but they need TLC and can be expensive to maintain. That means two things, someone who can both appreciate them for their craftsmanship, and who has the skill, desire and money to maintain them.

      All I'm saying is lets go find those people. They're out there.