Borough eyes new weapon to fight blight
Philly nonprofit also provides job training
POTTSTOWN » For years, one of Pottstown’s most persistent problems has been blight — run-down, often abandoned buildings that deteriorate and ruin the look of a street or neighborhood, lower property values and act as a magnet for crime.
The borough has addressed it from several angles, including the blighted property review committee and, more recently, the creation of a Pottstown Land Bank.
But another weapon may soon be added to the arsenal thanks to an innovative idea being used in Philadelphia and brought to Pottstown by Mayor Stephanie Henrick.
Earlier this month, council heard from Greg Trainor, who heads Philadelphia Community Corps, a non-profit organization
with several missions, including battling blight, job training in the construction industry and recycling and re-use of building materials.
He described the blight’s destruction of property and property values as a kind of slow-motion catastrophe. “If this happened all at once, it would be considered a disaster and there would be all kinds of funding from the state and federal government,” Trainor said. “But it doesn’t. Blight happens slowly, over years.”
With more than 40,000 vacant properties, Philadelphia suffers from blight on steriods and it is nearly always the lower-income neighborhoods, which can least withstand the economically and social destabilizing effects of blight, which end up shouldering the burden, he said.
All too often, said Trainor, buildings which are abandoned are older, harder to update and of lower value, making the financial incentive to renovate them or re-develop in an area with low property values, a non-starter for investors.
But the involvement of Philadelphia Community Corps, because it is a nonprofit organization providing job training, turns that liability into an asset in the form of a pretty sizable tax break, Trainor explained.
Instead of paying a company to knock a building down, the owner can have it “de-constructed” and “everything in a de-constructed house becomes tax deductible because our organization is a 501 (c) 3 and is providing job training,” said Trainor. “Even old plaster is a tax deduction because it trains people on how to take it down. They used to pay to throw this away, now they get a tax benefit.”
At the same time, it is also a job training program. Trainor said most who participate are those who did not graduate high school, or who may have criminal records and have trouble finding work. Because his group works on sites with licensed construction companies, they get to see the trainees work for weeks and often hire them, he said.
According to the Philadelphia Community Corps website, “trainees gain the skills and experiences necessary to succeed in the deconstruction, material salvage, and other building trade industries. Additionally, they receive OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) certification and an introductory course based on curriculum from the Building Materials Reuse Association. Ultimately, we aim to connect trainees to employment opportunities.”
As for the materials removed from the sites, many of them can find new life.
“We look at abandoned buildings as a mountain of bricks and forest of lumber that can be re-used rather than spending money to maintain them vacant as they are,” Trainor said.
Construction and demolition debris comprises 40 percent of the materials that get dumped into landfills, said Trainor, “and 90 percent of it is either recyclable or can be re-used.”
“We are able to divert materials from landfills to promote practical and creative reuse by utilizing deconstruction, which is an environmentally friendly alternative to demolition. The process also creates more jobs and less pollution because buildings are taken apart by hand,” according to the web site.
Many older buildings contain treasures like lumber from old-growth forests which is no longer available and which wood-workers prize as an exclusive product, a fact reinforced by the gleam in the eye of Councilman Ryan Procsal, also a premier wood-worker, as Trainor described the materials recovered.
Metals can be recycled and many older homes, abandoned or not, contain hard-to-find architectural elements now only available in high-end salvage stores — which is another part of the Philadelphia Community Corps model.
They operate the Philly Reclaim Materials Reuse Center at 150 W. Butler St., which has become so popular, Trainor said it’s hard to keep things on the shelf.
Trainor said they are looking for a new, larger warehouse and Borough Council President Dan Weand suggested that Pottstown has a bumper crop of such spaces.
“Could we convince you to open up such a center in Pottstown?” Weand asked.
Trainor said he would consider it and was put into tough with Peggy LeeClark, who not only heads PAID, the borough’s economic development arm, but also sits on the newly created Pottstown Land Bank board, which would benefit from a connection to an organization that turns a blighted property from a financial liability to a tax benefit.
Taking a building apart by hand not only allows for the re-use of materials, it also provides job training in the construction industry, said Greg Trainor, executive director of Philadelphia Community Corps.
As many Pottstown homeowners know, it can be very difficult to replace period doors at regular home improvement stores.
Many a Pottstown historic home owner has searched in vain for a doornob, hinge or window hardware that matches the others in their house.
Greg Trainor, left, executive director of Philadelphia Community Corps told Pottstown Borough Council both the trainees in this photo got jobs as a result of the training they received.
Items like vintage tubs and sinks are often sought by those who want to renovate their period home with period products.