The Boyertown Area Times
Aquarium, small-scale manufacturing vital to Reading
Reading is celebrating its 275th anniversary. But what does it have to do in the next quarter century to make its 300th a party really worth celebrating?
In a rare riff of retrospection, I was thinking it would be oh-sonice to be able to remove the hinge on the door that opens tomorrow. But there is no such hinge, so we have to make our own tomorrow.
The answer to making Reading extra special at 300 is simple. The execution is anything but.
The mandate is to bring more life to the downtown district with economic activity. Reading must recast its image as a destination hub and activate the sidewalks every day of the year to bring foot traffic to its shops, restaurants and cultural activities.
The biggest hole in the downtown doughnut is Penn Square, where five city-owned buildings have been dormant and awaiting redevelopment for over a decade.
I say the heck with the historic entanglements and raze these building wrecks and build a destination mecca in their crumbling place. The effect of tearing down those relics undoubtedly would be like an exorcism as the demons fly out screaming.
Perhaps I’m a fish out of water with this bold venture, but why not build a world-class aquarium to replace them? It would have enormous impact on our town and that, my friends, is no fish tale.
Cynics may be agog over my outrageous proposal, but I can assure you that I’m perfectly sober as I write this. Since I’m chewing gum at the moment, I’m not typing this column tongue in cheek. I merely have a dream of ultimate transcendence for Reading.
Granted, it would take a chunk of capital investment from the private/public sector to erect an edifice of over 500,000 square feet holding more than 8 million gallons of water and many thousands of fish.
But what a destination draw such an aquarium would be. Few things in this world compare to the beauty of the underwater ecosystem. People would flock to downtown Reading to marvel at these exotic aquatic creatures.
So we would have to raze a few more buildings downtown to provide more space for the mammoth aquarium and additional parking. No big deal. Nobody currently is confusing Penn Street with Fifth Avenue in Manhattan or the Magnificent Mile in Chicago or Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles.
As cool as an aquarium would be, we also need to save our downtown with small-scale manufacturing.
And the person to oversee that is Ilana Preuss, the author of “Recast Your City: How to Save Your Downtown with SmallScale Manufacturing.”
She says cities shouldn’t focus on recruitment but rather on growing the assets they already have.
Preuss says the most important asset is the home-based businesses that exist in town but have not made the leap to a storefront. Those businesses typically reflect the heritage, interests and skills in the community. They showcase the distinctiveness of the city.
Reading would seem to be perfect in that regard with about four dozen nationalities represented in its population of 95,112. Our town is incredibly diverse and vibrant.
Of those homegrown businesses, Preuss says the most crucial to economic development are those with products that can be sold online as well as in a storefront.
The business’ storefront success would not be solely dependent on foot traffic because of revenue from online retail or wholesale, while the business would gain visibility downtown and help bring more energy to the street and other nearby shops.
As a byproduct of the downtown vitality, there would be enough city resources and pride in property ownership to finally clean up the trash there that seemingly bursts out of nowhere and everywhere like a hormone surge.
These businesses can open the doors to downtown revitalization. Preuss says their beauty is that they are not formulaic. They draw on local talents and heritage to create unique and distinctive products and stores.
Together they can create downtown destinations for residents and tourists alike. But their needs and potential will be different from traditional retail or service businesses because of their online revenue and prospects for regional and national growth.
Preuss says identifying these assets and their needs, however, is only part of the solution. The city also must develop ways to support, energize and expand those businesses to fill storefronts downtown and position Reading for future investment.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. It’s a herculean task. But it’s not an impossible task. Removing the tablecloth without disturbing the dishes is an impossible task.
Having dolphins and whales swimming indoor laps on Penn Square while small-scale manufacturing sprouts like dandelions on Penn Street merely borders more on the improbable than the impossible.