Each Thursday from June through September, 10am-2pm, downtown Reading’s Penn Square transforms, brightened by the Penn Street Market’s iconic orange and yellow umbrellas and filled with delicious smells from hot food vendors and live music by local bands. Residents do a bit of grocery shopping and local employees seem happy to break away from their desks to grab lunch in the market’s lively atmosphere. All enjoy free music and programming, like a quick healthy cooking demo or some “pop up” yoga.
Penn Street Market achieves a unique and successful combination: it addresses community health needs by offering affordable fresh food to a residential population that often has limited access, and, simultaneously, it hosts a hip event that also attracts suburban visitors and downtown employees with expendable income.
This is Lucine Sihelnik’s third year directing the market. To Sihelnik, combining food access with creative place making has been key,
“While the market focuses on food access… it also weaves in the opportunity and possibility for all people to come together in a space that is designed for socialization. No matter what your socio-economic or cultural background, we all long for a place to come together… to interact with human beings…The market has created a space for everyone to come together and say, ‘This is Reading. It’s important to me and I’m a change agent for my community.’”
Many of Reading’s leaders see Penn Street Market as a vital ingredient to the downtown revitalization that will instigate wider city and county revitalization.
According to Jason Brudereck, Director of Communication of Berks County Community Foundation, the Foundation’s strategic investment in the downtown through various initiatives like its Downtown Alive free concert series is guided by growing interest, [https://bccf.org/events/]
“…investors have been approaching city representatives to indicate their interest in the downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods, and when those investors are asked what’s driving their interest at this time, the answer is consistently: ‘The increasing activity downtown.’”
Randy Peers, President & CEO of Greater Reading Chamber & Economic Development Corporation, also recognizes the market’s role in downtown development and the downtown’s role in wider development,
“We all recognize the important role the Penn Street Market plays in contributing to vibrancy and creating critical mass in downtown Reading…The City of Reading is key to long term prosperity for the County of Berks… A thriving downtown has a ripple effect on the neighborhoods directly adjacent. It can spur investment and re-investment through reurbanization.”
Jim Arentz, Technical Director at the nearby Penske Racing Shocks, couldn’t agree more. Arentz has been riding his bike from his office to the market since last season, often bringing a group of coworkers with him. They lock their bicycles up together on the bike rack and hop in line to order lunch from one of the hot food vendors.
“I think [Penn Street Market] is fantastic and much needed to keep momentum going in the right direction downtown. Revitalization of any city must start from the heart … and branch out like I’ve seen in other places … Penn Street must be Reading’s showcase for good businesses, services, and attractions to have more people patronize downtown.”