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Post-pandemic future for Berks County’s urban core looks bright

By Kevin Murphy, President, Berks County Community Foundation

Post-pandemic future for Berks County’s urban core looks bright

READING, PA – In February of this year, the Community Foundation team was flying pretty high with expectations that our investments in the revitalization of downtown Reading were paying off. Then, the COVID-19 crisis hit. Businesses shut down, schools closed, hospitals got stretched to capacity, and the financial markets went into a free fall.

For a time, it didn’t look like an economic rebirth of Reading remained on the horizon.

Now, months later, we’re all breathing a little easier. Looking past the pandemic, the future of our region looks very bright indeed.

One of the greatest sources of economic vitality for regions like ours is “eds and meds” (higher education and medical care) and we’re scoring big in that area.

Through a partnership between Drexel University and Tower Health, work continues on a new medical college set to open next fall in West Reading. Alvernia University is moving forward with its plans for CollegeTowne, a new campus on Penn Street housing an engineering program and the university’s existing business school. While it’s impossible to overstate the impact that these two developments will have on our community, we can note that the activity by Alvernia has already caused a private developer to buy the old Madison Building with plans to renovate it for additional housing.

Relatively new additions to the downtown scene seem to have survived the economic jolt. Reading Distilling Guild is operating in a building recently acquired and completely remodeled by Weidenhammer. That building sits next to an office building recently acquired and renovated by Liberty Environmental. Saucony Creek Brewing is still operating at the old Franklin Street train station and joins stalwart restaurants like The Peanut Bar, Judy’s On Cherry, the Ugly Oyster, Mi Casa Su Casa and Lang in providing places for downtown workers and Alvernia and Drexel students to eat and drink.

As amazing as this growth will be, there’s even bigger news brewing. I’ve lost count of the number of proposals I’ve seen to restore passenger rail to Reading in the past 26 years. All of them would have done a good thing (bring back rail service from here to Philadelphia) but none of them were even remotely economically viable. That all changed in late July.

The Berks Alliance hired a transportation consulting firm (TEMS) to take another look at the idea of restoring passenger rail. The results of that research were amazing. TEMS outlined a plan to bring 8 to 12 trains a day from the Franklin Street Station (don’t worry, Saucony Creek Brewing will still be able to be there) to Philadelphia and, for some passengers, on to Washington or New York. For about $16 (otherwise known as an hour of parking in Philadelphia), you’d be at 30th Street Station in under an hour and a half.

The urban core of Berks County (Reading and West Reading) has struggled for decades from a flight to suburbia and government disinvestment in urban areas. It’s been a battle to reverse that trend. The battle’s not over, but the tide is shifting.

I believe that the added presence of a couple of hundred college students and med students would transform the economics of our region. Throw in passenger rail service and we are going to see an explosive transformation and economic growth.

At the Community Foundation, we’re not giving up on the idea of promoting that growth, but you’ll be hearing more from us about the implications of that growth in the coming months.   We’ll be challenging the community to think about questions like “how do we make sure that everyone benefits from this growth?”  and “what do we want our community to look like in 20 or 30 years?” These aren’t easy questions to answer and there will be more, but it’s an awfully good sign that we need to start thinking about them.