That assessment proved prescient.
Four years later, despite some lingering signs of its gritty past, Phoenixville has grown to include neighborhoods of upscale housing, pastel townhouses and new shopping centers. The old Phoenix Steel plant has been dismantled, and its new owners hope to transform the site into a mix of houses, offices, stores, a waterfront restaurant and a health club.
Bracing for such growth, borough officials have rewritten the town's zoning code to accommodate new development - and control it where it happens.
"We're building a new town," said borough manager William P. Herman, an unabashed booster. "Phoenixville is going to replace the Main Line as the place to be. It's just a matter of how long it takes.
"People are moving to Phoenixville," Herman said recently as he drove his gray Chevy Celebrity on a tour of new construction in the 3.7-square-mile borough. "We're getting technicians from Limerick, Great Valley Corporate Center - smart people with vision who see what's going on here."
Fields and farms are giving way to neighborhoods.
At the borough's northern end lies Winding River, a community of stone houses with bay windows that sell for $250,000. It will have 88 houses when it is complete, said Herman, who added, "I wish I could live here, but I can't afford it."
Herman and his family live in West Ridge Estates, a new townhouse development that is being completed on the west side of town. Two other townhouse communities, Quail's Crossing and Eland Downe, were completed last year. The three projects have brought 830 housing units into the community.
Retail development has lagged behind housing construction in Phoenixville, where the first McDonald's and Pizza Hut opened last year. One shopping center, Village of Eland, is under construction on the borough's south side, and at least one more is planned.
Such development is inevitable, said Herman, as he steered the car past a stretch of farmland on Route 29. Developers have long considered Phoenixville's neighbors, Schuylkill Township and East Pikeland, prime territory.
The way Herman sees it, Phoenixville is next.
"All of this, I guarantee you, is going to be houses," he said, waving his hand across the Phoenixville landscape. "I hate to think of it, it's so pretty. But there's a limit. We can control our own destiny, but we've got to work with the developers."
William H. Fulton, assistant director of the Chester County Planning
Commission, predicted that the borough would continue to attract residential development and grow into an "employment center" of business and office parks by the year 2010. "Phoenixville is coming back," he said. "It's good to see."
Despite signs of growth and revitalization, the town has its share of faded brick rowhouses and apartment complexes with sheets substituting for drapes on the windows. Downtown, the streets need cleaning, the sidewalks could use a good sweeping. At least a dozen storefronts are empty - a legacy of the steel plant's closing, borough officials said.
"I really wish we could get the downtown shaped up. We have openings and closings down there all the time," Herman said. "But I look to the steel mill's plans as the salvation to that. In the true tradition of this town, the future of the community lies in that property."
In its heyday, Phoenix Steel Corp. was the largest employer in town, providing more than 1,000 jobs. After a spate of layoffs, the plant had 175 employees when it closed in 1987. Still, the shutdown gave Phoenixville an economic jolt.
"When the steel mill hiccuped, the town sneezed. When the steel mill sneezed, the town had pneumonia," said Robert Serling, a partner in the investment group that bought the property for $3 million last year.
The interest in the site was twofold.
At its western end, Serling and his partners started Phoenix Pipe & Tube Co., which manufactures seamless carbon pipe and mechanical tubing. On the rest of the 125-acre property, they plan a development that could transform Phoenixville's downtown area.
They have torn down most of the old steel buildings, and demolition of what remains is under way. If all goes as planned, they will replace those buildings with houses, offices, a waterfront restaurant and a health club.
"We're going to try to do something very special there," said Michael Foxman, a partner in the project.
So far, the plans are preliminary and depend on approval from the Planning
Commission and the Borough Council. But Serling said borough officials had been involved in the project's design from the start and seem eager to see it begin.
"Phoenixville is in the midst of enormous change, and we're part of that change," Serling said as he watched workers remove old railroad tracks from the property on a recent morning. "It's a town in transition, and I believe it has a lot of potential."
Serling and Foxman are banking on that. To succeed, they have to sell people on Phoenixville's future.
"The biggest problem we have is that Phoenixville's image is less than we would like," said Foxman. But he quickly added: "The location is absolutely wonderful. Take a look at Phoenixville on the map, and look at the names of the townships around it. They're some of the best in Chester County."
"Phoenixville used to be the little northeast portion of Chester County that everybody forgot about," said Martin Clompus, president of the Phoenixville Area Chamber of Commerce. "But it seems that the world outside is discovering this nice country area."
Some residents greet that news with skepticism.
"The only development that's here is them barns that they call townhouses. Who in Phoenixville's got $180,000 to move in?" said George Louthen, a retired truck driver and six-year resident of the borough who was walking downtown on a recent afternoon. "And all that (development) is in the outlying areas. As far as Phoenixville proper, the town itself, there's nothing new."
Brian Peel, a longtime borough resident who works as a landscaper, agreed. ''The town," he said, "could use some fixing up."
Clompus said downtown revitalization was only a matter of time.
"With the new housing, the commercial activity in the Phoenixville area has really gone up by leaps and bounds," said Clompus, who owns a hardware store in the borough.
Storefront vacancies remain a problem downtown, but for many shop owners, business is thriving, said Aspras, a past president of the Phoenixville Area Business Association.
She, for one, is doing a brisk business selling vitamins, organic vegetables and New Age cassette tapes from her store on Main Street. The clientele is a mix of blue-collar workers and young professionals - a mirror of the town's changing complexion.
"I've been able to develop quite a market here," she said. "It's just a matter of having faith in the town."