Reporting to Borough Manager Ernie McNeely, the commerce director will be expected to help lure new retailers into a downtown that's long been heavily pockmarked with empty storefronts.
Council members say they want to fill the new position as quickly as possible. Given the borough's current state of affairs, they say, there really is no other choice.
"We are losing businesses, and those spaces are remaining vacant," councilwoman Janet Colliton said at Tuesday night's work session. "I do not intend to continue on council and continue to see businesses boarded up and storefronts sitting empty for a long period of time. This is the time for action."
Councilman Mitch Crane agreed. "We're running out of time," he said. ''There's no excuse for three out of four storefronts on High and Gay streets to be empty . . . The perception is always part of the problem, and the perception (that West Chester is dying) is getting stronger now."
Storefronts formerly occupied by the F. W. Woolworth Co. and Encore Books remain empty, more than six months after those corporations announced plans to close their stores at the borough's busiest intersection.
And a handful of other shops have gone on the market in recent weeks, including Joel's, a women's clothing store that has been a borough fixture since 1929.
"It's time to roll up your sleeves and do something about this," Bruce Famiglio, owner of the Lincoln Coffee Exchange, told council members. "I hope to spend many, many years in West Chester, but if you don't do something soon, you're going to let a lot of air out of the balloon."
Under the proposal approved Wednesday, the borough will commit to funding a local Office of Commerce and Economic Development for at least two years, Colliton said.
The money will come from the interest income on a $90,000 Urban Development Action Grant originally obtained in 1989, Colliton said. (Borough policy designates that the original grant funds be kept available for use in a revolving loan fund to help prospective entrepreneurs develop their businesses.)
In addition, council members plan to seek funding from local banks and major corporations based in the West Chester zip codes to help pay the salary for the new director and to finance the operation of the office.
"If West Chester as the core fails, the surrounding area will fail," Crane said. "Certainly a blight in West Chester is not in their best interests either."
Although she voted for the proposal, council president Eleanor "Betty" Loper said she still has some concerns about committing to the commerce director's job with only the borough's $44,000 immediately available.
In the past, borough officials have talked of a $60,000-a-year budget for the position, leaving a wide gap for fund-raisers to fill.
"My only problem is, I don't want us to have someone relocate to do a job that we don't have the money to pay them for," Loper said.
But things are too bad to wait, several council members said, characterizing their decision as a leap of faith that the community will support their efforts.
Urging his colleagues not to wait until all the necessary funding is available, Crane compared the borough's situation to being on a sinking ship with only one leaky lifeboat.
"You can jump into that life boat and hope to God it holds you, or you can wait and pray someone else comes along for you," Crane said.
"The public is skeptical," Crane continued, "and they have a right to be skeptical. But we have to make it work. If we don't make it work, what's the alternative? The alternative is to let (the town) die."