As most of the buildings and machinery of the mill rusted and crumbled, it seemed to many residents that they could do little more than dwell on the past rather than embrace the future.
Although it had often been a contentious body, the Borough Council began to deadlock more often after the town's biggest revenue producer disappeared - but the demand for services remained constant.
Enter Messina in 1988, with a year to go before taking early retirement and a penchant for getting involved in his community. More than just a convenient location to his office, Phoenixville had become home.
He waited until his children were nearly grown before running for the council in 1995, when he was defeated by a popular member of the Planning Commission. But when that member vacated the commission spot to move to the council, Messina lobbied for it, and has not looked back.
Last year, he ran on a three-person Democratic ticket to bring unity and accountability back to the council, and was elected in a landslide. Now, as the council chairman's seat has become vacant, Messina may find himself at the fore of a revitalized council and a borough on the cusp of major reidentification.
"I'm proud to be associated with the council that's there," said Councilman Anthony DiGirolomo, who ran with Messina, along with Don Mahoney.
"Just from knowing John, he's very passionate about the community and between what's right and wrong and what's fair and unfair. He's never forced an opinion on me, one way or another."
In a recent interview, Messina discussed the challenges the council and the borough face.
Question: Why did you move to Phoenixville?
Answer: Actually, I moved back to Pennsylvania from northeast Ohio in 1988. I was born and raised in Philadelphia and went to college in Philly, and eventually took a promotion out to Cleveland. I chose Phoenixville because the office was in Upper Merion; I worked for SmithKline.
I decided I didn't want to be more than 35 or 40 minutes from the office building. When I came out here, I fell in love with the openness, and what drew me here was the Foundry building. It was magnificent. It was all broken windows and everything else, but the architecture was great. I like that I was living pretty much in the country but still a couple of minutes from downtown Phoenixville. [Route] 422 wasn't like it is today, it was an easy shot to get to King of Prussia and get home, so it was kind of by chance that I ended up here.
Q: How did you come to get involved with the Planning Commission and what prompted you to eventually run for the Borough Council?
A: Actually, I ran for Borough Council in 1995. I was always very involved in politics wherever I lived. I was on the Planning Commission, chairman of the Democratic party, but my work and my children kind of took a lot of time, and I had gotten away from it for the last five years before I got back. I got into it because of all the conflict and infighting here. I started attending the meetings.
And I lost the election, and everybody told me I'd never win because I'd never lived here before. But I'm not a political person. I just like getting involved in local issues. I was appointed to the planning board in 1994 and have been there ever since, and have been chairman for the last three years. In that capacity, I became very frustrated with Borough Council. We had at the time a planning commission that was trying very hard to bring in new development to this town and bring in the needed services.
If you don't like the process, all you can do is quit or change the process. So I decided to run last year because I thought the council needed some new direction. The majority on Borough Council were politicians, and they automatically breed slowness, 'cause everyone is jockeying for a position and losing site of the goal.
My opinion has always been, to get it done, you have to get it out there. If you find there are problems, you can tweak it, but get it under way. There was always talk about steel mill revitalization, but it was lacking someone to spearhead it. So I got involved. I chose to do it because I care about where I live. I wasn't stuck here, I chose it.
Q: What do you see as the foremost concern of the borough?
A: At this point, I think it's to bring the redevelopment of the steel property into fruition. We have a lot of work to do, but the prospect of it happening is becoming more realistic everyday. I spend a lot of time with PPG [Phoenix Property Group] and attending a lot of meetings in Harrisburg and Washington. And one thing I always hear is that most officials say they are so amazed that someone from the local government is so involved. I don't want to take the glory for it, but when PPG says public-private partnership, it really is. The infrastructure of this town was so dependent on the revenue from the steel mill that had disappeared. In their wisdom, borough councils of the past decided to patch things rather than replace them. Now they're facing a situation where a lot of patches are falling apart and the cost is exponentially more now than it would have been then.
Q: How has Phoenixville changed since you moved there 12 years ago? What do you see for its future?
A: It has changed dramatically. I hope I've been part of it. There's a different enthusiasm in this town today. The impression 12 years ago was a lot of gloom and doom. I see infrastructure changes that have made things better; we had a couple of good years where we had good surpluses and we put it to good use.
I don't have any interest in this other than I'm a resident. I don't own any property other than my home. I think the message was clear by the voters. They don't want a politician; they want things done.
Revitalization is essential, and that's where we are going. My victory was a mandate, I killed my opponent. I got 70-some percent of the vote and I ran on my record, what I had done on the planning commission. I wanted it to become a user-friendly body. That needs to become the way on Borough Council. We need to work with people, not against them.
Christopher Merrill's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
JOHN MESSINA Age: 53
Occupation: Phoenixville Borough Council member
Education: St. Joseph's University, B.A. in chemistry
Family: Single parent of daughter and son