New arts center aims to boost Norristown

Supporters sign their names and write messages in a ceremonial signing of the backstage wall at the Theatre Horizons groundbreaking ceremony. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Supporters sign their names and write messages in a ceremonial signing of the backstage wall at the Theatre Horizons groundbreaking ceremony. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 25, 2012

Waving small plastic shovels, a crowd of 100 well-wishers broke symbolic ground Thursday on a new performing arts center for Norristown that officials hope will help bring cultural revival and economic prosperity back to the beleaguered Montgomery County seat.

I’m so thrilled,” said Erin Reilly, cofounder of Theatre Horizon, Norristown’s professional drama company. "Today is the day when dreams come true. It’s an auspicious beginning."

While the renovation to the first floor of the former Bell Telephone Building will provide permanent digs for the drama company for the first time, a lot more is riding on the $1 million project.

The DeKalb Street building went begging for occupants while officials mulled how to get the Montgomery County seat moving. Now, the theater opening set for October has created buzz: a day-care center has leased space on the building’s second floor; a child enrichment coalition is on the third floor, and a law firm is negotiating for the fourth.

Officials are betting that this small-scale bling can be widened to boost Norristown’s urban-style downtown, which now empties out at 4:15 p.m. with the shutting down of county offices. Foot traffic is necessary at all hours if Norristown is to thrive, officials say. If the town can provide the upscale dining and shopping to meet pedestrian needs, there will be much-needed cash for its economy.

"Both from the government and business points of view, the arts is going to be the catalyst that kicks prosperity back to Main Street," said Bill Caldwell, a Norristown councilman. "It’s very exciting."

Montgomery County Commissioner Leslie Richards, a professional planner, has vowed county help in identifying projects that will draw people to the former borough.

‘I don’t think it’s going to happen all at once,” Richards said. "A little bit here and there, and we’ll look back in four years and see how far we have come."

Locals point to the 1940s and 1950s as Norristown’s era of prosperity. County spokesman Frank X. Custer recalls shopping in Norristown for school clothes in the 1950s. The streets were filled with people shopping, dining out and enjoying themselves; there were three department stores and a hotel on Main Street with a doorman. That changed starting with the opening of the King of Prussia Plaza in 1963 and Plymouth Meeting Mall a year later.

" ... the big malls came, and people didn’t shop in their small towns anymore. That was a big thing," said longtime Norristown resident Debbie Johnson, who attended the groundbreaking.

As businesses left, crime and poverty moved in, locals and officials said. Patients in need of social services, some discharged form Norristown State Hospital, congregated on Norristown’s street during the day, creating a public perception that its streets were dangerous. People — and their cash — stayed away.

There were efforts to jump-start Norristown. A transportation center was built at the foot of Swede Street in 1989, but it was not the financial stimulant that planners had envisioned.

"The transportation center has brought more people to Norristown," Custer said. "A lot park their car, get on the train to Philly, and return in the evening. That doesn’t do Norristown any good."

Trash cans were placed around Norristown, and more police were hired to combat crime.

"But all of these measures were aimed at symptoms of the disease, not the causes," Richards said.

Planners now believe that if the municipality is made more attractive, visitors will come. A renewed interest in Norristown is reflected in three projects planned for the next four years: the arts center on DeKalb Street; a $40 million reconstruction of Markley Street; and a $60 million project to extend the Lafayette Street corridor into Plymouth Meeting where an interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike is planned.

Although the state’s turnpike commission recently cited budget constraints in withdrawing money it had offered for the interchange, county transportation planner Leo Bagley said talks are ongoing to determine where the $50 to $70 million for the access ramp will come from.

"We’re moving forward on everything but the interchange," Bagley said. "Our hope is we’ll have PennDot as a partner in the future."

The dual transportation projects will have the combined effect of cutting traffic jams at peak driving hours and sprucing up the Markley and Ridge Pike entrances to Norristown.

"Part of the strategy is, if you improve the look of the borough — and things that are happening in the borough — people start to look at it differently," Bagley said. "$100 million over the next four years; that is a piece of our strategy to change the look and feel of Norristown."

Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com. Read her blog MontCo Memo at www.philly.com.

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