Oxford: At the heart of Chester County's revitalization plan

Revitalization of downtown Oxford, Chester County, has spurred businesses to fix facades.
Revitalization of downtown Oxford, Chester County, has spurred businesses to fix facades. (ANDREW RENNEISEN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 05, 2013

There's a traffic jam in Oxford.

Men in bright-yellow jumpsuits are waving long lines of cars along Third Street, the main drag in this small borough in far-southern Chester County. Behind rows of orange cones, construction crews are hard at work on the second phase of a downtown streetscape project.

This would be standard stuff anywhere else. But in once-sleepy Oxford, it's a symbol of a town coming back to life.

Ten years ago, Oxford was "like many small towns - we were becoming empty and vacant," said Borough Manager Betsy Brantner. "We really had to say, 'How are we dealing with that?' "

Brantner, who once ran Oxford's local newspaper, was originally hired as a grant writer for the city. Now that she's the borough manager, she says, those grants for projects as simple as sidewalk repair have been a catalyst for Oxford's revitalization.

Renovations, such as streetscape improvements and sewer upgrades, encouraged local businesses to fix rundown facades, Brantner said. That has made Third Street more attractive to new businesses - not to mention customers.

She says that addressing infrastructure issues, such as storm-water runoff downtown, was at least as important as aesthetic concerns. For example, fixing a flooding issue on Old Street allowed a cannery to open there, Brantner said, which now employs about 75 people.

"We sort of looked at the whole package here," she said.

Oxford's push toward revitalization echoes the county's hopes for more widespread development in the area, local officials say. A development plan along Route 1 in the southern part of Chester County has been in the works for years - with Oxford right in the heart of the corridor that county officials are hoping to develop.

The borough dates its origins to 1754, when Londonderry Township was divided, and the western portion was given the name Oxford for the famous town in England.

Comely homes in the Carpenter Gothic, Queen Anne, and Victorian styles sprouted in the town between 1840 and 1880, according to the borough's website, and some of them - on Pine and Fourth Streets and Western Terrace - are still standing. The town also once was home to a power plant, Bowman's Generating Plant, in the late 19th century.

In recent years, Oxford has undergone dramatic growth. The population since 1980 jumped 40 percent - to just more than 5,000 - and growth continued from 2010 to 2012, according to Census figures.

These days, the borough has a significant Amish population.

Total property values ballooned from $92.5 million in 1995 to more than $230 million in 2011, based on figures from the State Tax Equalization Board.

Despite all the growth and renovations, Oxford's main street still has room for improvement, Brantner said. "In order to sustain business, you have to keep improving and revitalizing."

That's why Oxford Main Street - a nonprofit that operates as a unit of the local Chamber of Commerce - looks to attract new businesses that offer unique services, but also are established entities, in order to compete with big-box stores and strip malls in the area.

The nonprofit has begun hosting tours of area historic landmarks and downtown farmers' markets to attract both locals and outsiders, said Sue Cole, Oxford Main Street's director. On the first Friday of every month, residents fill Third Street for live music, food specials, and extended business hours. This month's was billed as an "International Block Party."

"The businesses really like it - they can offer different specials, different attractions," Cole said.

At the borough hall, just off Third Street, Brantner said that, more than anything, Oxford feels lucky.

"It's a very fun place to be right now," she said. "Not every community is like us - you have people here who really have a love and desire to keep the community growing. And if they don't work together, you don't have the success we have here."

Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112 or awhelan@philly.com, or follow on Twitter at @aubreyjwhelan.

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