"It's all these little things that are happening that are building blocks for something that is a lot bigger: the redevelopment of Coatesville," said city manager Kirby Hudson."
The city of about 13,000 people took another seemingly small step toward renovation Tuesday when Chester County gave it $700,000 as part of the county's Community Revitalization Program. Coatesville is expected to use the money to make the intersection of Lincoln Highway and First Avenue easier to navigate for the more than 10,000 drivers who pass through each day.
City, county, and state officials say improving the city's infrastructure will lay the groundwork for Coatesville to build itself up as a destination and leverage its prime location off Route 30 and near the Chester County Airport.
Coatesville has been trying to rebuild itself for decades as it struggled during the downsizing of one of its major employers, Lukens Steel. The recent economic downturn delayed revitalization plans that have started and stalled in the past. The city has also battled negative perceptions that officials said discourage visitors, and its position as the poorest community in one of Pennsylvania's wealthiest counties hasn't helped.
"In order to start any sort of revitalization effort in Coatesville, there has to be an effort to change the perception of Coatesville," said David Collins, city council vice president.
The city hopes to mirror the ongoing revitalization success stories of West Chester, Phoenixville, and Kennett Square. Coatesville has gotten nearly $5.1 million in county and federal funds through revitalization programs since 2002 for projects such as street repaving and demolition.
State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester) has said the state and county must do more to help Coatesville in its effort. In response, Terence Farrell, one of the county's three commissioners, wrote an editorial published in the Times of Chester County in February defending the county.
"The County Board of Commissioners believes that Coatesville's potential as an economically revived city is great," Farrell said, "and that's why we have invested, and will continue to invest, in all aspects of community life there."
Developers and businesses say that Chester County's overall wealth, fast-growing residential areas, and natural resources draw them to the county's municipalities, including Coatesville.
Among the city's new developments is the 125-room Courtyard Marriott, which opened in 2012. Its developer hopes to start construction on an 80,000-square-foot office building next door by mid-2015. It is also pursuing restaurant chains to set up next to the office building.
The city is also looking to develop the former site of the G.O. Carlson steel plant, more than 20 acres in the middle of the city that are often referred to as the "Flats."
But at the heart of Coatesville's revitalization is the forthcoming new Amtrak station on the Keystone Corridor that will replace the deficient current station and increase the number of trains that stop in the city.
The project should give the community hope for future development, said Toby Fauver, PennDot's deputy secretary of local and area transportation.
PennDot has pledged $20 million for the project and is now reviewing designs and costs. The state agency wants to build up the surrounding area as it builds the new station. But the project's developers are reluctant to build right now given the slow development market, Fauver said. So PennDot has no guarantee that the adjacent development will happen.
"We want to maximize that investment and get the most bang for the buck for Pennsylvania taxpayers," Fauver said.
Lincoln University, which has a campus in Coatesville, hopes to benefit from the new train station, too, and plans to offer programs that will attract people from across the region.
Coatesville's city manager said he would like to see SEPTA return to the city after almost 20 years and a national bus service come to the city. SEPTA and PennDot are discussing infrastructure improvements with communities along the Paoli/Thorndale line, a SEPTA spokeswoman said.
"We're slowly and methodically going forward," Hudson said. "I've been telling people, within five years you're not going to recognize Coatesville."
On July 28, the city will publicly present an update of its 10-year comprehensive development plan, which focuses on enhancing downtown Coatesville, simplifying the redevelopment process, and formulating next steps, said Tom Comitta, Coatesville's city planning consultant. The city council will either vote to adopt the plan then or vote at a future meeting.