Greater Reading: Why City's Rebound is Real
Last summer Al Boscov – CEO of the eponymous department store chain
and the man behind much of the revitalization of downtown Reading – asked David Brennan if he would consider opening a restaurant in the city's so-called Entertainment Square section. Boscov's nonprofit, Our City Reading
, was looking to rent out the vacant first floor of a parking garage next to a movie theater
and arts center
Brennan says the retail executive was a frequent customer at his last restaurant, the now-closed Chat-a-While Inn just outside of Reading, and knew Brennan had a local following.
At first Brennan was hesitant, but Boscov convinced him. In July the chef signed the paperwork for his upscale Italian eatery. After spending quite a bit of time inside the always-buzzing GoggleWorks Center for the Arts and the movie theater, complete with an IMAX screen, Brennan decided he'd made a good investment.
"I went from scared to death to excited," he says. "I could be on the ground floor of a great thing."Panevino
opened May 3 to an eager public. In some ways, it's a symbol of Reading's hoped-for comeback.
There's little denying that if any city is in need of rebirth, it's Reading. It consistently lands a spot on CQ Press' annual ranking of America's most dangerous cities (No. 41 most recently
). In 2009 Reading was declared "financially distressed
" under Act 47, a state law that provides extra aid and help making plans for financial recovery. In 2008 the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 34.5 percent of city residents live in poverty
.Reason for Hope
Reading's challenges and distant memories of now-gone downtown department stores and abundant manufacturing jobs lead some locals to view the Berks County seat as a no-go zone. Jon Scott, head of the Berks Economic Partnership
, observes that people who come to Reading from other places are often more optimistic about the city's future than those who have lived in the area their whole lives.
"Perhaps it's as simple as, the grass might always seem greener somewhere else," Scott says. Outsiders, it seems, more readily perceive Reading as a place with a good quality of life, hardworking people and proximity to cities like New York and Philadelphia. These characteristics help draw business people looking to expand their companies, he says.
Mayor Tom McMahon
notices that young adults want to move back into cities, Reading included, because they want to live in bustling areas with lots of things to do.
McMahon calls the process of restructuring the city's finances under Act 47 "tough medicine." For example, the city's recovery plan
calls for measures like renegotiating contracts and increasing cooperation with nearby localities to save money. But he views Act 47 as a tool that will ultimately allow Reading to focus more on revitalization.
Plans for the city abound, from a $2.8 billion re-imagining of its riverfront to added sidewalk lighting. Locals and newcomers are also starting their own ventures in Reading.Showpiece for Optimism
Discussions about redeveloping Reading inevitably include Entertainment Square. That area's focus is the GoggleWorks, a vacant factory reborn as an arts center in 2005. Its neighbors now include a performing arts center
, the movie theater, and a luxury apartment complex under construction.
On one hand, Entertainment Square's location just inside the city limits means people who are hesitant to step foot in Reading can easily have dinner, check out a show and leave without really seeing the city. Another view is that visits to plays or artists' receptions demonstrate that Reading can offer a good experience.
"There's so much in Reading that people should come downtown and see," Brennan says. "For people not to come to Reading, it's their loss." He sees Panevino being the first in a new wave of businesses opening up in Entertainment Square.
The city is also in the beginning stages of opening an arts district, dubbed Ricktown, in the 25 blocks around GoggleWorks. The idea is to fix up existing houses and build new units that artists could use as homes and studios. McMahon says one home has already been rented and others are being renovated.
Reading's Downtown Improvement District
recently got $100,000 from the state Department of Community and Economic Development
to expand its sidewalk- and curb-cleaning services to four residential blocks around the GoggleWorks that aren't part of the district. People who live in that area aren't charged to be part of the district, so executive director Chuck Broad says another source of money will have to be found for the program to continue in that area once the money runs out next May.
Beyond Entertainment Square, McMahon expects a long-awaited hotel to break ground downtown this summer next to a new parking garage. Plus, two business incubators are in the works within a mile of each other. Both are expected to open this summer.Challenging Skepticism
The most ambitious project by far is the $2.8 billion RiverView at Reading
project. Giannasca Development Group
plans to transform 110 acres on the Schuylkill River. Its latest plans include an amphitheater, sports fields, a biosciences research center and an aquarium.
Company chairman Ed Giannasca says low real-estate prices and the potential of a new waterfront made Reading attractive. He says the firm is in the process of lining up public and private financing, which should come through this summer.
Giannasca realizes some are skeptical that Riverview at Reading will ever get built. "Once people see that we're serious about developing the area, it's amazing how much attitudes change," he says. "Once this thing gets rolling, it's amazing how quickly people jump on board."
Some ambitious plans for Reading never came to be, so locals tend to be skeptical. But they're sometimes proven wrong. As an example Scott offers the Sovereign Center
, an arena that opened in 2001.
"People were saying, 'It's never going to get built, and even if it does, no one will go, and even if they do, they won't pay more than $7 a ticket,' " Scott recalls. Now it's one of Reading's main attractions, hosting the likes of Elton John and the Blue Man Group along with minor-league hockey
and indoor football
Broad doesn't think Reading's crime is as bad as many perceive -- and as a former city police chief, he has some expertise in that area. "If you're involved in an illegitimate activity, your likelihood of being a victim of a crime skyrockets," he says.
The key to changing perceptions is to keep showing the city as a clean, safe place, Broad insists. Once people see the good things in town, he says, they'll come back and tell their friends.
The first Saturday in May, the Downtown Improvement District sponsored its first downtown treasure hunt. Eight teams were assigned to take silly photos of themselves at various locations.
Afterward those who took part in the treasure hunt said they discovered new things about Reading. Like the Indian restaurant
. And the high-quality pieces in the downtown furniture store
"It's a matter of changing one mind at a time," Broad says.
Rebecca VanderMeulen is a freelance writer who lives near Downingtown. As she tells friends out of state, that's between the cheesesteaks and the Amish. Send feedback here.
Construction of the new GoggleWorks Apartments underway
Downtown Improvement District Executive Director Charles Broad at his city office
A bronze statue of Albert Boscov outside the Imax Theatre
David Brennan is the chef for the newly opened Panevino Restaurant in Reading's Boscov Entertainment Plaza
Detail of place settings at Panevino Restaurant
City of Reading Improvements "Ambassador" Winston King of Downtown Improvement District patrols along Penn Street
All Photographs by BRAD BOWER