West Chester is marrying a rich history with future growth

Malcolm Johnstone

Malcolm Johnstone, executive director, West Chester Business Improvement District

The borough of West Chester, Pa. has about 4,200 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That’s out of about 6,000 total structures in the borough.

That’s why, when looking to grow as a business destination, West Chester can’t help but brand itself around its history.

“The borough is only 1.8 square miles, but we have a great number of local landmarks that have connections to people like Abraham Lincoln and other notable folks,” says Malcolm Johnstone, executive director of the West Chester Business Improvement District. “We have a lot of historic interpretive signs that you see in a lot of towns. That’s why we’re branding West Chester as a historic destination.”

But West Chester doesn’t live in the past. The borough is in constant competition for new business with other boroughs and regions in the metro Philadelphia market. So West Chester uses its history as a means of spurring future growth.

The historical building space in West Chester’s downtown area can be, in many cases, built to suit a given business, Johnstone says, allowing business owners to house their companies in a unique environment, apart from the fluorescent-light sterility of modern office parks.

“Any space can be converted, and we do have property owners who will build to suit,” Johnstone says. “Our largest component is professional office space, so people who are looking for space that has charm and is connected to history will be able to find it.”

With a downtown area that dates to well before the invention of the automobile, West Chester has needed to get creative about how to adapt its infrastructure to include ample car parking. The borough’s leaders solved the problem with parking garages. The largest parking garage opened several years ago and can accommodate 800 vehicles. Total, the West Chester downtown area has about 3,000 parking spaces, which can accommodate daily business traffic as well as the many special events that take place in West Chester year round.

“We used to max out our parking when big events happened, and that no longer occurs,” Johnstone says.

In addition to history and an improved infrastructure, West Chester offers financial incentives for business to start or relocate to the borough. The Chester County Economic Development Council can meet with a business owner looking to start or relocate, and construct a financial package to suit their needs. In addition, grant money of up to $5,000 is available for business owners who want to make improvements to the front of a historical structure, such as awnings or signs.

“That grant is funded by the state department of community and economic development,” Johnstone says. “At the local level, our agency attracts and awards those dollars.”

Quick info:

County: Chester

Incorporated: 1799

Population: 18,000

Land area: 1.8 sq. mi.

Mayor: Carolyn Comitta

Phone: (610) 692-7574

Web: www.west-chester.com