Distilled from the meeting was a theme of disconnection among community members, from family units to civic relationships. This is the major hurdle Pottstown needs to clear to finally turn the corner it has seemingly been rounding for years.
If ideas are born and tempered in the flames of perseverance, the stifling hot room just off the front desk of the Richard J. Ricketts Center on Tuesday would have been an apt analog. The site hosted a meeting organized by the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Olivet Boys and Girls Club and Harwood Institute. The Pottstown meeting was the second in a series of five pilot meetings with the goal of gathering thoughts and ideas from communities in the region.
Among the participants were Pottstown Manager Jason Bobst, Jessica McCartin from the Pottstown Family Center, resident and frequent community volunteer Shasean Kellman, Rita Paez of the Pottstown chapter of Centro Cultural Latinos Unidos, Mary-Beth Lydon of the Pottstown School Board and Pottsgrove High School graduate Matt Mumber of the United Way.
"This is what we call a kitchen table conversation," said Martin Molloy, director of community relations for the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Molloy presented the basic tenets of the format before acting as scribe for the meeting.
"We're not looking for agreement, we're looking for thoughts and opinions," he said. "We're looking for honesty. We want you all to share and to all have a voice."
The meetings organized by the United Way and the Harwood Institute are built from four questions: What kind of community do you want to live in? Why is that important to you? How is that different from how you see things now? What are some of the things that need to happen to create the kind of community you want?
"There will be a national report based on the responses," said United Way Manager of Community Initiative and Civic Engagement Vonetta Robinson. "They are all national questions."
Robinson served as the conversation's shepherd and explorer, posing the questions and digging deeper into answers while keeping anyone from straying too far off the path. A job, she humorously noted, made more important due to the heat.
While the four questions provided an easy and structured layout for the community conversation, the meeting took an organic turn after Robinson proposed question one. The traditional desires for safety and a friendly, respectful community eventually gave way to the idea of engagement.
"I want a community that engages me," Mumber said, sparking the new direction. Mumber went away for college after high school graduation and upon his return home found a town he does not feel reaches out.
"From the government's perspective, there's a lot of apathy," Bobst said. "There's a lack of communication."
Despite trying different avenues, Bobst said the wide range of demographics, from young to old, makes it difficult to hit on any one medium.
"Some people want that newspaper," Bobst said. "I'm a technology driven guy, so we'll use Facebook and all those things like that."
Robinson guided the conversation into finding the cause for lack of engagement. A lack of leadership was a common complaint.
"We need leadership that can motivate and is passionate about the area," Mumber said. Bobst agreed and added there are millions of dollars worth of studies on his bookshelf and if just a few of them had been carried out, Pottstown would perhaps be a better place today.
"A lot of good people have been chased out of here by the negativity," Bobst said.
Partisan, small town politics is another problem the delegation determined holds back Pottstown.
"There's no desire to build coalitions," Bobst said.
Kellman boiled it down to the marrow.
"People are out for themselves," he said.
The impact of Pottstown's anchor institutions, such as Montgomery County Community College's West Campus and the Hill School, were also discussed. Lydon said MCCC's commuter mentality needs to be altered to help students feel a greater connection to the community.
"They get off the Hanover Street exit on 422 and turn onto College Drive and never even hit downtown," Bobst said.
Kellman, an MCCC student, said the school's impact is underestimated.
"We have meetings about the community," Kellman said. "They open the campus up real early in the morning when it's cold so the homeless can come in. They get on the computers."
While the group felt MCCC needs to engage the community more, thoughts on The Hill School were more mixed. It was generally conceded The Hill reaches out to the community "at their choosing" and without reciprocity, Lydon said.
"They have taken a mentality of, 'so goes Pottstown, so goes Hill,'" Bobst said, due to the high number of students who board on campus. The Hill seemingly has more to invest in Pottstown's fate than does MCCC. While The Hill School employs community members, including those in a special English as a Second Language program, the jobs alone may not be enough.
Kellman, who worked for The Hill, argued that the minimum wage salaries the school offers, combined with nominal upward mobility, makes the contribution less than it may appear.
"The Hill makes a lot of money," Kellman said. "They could have payed us something."
As the night progressed, talk shifted from what is missing to what could be done about it.
"People tend to cling to the past and what it once was, not what it can become," Bobst said.
"We need kids who are proud of where they live and parents who want to fight to stay here," he said. "Give them a reason to live here."
While Pottstown may never recover the job market it once had, Lydon and the conversationalists agreed other benefits, including arts and culture, must take its place.
"Apples to apples, hands down -- minus the downtown -- Pottstown is better than Phoenixville," Bobst said. "We don't have the crime rate, the murders … we need to shine a light on our accomplishments."
Despite the long list of grievances and concerns, which was scrawled in black and red marker across no less than four massive pieces of paper, the participants left the "kitchen table" feeling hopeful about Pottstown's future.
"When we have that all hands on deck moment, this town will rally," Bobst said.