Towns on the Brink: Coatesville

Victimized by a dying industry, the city is beginning to take small steps toward livability. But is it already too far gone?



Postcards courtesy of David DeSimone 

Regina and Harry Lewis have a home in North Carolina. When Harry retired as principal of Coatesville Area Senior High School in 2006, his wife thought they’d resettle there. Fat chance. “Now, I’m here by choice,” Regina says.

Today, Regina is a community activist in the city—a girlfriend calls her “Ms. Coatesville.” In her office on the ground floor of the old LGM Building on South Chester Avenue, the Lewises have plenty of time to ponder the past, present and future of Chester County’s only city. The LGM was once the setting for the first NCAA convention. Now, it’s a bastion of social-services outreach, along with the Brandywine Center just across the street. 

Chester County may be the nation’s 42nd wealthiest county, but Coatesville remains one of Pennsylvania’s poorest cities. As the newly elected representative of the reshaped 74th Legislative District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Harry, at 74, stands for both political change and constancy. Coatesville is in the heart of his legislative area. 

The eldest of 11 siblings—though the only  one not born in Coatesville—Harry was raised in Caln Township. His father, like many fathers, came to Coatesville during the World War II era to work at Lukens Steel. A former assistant principal, he replaced the embattled Rich Como as principal when Como was named superintendent. 

These days, Harry is the first black resident of Chester County to serve as a state representative. And he’s the second to ever represent the GOP caucus, despite rumors that he was a Democrat who switched parties to get elected. He was coaxed into running—against his wife’s wishes. He then knocked on 9,000 doors. “I have a vested interest,” Harry says. “I didn’t just start to care—all along, I’ve cared.”

One political supporter, veteran Coatesville city councilman Ed Simpson, puts Harry’s tallest task in perspective: Last November, he won every municipality in his district except Coatesville and South Coatesville, though he did win staunch Democratic votes therein. 

“Around here, they even treat Harry Lewis as an outsider. Harry says he wants to help [them], but they say, ‘We don’t support you,’” says Simpson, who is also one of his former students. “He’s made something of himself, but you ask what they think of Harry, and they say they can’t support him. Then they can’t say why.”

Harry acknowledges the challenge, which is Coatesville’s challenge, too—“the naysayers who don’t do anything themselves, the stubborn, the uninformed who don’t try to become informed.” 

Simply put, there’s a lack of trust to accept help—or ask for it. Harry calls it self-pride. “We have to find a way,” he says. “I hope to bridge the gap and connect the entities.”

State Rep. Harry Lewis with his wife, Regina, at the Brandywine Center, which aids Coatesville’s poor population.//photos by tessa marie images

Coatesville was once a proud, vibrant city. Its tough, gritty workforce was as all-American as steel. But when the industry’s once-plentiful low-skilled jobs vanished with Lukens and the 1990s, the city’s unemployment rate skyrocketed. With a weakened tax base and a diminished middle class, the city’s declining resources exposed unresolved racial conflicts, fostering tensions and distrust and breeding social problems. 

On a regional level, Coatesville slipped into political, social and financial isolation. And the effort to rebound has been rife with eminent-domain disputes, the ousters of city-council incumbents, firings, and the resignations of city officials and heads of services. 

Then there were the 70 fires—many of them arson—in the city from 2007 to 2009. Elsewhere, the school district was burned by mounds of alleged administrative impropriety.

New superintendent Cathy Taschner’s first official day was June 13, 2014—a Friday. For better luck, some suggested she wait until Monday—especially in the wake of the grand-jury reports, indictments and accusations against former administrators who leveled the district as its debt swelled by millions of dollars. Instead, Taschner plowed forward, making peace—and progress—from day one. The Chester County native owes her education to Lukens Steel. Her mother spent 39 years there, retiring as senior data-processing coordinator.

A once-respected high school principal and football coach, Como has been accused of creating a slush fund to pay for championship football rings and arranging the hiring of unqualified friends, family and felons. Prosecutors have targeted athletic director Jim Donato for using income from athletic events to buy himself a Range Rover and pay down gambling debt. 

Como faces 51 counts—and Donato 139—of felony theft, theft by deception and related offenses. Both are fighting all charges. First linked to racist and sexist messages found on their school-issued cell phones, the two resigned in 2013. 

Meanwhile, the Chester County district attorney’s office is also after former school solicitor James Ellison, who it says may have bilked the district of $6.9 million or more. “The story can’t be the story without the whole piece,” says Taschner. “It’s out of a difficult, tumultuous time that a resurgence is growing.”

Taschner toured and listened, beginning a systematic audit of the district’s technology, academics, facilities, finances and personnel. Her pledge is for more transparency—what others are calling a new culture. “People are watching us,” Taschner says. “Some are angry that I’ve gone the other way and stressed academics. So be it. I stand guilty as charged.”

Really, there hasn’t been continuity anywhere in Coatesville, even with  another reassembled city council. Developers and businesses want predictability. “Some say, ‘I’m comfortable with the way things are.’ But for those trying to run a business, it’s rather insular,” says Gary Smith, executive director of the Chester County Economic Development Council. 

Many have pinned their hopes on a new train station. The current Amtrak stop serves the Keystone Corridor. 

Until 1997—the year Lukens sold to Bethlehem Steel—the station was also stop on SEPTA’s R5 regional rail line from Philadelphia.

Development has moved rapidly up the Route 30 bypass, but it’s largely skipped Coatesville. Still, the beleaguered city can complete the Chester County puzzle by aligning its numerous pieces to build on existing amenities—a highway, a river, an airport, a compact downtown with historic infrastructure that’s prime for rehabilitation and reuse, even sizable open space.

A 125-room Courtyard Marriott, built along Route 82 opened in May 2012. Though just west of Coatesville near the Chester County G.O. Carlson Airport, Sikorsky Aircraft—a large-scale employer—earned a $1.24 billion presidential contract about a year ago. 

Coatesville, Smith says, is prime to “come out of its dark era.” There are focused citizens, businesses, church leaders, and youth outreach initiatives. And there’s a bold and effective philanthropic organization—the Brandywine Health Foundation—that’s filling service gaps. “We simply don’t give up,” Regina Lewis says.    

This is also the yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary since the borough of Coatesville—once a merger of the villages of Midway and Bridge-Town—became a city.

Then there’s VISTA 2025, Chester County’s 10-year economic-development master plan. In strategically surveying communities, Coatesville popped up constantly. “This city is on the tip of everybody’s tongue,” says Frances M. Sheehan, president and CEO of the Brandywine Health Foundation and cochair of the anniversary committee. “We have such pride in place in Chester County. Why would we tolerate such poverty and such struggle in the heart of the community? Why wouldn’t we come together to do something?”

“We have such pride in place in Chester County,” says Frances Sheehan, president and CEO of the Brandywine Health Foundation. “Why would we tolerate such poverty and such struggle in the heart of a community?”

Regina Horton Lewis was born and raised in West Chester. She came to Coatesville in 1994 as executive director of Coatesville Area Partners for Progress. “I was warned about Coatesville,” she admits. “I was told it was a dangerous place.”

She found strong families, but generally a community in a “downward spiral.” Regina fell in love with the city anyway. She now chairs CAPP, is director of special projects for ChesPenn Health Services, and chairs the Newlin Foundation, an educational outreach effort in Coatesville.

By the late 1990s, CAPP reclaimed blighted properties like the Oak Street public-housing project, the Mast Building, and other historic and architecturally significant sites. It has improved or created neighborhood parks, reignited a Christmas parade, and started an ice cream festival. CAPP is also working with the state’s Keystone Communities Program to get Coatesville its “Main Street Program” designation to help with economic-development initiatives. “We’re at the crossroads,” Regina says. “The city needs to be rebranded.”       

Well into the 1950s and ’60s, downtown Coatesville had thrived as a hub of retail. There were three movie theaters. “It was a town,” says Harry Lewis. “Pristine, upscale, quiet and friendly, and full of ethnic neighborhoods—Philadelphia on a smaller scale.” 

But there was segregation—even in the men’s locker room at Lukens. At the Auditorium Theater (now a senior center), blacks were relegated to the balcony. This was not the case at the Palace Theater (later Chertok’s Furniture & Mattress) or the Silver Theater (now a church).

Those of color were told to forget college and aspire to work at Lukens. After graduating, Harry lasted three miserable weeks there before William “Pop” Ransom—who coached every sport at James Adams School, a segregated elementary school—offered pointed advice: “You have to go somewhere. You can’t be around here.” 

Ransom gave Clarence “Big House” Gaines a call at Winston-Salem State University, and Harry arrived in 1959. Track and field, he says, “saved” him from Lukens.

The way Regina sees it, there was always a love-hate dichotomy with Lukens. And the most recent consensus is that ArcelorMittal, the plant’s current occupant, isn’t doing as much as it could for Coatesville. 

In its day, Lukens provided a livelihood and resources, but its demise was crippling. Hospitals moved out of town, so did the YMCA. “A mass exodus,” Smith says. “Then, when there’s no one there, you appeal to the lowest common denominator. It’s a sad story, but we’d like to think that’s all in the past.”

Sources say the remnants of “definite discrimination” at Lukens kept “unresolved racial undercurrents resurfacing.” Those are mostly tied to the 1911 murder of Zachariah Walker, a black man who allegedly killed white mill policeman Edgar Rice, prompting an NAACP investigation. Walker was dragged from a hospital, still chained to his bedstead, and burned to death in front of hundreds of Coatesville citizens. When he staggered from the pyre, a mass of flames, onlookers shoved him back in with rakes and pitchforks. The lynching—the last in Pennsylvania—remains “a stigma that’s stuck with Coatesville,” Harry says. “People have never been able to get over that—or beyond it.”

“The story can’t be the story without the whole piece,” says Cathy Taschner, superintendent of the Coatesville Area School District. “It’s out of difficult, tumultuous times that a resurgence is growing.”

Since his arrival from the city of Chester three years ago, urban development consultant Dave Sciocchetti has worked to reconnect Coatesville to the regional economy. “When he left Chester, I told him, ‘I have a Coatesville that needs you,’” recalls Gary Smith, the Chester County Economic Development Council’s executive director.

Sciocchetti argues that communities must be in competition to succeed, and if a city begins with a competitive advantage—say, for example, it lies along portions of the Brandywine River like Coatesville does—it needs to keep that advantage. If not, it erodes its desirability. 

“When I first came here, I saw challenges,” he says. “But I also drove around, and my first reaction was, ‘Wow. It’s not nearly as bad as people suggest.’”

A new train station is a competitive advantage. The one slated for the block between North Third and Fourth avenues needed Sciocchetti’s help, in partnership with the Coatesville Redevelopment Authority, which acquired 21 properties and relocated residents. Today, there’s a contract to demolish the remainder of the existing buildings. The vision is for a first-floor station (PennDOT has earmarked $20 million) and the creation of a unique transit-oriented education campus off the rail line.

The critical intersection at Route 82 and Lincoln Highway is a “bull’s-eye location,” says Wayne’s Jim DePetris, managing member of DEPG and CEO of Legend Properties, the two entities spearheading public-private anchor projects there worth $20 million. 

In all, two restaurants, 20,000 square feet of retail space, and 45 apartments are planned in six properties up to the old National Bank of Chester Valley. Construction should begin by the fall of 2016, and a city parking garage is already in the works. 

“We’re betting on the future,” DePetris says. “A lot of developers have come to Coatesville talking about things to do, then didn’t follow through, but we’re vested. We’re for real; we’re doing it for profit. But it will also be very rewarding to do this to help the city. But we realize it’s also kind of gutsy.”

Coatesville city council pres-ident Linda Lavender-Norris agrees that DePetris is offering a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. “It really only takes one [developer] to get things started, and we believe he’s the one,” she says.

Elsewhere, proposals continue to arrive for the 20-plus-acre site, dubbed “the Flats,” at the northeast corner of the old steel plant. Some could help repopulate the city. Failed ideas for the Flats have included a velodrome, a convention center, an equestrian center, even unspecified interest from deep-pocketed philanthropist Bob McNeil. 

Back at City Hall, Lavender-Norris leads what may finally be a cohesive council. Turnover—especially in the city manager’s position—and internal politics often left the city’s leadership scattered. “Why would anyone want to come in and be part of a mess or a ball of confusion?” poses Lavender-Norris. “Now, we have a window of opportunity, and we’re going to do all we can to take advantage of that opportunity.”

With cuts, council finally passed a city budget in mid-March without having to raise taxes, but it again dipped into a depleted trust fund for $140,000 to replace the roof on City Hall. Established with the 2001 sale of the city’s water authority to Pennsylvania-American, there’s just $5 million left from the $48 million sale. Earmarked for emergencies, the fund has been tapped by past councils to balance budgets. Nearly $15 million was lost when then-city manager Paul Janssen thought building a golf course would save downtown Coatesville.

“The trust fund is the key to our future,” says Ed Simpson. “If we don’t invest in ourselves, we’ll never get anywhere. People want to help Coatesville, but we’re our own worst enemy. [Developers] come in, sit and say we need this or that, but then they leave, and we shut the door and say, ‘I think I know a cousin or a son of so-and-so, somebody else who can do it better.’ It happens time and time again, and we never get anything done.”

In his 12 years on council, Simpson has seen an average of one new councilmember come and go per year. He says there’s an element that doesn’t want Coatesville to prosper or to become more affluent, like Phoenixville, Kennett Square and especially West Chester. Prosperity, they fear, will push out  residents who won’t be able to afford the new Coatesville.

Scott Gardner Huston has an interesting vantage point. He’s the executive director of the Stewart Huston Charitable Trust and a key figure behind the planned National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum at the old plant within the Lukens Historic District. The agreement of sale with ArcelorMittal is nearly complete, and title to the property should follow by midyear. 

A seventh-generation direct descendant of Rebecca Lukens Huston, the plant’s matriarch and one of the world’s first female industrialists, he works out of pristine family-owned digs that are in direct contrast to an inner-city ghost town. 

“I am who I am,” he admits. “Huston’s my name, and this is where I’m from. We could be viewed as isolated in the historic district. Sometimes our assets act as liabilities, but the museum is different. The families in this town worked in the mill. We want to use the museum and the story of steel in an educational way. It’s not about glorifying this family.”

The trust is different, too. Other than aiding preservation organizations, it funds health-and-human-services groups that provide for basic food, shelter and medical needs. The museum space might also serve the county for large-scale events—say, a flower or car show.

“We’re patient, and we’ve been here through thick and thin,” Huston says. “We’re a strong family, and we want to help turn this place around. I know a lot of other people want to do that, too. There’s good, consistent, positive movement. But it’s still a fragile situation.”

 

Why Phoenixville And Not Coatesville?

If there’s a single event that best illuminates the sense of togetherness that surrounds Phoenixville’s remarkable transformation, it occurred last December. The night before the annual bonfire-style torching of the phoenix, its avian symbol, vandals set the wooden bird ablaze. Within hours, the town mobilized, building another one just in time for the community to celebrate.

Like in Coatesville, Phoenixville’s success was once predicated on the steel industry. It also died when steel did. As recently as a decade ago, the drive into Phoenixville looked far different than it does today. Last year, there were 1,400 building permits in the borough.

The difference is a core of dedicated people and stalwart volunteers—“real trustees of the city,” one source says. Standing boards, a consistent borough council, and individuals like Barbara Cohen, the recently retired executive director of the Phoenixville Chamber of Commerce, and borough manager E. Jean Krack—whose exodus from Coatesville landed him in Phoenixville—have fostered progress. 

Phoenixville also has had a residual benefit from the Route 422 pharmaceutical corridor and the housing that’s sprung up around it in Collegeville, Oaks and Limerick. (The area is nearly a second King of Prussia.) With new jobs, residential stock went up, then community value. “Many people lay the groundwork to do difficult work when it looks like nothing will happen, then it falls into place,” says Frances Sheehan, president and CEO of the Brandywine Health Foundation. “Lots of alignment has to happen for things to come together.” 

Bastion of Safety

The new Chester County Public Safety Training Campus lies just outside city limits in South Coatesville. Carved out of ArcelorMittal’s industrial parcel, the 95-acre site is well-suited to its planned use: fires and other mock emergencies, plus gunfire in an indoor shooting range. The county opened the academic classrooms in the 22,000-square-foot, $24 million facility in September 2012. The four-acre tactical village debuted this spring. The shooting range could break ground by late summer. 

The public-private project was decades in the making. The county purchased the site from ArcelorMittal, which then donated $150,000 back to it. An old Lukens Steel building was rehabilitated.

In all, the facility will serve 57 fire companies, 45 police departments, and 23 ambulance companies. “Responders work together every day for an emergency but, until now, had never trained together,” says Beau Crowding, Chester County’s deputy director for fire services. “That’s what this brings to the table.”

The county estimates it has already prepared 5,000 first responders in the classroom in just its first year. Interest in basic firefighting classes has exploded. Within this past year, 800 police officers have been trained to handle an eight-hour active-threat incident like the one at the Newtown, Conn., school.

“Everyone got on board,” says Mike Grigalonis, COO of the Chester County Economic Development Council, who holds the same title for the Chester County Public Safety Training Foundation. “All the officials were rowing in the same direction. Other projects like this can happen. More dominoes need to fall into place, but a state-of-the-art training facility is an investment in the city.”

For the average citizen, there are CPR classes, disaster classes, and even a junior firefighting camp through the Brandywine Health Foundation, a major private donor for the facility. “At some point, it all makes you feel more safe, which can trickle down into revitalization,” says Crowding. 

 

View our first installment of Towns on the Brink, which features Chester, here.

View our third installment of Towns on the Brink, which features Norristown and Bridgeport, here.

Edit ModuleShow Tags