It will never work. No one has ever done it like that before. We just don’t have the time or resources. The excuses multiply until they crush every new idea anyone could propose. In meeting after meeting, at institution after institution, the voices of dissent and doubt stymie creativity in favor of stability.
For Norristown, this process involves several complaints. There are too many poor people. Senior citizens resent the school district and local property taxes. It is the county seat, but the county leadership cares more about Plymouth Meeting and King of Prussia. All the social services offices attract unstable families and occupy the desirable commercial real estate. Social service management is incompetent or disconnected. Local elected officials would rather have federal emergency management and community block grants than any sustained private investment. With the end of Montgomery Hospital, the only hope is to break Norristown into a small district around the train station and consolidate the residential neighborhoods into East Norriton and West Norriton.
Over the decades, wide-eyed idealists have suggested that there are potential entrepreneurs in town. Voices of wisdom have shaken their heads slowly and explained how rarely small businesses succeed. There is no financing or long-term capital to support any new industry. Foolish residents who have tried before crashed on the rocks of poor planning and poor marketing. Even the mildly effective businesses run afoul of the economies of scale as larger retail competitors drive them into bankruptcy.
None of this accepted knowledge can have any real impact on citizens determined to build a new future in Norristown or any other community of working people. No matter how long the odds may be, their desire to make a better life for themselves and their children is the core of American optimism. It is the foundation of the infinite capital that ended apartheid, created the global human rights movement, and won each of the last three global military conflicts. This commitment stretches beyond the physical borders of any community and relies on the expertise of creative intellectuals. It has global reach in the twenty-first century. It can make a startup idea into a midmarket firm or can take a small company to its initial public offering.
The excuses only reflect an optimism deficit – not a real analysis of a perpetual economic barrier. Over the next two weeks, readers should declare this a season of holiday investment as they join the movement to revitalize the area. Insightful municipal management would encourage such a vision, moving to identify business improvement districts and opportunity zones in both east and west Norristown. It might even be possible to create a 2016 property tax holiday for households that participate in the creation of new enterprises, especially if existing regional businesses were attracted by a new corporate income tax code that lowered tax rates for firms that demonstrated increasing revenue growth. Partnership strategies across the region with communities like Reading, Phoenixville, Cheltenham, Upper Darby, and Yeadon would provide sufficient backing to reduce risk to any single municipal partner.
The biggest impact of these efforts would be the gains realized by current high school students and recent alumni. By sponsoring their new businesses and original research, they would become the heart of a new upper middle class in the region. Already, several families have expressed interest in building an institute dedicated to enterprise incubation and acceleration modeled on Singularity University in California. While most franchises entail substantial financial commitments ranging from 100 thousand to 2 million USD, this institute would only require 10,000 USD from its initial investors. After ten years, they could sell their portion of the ownership for approximately 5 million USD. The investors who remained after the firm began to market globally could reasonably hold a hundred million USD in value.
This moment is the opportunity to realize a new future. It will work.
Dr. Walter Greason is the executive director of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth and the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).