December 27, 2017 — Every year, I try to end my blogging with a note about good things that are going on around our community. There’s much more to be hopeful about than there is to be worried about and it’s good to highlight those things that give us promise for a better future. A couple of people have even said that they’ve come to look forward to this annual post.
My choices aren’t quite random, but certainly aren’t comprehensive. They’re things I’ve seen throughout the year that struck me and stuck with me. I’ve chosen four; I could have chosen 400. But here we go:
Some will think this an odd choice. Chambers of commerce and community foundations usually see the world through very different lenses. And that’s usually been true here as well. And it may be in the future. But it’s critically important to our community that we continue to refresh and rebuild the base of employment that gives our community’s families a sustainable income and provides a pathway of opportunity for our young people.
This year, Greater Berks Development Fund, the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Greater Reading Economic Partnership came together in one unified structure. The merger process was awkward and sometimes painful, and the effort is a work in progress, but a new tone is emerging.
Part of our enthusiasm is due, no doubt, to the fact that they’ve fully embraced the view that the City of Reading and specifically our downtown are key to the region’s future. But beyond that, we see a new and more coherent view of the future emerging, one that’s based on a vision of the future, not a yearning for the past.
Maintaining a good, strong economic base is an ongoing job and it looks like we’re getting better at it.
Cups of Compassion
Last week, a group of us from the Community Foundation walked down Penn Street to see the Cups of Compassion event sponsored, in part, by the BIG Vision Foundation. We spend a lot of time at the Community Foundation thinking about fixing root causes and systemic solutions. And we should. That’s why our donors entrust assets to us.
But it is also heartening to see the community come together around a simpler proposition: For one day, at least, let’s provide a free meal to anyone who wants it. Let’s let anyone who is in need pick from some free piles of clothing. No questions of asked. It’s simply a gesture of, well, compassion.
This year, organizers thought that they’d likely serve meals and clothing to about 2,000 people and seemed to be on track to do so. It’s an all-volunteer initiative, no fancy offices or complex organizational structure, just a community of Americans banding together to make life a little better, at least for one day.
For all the challenges we face as a nation and a community, we still care about each other.
The big news at the end of the year was the announcement of $1 million in outright grants and a $500,000 matching grant from the BB&T Economic Growth Fund of Berks County Community Foundation. That’s a big deal in any community and a huge deal in a small town like Boyertown.
But having had a front row seat to how it got there, I don’t think that these grants were the biggest accomplishment in Boyertown this year. I think their biggest accomplishment was developing a plan that attracted those funds. That, too, was spurred by a grant from the BB&T Fund at the Community Foundation to Building a Better Boyertown, the borough’s Main Street management organization.
Boyertown is a charming little place, pretty much disconnected physically and culturally from the rest of Berks County. The most natural flow of activity there is more likely to be to Pottstown than Reading and they like to do their own thing. And they are really good at it. The town has developed rich amenities like the Colebrookdale Railroad (if you don’t have a kid, borrow one and go for a ride), the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles, and the historic State Theater.
Like most communities, however, it was better at doing things than at strategizing about what to do. Seeing the opportunity that the BB&T Fund presented, Building a Better Boyertown led a community-wide effort to define a vision for the future and a plan to get there. A renewed focus on downtown revitalization, strengthening the role of the railroad, and promoting tourism is going to serve Boyertown very well as it seeks to reinvent itself for a new economy.
Seeing a whole community come together to think through its future, to listen to their neighbors and to agree on what they want to do for a next generation is a great experience. There’s real hope for the future in Boyertown.
The Conrad Weiser Science Research Institute
I probably shouldn’t list this program as they’re already struggling a bit with the attention that’s been brought to them, but I can’t help it. The Conrad Weiser School District is a small, rural district right on the edge of the county. While they probably hate me saying it, their high school looks like most of the other high schools in the county and never really stood out as special in my mind, except that I knew they had a really good FFA program.
Then, I visited the science program. There, under the guidance of three stunningly talented teachers, I discovered high school students analyzing the brains of fruit flies, experimenting with new forms of glass to create custom bandages and, more recently, talking to the Lamborghini automobile company about an idea for suppressing flames in a car engine. I’ve become a regular visitor out there and each time I meet a new student exploring the outer boundaries of some scientific question. Since I was never a science guy, I took a legitimate science expert out to visit. Jacque Fetrow, the new president of Albright College, has a PhD in Biochemistry. I asked her to tell me if I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. Her verdict: This is the real deal.
Beating up on public education has become a national pastime in our country. A lamentable one, and one with awful consequences, but it’s one of the favorite things for pandering politicians and grumpy taxpayer groups to do. And, of course, it’s not a perfect system.
But there are examples, like the Conrad Weiser Science Research Institute, of incredible things happening in our public schools. The students there are so turned on by the work they’re doing that they beg for nights, weekends and time in the summer to spend in the labs. Ten times a week, somebody lectures me about the need for “STEM workers” (a subject for another day) and we have a small rural high school with science labs packed to the gills with kids doing work we’d expect to find going on at a research university.
The commitment of the teachers and the effect on the students is reason for hope. It’s not the next generation we should be worrying about!!
Soon enough, I’ll be back from a brief vacation to worry about this problem that isn’t being addressed or that organization that’s struggling. But all around Berks County, our residents, our public servants, and even our children are finding reasons to give us hope for the future.
Happy New Year! Here’s to a great 2018 (unless you’re a fruit fly in the Conrad Weiser area).
Kevin K. Murphy, President
Berks County Community Foundation