Smart Thinking

Brainy Swarthmore is out to be the region’s most progressive borough.

Swarthmore may have the country’s only mayor—Eck Gerner—who can literally draw blood with his hearty handshake.

Swarthmore mayor Eck Gerner (Photo by Jared Castaldi)“He’s trying to get blood out of me all the time,” jests Brian Craig, the borough’s police chief.

Spend a day in Swarthmore, however, and there’s certainly no blood-letting at the parking meter. A quarter gets you five hours outside Borough Hall, a building shared with Swarthmore’s public library on Park Avenue. Nearby are streets with academically themed names like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth.

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So what’s so smart about Swarthmore? Is it the street names? Is it that 46 percent of its residents have post-graduate degrees (according to the last Census)? Or that it’s home to world-class Swarthmore College, with its own arboretum?

Or is it the local library’s stat sheet? Director Sharon Ford says her branch has the highest per capita borrowing figure in the tri-county area (12.5), and that 25 percent of all books loaned each year—120,000—go to those outside the community. “We are a draw,” Ford concludes.

Swarthmore is at the tail end of a 10-year town vitalization—as opposed to revitalization—plan. After all, the borough was vital even before the Swarthmore Town Center, Inc. task force formed in 1999. Of the more than 30 “action areas,” many have been implemented, while
others are moving forward.

Borough manager Jane Billings, a grant-writer extraordinaire, says it’s smart for a small town to be progressive, to plan for an ever-changing future, to always do your homework and ask questions. As an aside, she admits that she completes the Philadelphia Inquirer’s crossword puzzle every day. “Does that make me smart?” she asks.

Billings grew up in Berkeley, Calif., which has a reputation for its brains, too. But she says it lacked the sense of community that spills over in Swarthmore. “For a lot of people, this is their first suburban stop,” says Billings.

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Craig, a Roxborough native, retired as a Philadelphia police captain to take the Swarthmore position. He has a master’s degree. The eight officers in his department are smart, too. The last two hires, John Stilwell and Anthony Aloi, have bachelor’s degrees to start. Sgt. Bill Thomas is a Swarthmore history buff.

The fire department has two full-time employees but 85 to 90 volunteers, including 30 Swarthmore College students. When they graduate, they ride in a truck from the firehouse to the ceremony.

Larry Luder has been president of the fire company for the past 30 years. Like the mayor, he was born and raised in Swarthmore. “Everything about this town is special,” Luder says. “It’s the way we interact, the community’s self-esteem, the college. When I married, I brought my wife here.”

Gerner told his wife she could live anywhere she wanted. “But I was going to live here,” says the two-time councilman, whose second four-year mayoral term ends in January.

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That small-town feel—often a cliché elsewhere—is tangible in Swarthmore, which celebrated its centennial in 1993. The borough’s population hovers at 6,170. That includes the 1,400 students at the 357-acre college whose land makes up about 40 percent of the borough.

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When the weather cooperates, Susan Kelly can be found on her old-fashioned bicycle with the handlebar basket. Her errands typically include stops at the bank, the post office and the co-op for groceries. A member of the town’s Environmental Advisory Council, she’s largely responsible for a grant-inspired planting program at the 5-acre Little Crum Creek Park, where gradual improvements have been underway. This fall, pledges for 20 native trees along Yale Avenue helped improve the streetscape by the park.

The borough’s 20-year-old recycling center has been open to—and a model for—other communities. In 2010, the borough will change its trash and recycling schedules. Trash will be collected once a week rather than twice. Recycling will move to a weekly schedule, as opposed to every other week. It remains to be seen whether this is a smart move.

“We’re doing this to reduce the number of collections per household, thereby reducing consumption of fossil fuel and emission of greenhouse gases, and to encourage recycling,” Billings says.

Swarthmore may very well lead the nation in the per capita number of barrels used for collecting rainwater off roofs. It’s also been approached by Smart Power about a campaign to add even more solar panels on roofs in town, and its borough hall has already gone solar.

And there’s growth in Swarthmore, even in down economic times. New businesses have emerged. Years ago, the dining scene was comprised of the Inglenook Restaurant and the Dew Drop Inn. Now, there are 11 eateries and a coffee shop to go with three B&Bs. By March 2010, a new Italian bistro is expected.

Scott and Theresa Richardson are in their 20th year helming the Occasionally Yours catering business. Before their leap of faith, they’d never heard of Swarthmore—except in the Mamas & the Papas song “Creeque Alley.” (“Mama Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore/But she changed her mind one day.”)

“I’m glad my children were born and raised here,” says Scott, who is president of Swarthmore’s parks and recreation committee and sits on Town Center Inc.’s board of directors. “We have no plans of going anywhere else.”

David Burnett feels the same way. “You should never say never, but my goal is to never leave,” he says. “There’s such a strong sense of community—and what a great place to raise children. It’s a great place to raise adults.”

Swarthmore has a feel similar to Burnett’s native Tarboro, N.C. The one crucial difference: “Everyone here can read,” he says.

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Burnett first moved to the area 15 years ago, lasted for nine months in Ardmore, then moved to Swarthmore. As Burnett’s 8-year-old daughter gets older, he sleeps better knowing she’ll always have “100 [protective] sets of eyes on her.”

As for how he managed to fit in as a steel pipe and tube salesman—a “not that romantic” profession—it didn’t take all that long.

“I’m not teaching genetics at the college and writing about fruit flies or anything,” Burnett says. “At first, everyone asked what I did. When I said I sold steel pipe, you could see their eyes roll. Then they found out I’d just returned from two business trips to Hawaii and Palm Springs, Fla.”

It’s not smart to brag, and largely Swarthmore doesn’t. No one classifies anyone else as the smartest or richest—or dumbest or poorest, for that matter. “I think people are even reluctant to let others know how educated they are,” says borough manager Billings.

Sure, Swarthmore boasts some important names. Daniel Hoffman is a former U.S. poet laureate. Dick Hoot played for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, and his father worked with the Wright brothers. Doctors, lawyers, scientists and other professionals are associated with the town. “[But] there’s a tendency toward equalization,” says Billings.

“We encourage community participation,” adds Town Center coordinator Marty Spiegel. “Around the country, we’re losing so many small towns. If you read the social science textbooks about what builds and connects a town’s sustainability, Swarthmore is a picture postcard. If you take the percentage of people in Swarthmore who volunteer, it’s phenomenally large.”

The library has four paid employees and 50 volunteers, including the mayor’s wife. And when his mayoral term ends, her husband will remain treasurer of the Swarthmore Borough Authority, which issues tax-exempt, publicly traded debt on behalf of Swarthmore College. He’ll also stay on as a trustee and treasurer of the Swarthmore Centennial Foundation, and treasurer of both the Swarthmore Historical Society and Friends of the Swarthmore Historical Society.

“It’s smart to run a community on volunteers,” says Mayor Gerner, who has an undergraduate degree in management from the University of Miami and an MBA in finance from Temple University.

Probably the hottest topic of late is Swarthmore College’s proposal to build a small hotel next to the train station and Town Center. “Like most issues here, it’s been well vetted,” says Tom Huestis,
president of borough council.

Swarthmore has always been a dry town, so the plan for the hotel went to a voter referendum because of its proposed liquor license. It passed by less than 100 votes. Huestis calls approval in Swarthmore a “consensus process.”

The relationship between Swarthmore borough and the college is a symbiotic one. The campus—with its cultural, athletic, recreational and educational activities—is open to the community. “We’ve grown up together,” says Maurice Eldridge, the school’s vice president of college and community relations.

When asked about the “smart” label associated with Swarthmore, Eldridge offers the response you’d expect from an administrator at one of the country’s most selective colleges.

“Is it the level of stimulating conversation and interaction?” he poses. “Our students are phenomenal and never dull. They’re bright and oriented to making the world a better place. The initiative here is remarkable and resourceful.”

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