Chester County 2020 has been busy these days. This fall, its offices moved from West Chester to Kennett Square while emerging from under the umbrella of the Chester County Community Foundation as its own nonprofit. Its monthly meetings now run without a hitch. Executive director Nancy Mohr arrives with scones those Thursday mornings, and Coatesville City Hall provides the coffee. That’s a modest partnership when compared to the shared commitment Chester County 2020 is inspiring throughout the region.
All over Chester County there are tangible byproducts of its communities working together. And CC2020’s direct involvement speaks to real accomplishments and change. A commitment to multi-municipal cooperation and planning in the boroughs of South Coatesville and Modena has led to the scheduled removal of blighted buildings and plans for a town center. Open discussion between Coatesville and Valley Township has paved the way for the long-anticipated Brandywine Riverwalk Trail. And six neighboring municipalities along the Route 1 corridor are addressing transportation and land planning issues in advance of the expected traffic congestion.
Meanwhile, in Kennett Square, “Community Conversations” were held in September and October to solicit ideas from the community for the borough’s library expansion. And with CC2020’s input, citizen groups in East Fallowfield, Pennsbury and West Bradford townships have developed websites and e-mail services to augment the sharing of accurate information and spur increased attendance at municipal meetings.
Elsewhere, last month marked the first of three classes in a program designed to educate municipal volunteers and residents alike in planning regulation and code. The instruction comes in partnership with the Chester County Planning Commission, West Chester University and the Chester County Association of Township Officials. And on Feb. 21, “Keep Farming First,” CC2020’s annual farm and conservation conference, comes to Octorara Area High School off Route 41, in the middle of Chester County’s agricultural preservation district. The event has sparked an increasing interest in the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” movement at the heart of the continued economic viability of the local farm industry.
CC2020’s proposed budget for next year is $354,000. The money comes from donations, state community and economic development grants, foundations, and annual corporate sponsors. Yet Mohr freely admits that the group is better at “friend raising” than fund-raising. Last October, they held a circus benefit and convinced Suzanne Roberts, star of CNN’s Seeking Solutions with Suzanne, to dress up as a clown. Former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil and his wife, Carol, are enormous catalysts for—and contributors to—CC2020.
“With the corporate sponsors, if they buy in, they’ll stay with us,” Mohr says. “This is all for their benefit and the benefit of their employees who have come to Chester County for its quality of life.”
And they’re coming in droves. The county has witnessed an influx of 50,000 new residents since 2000. This, in large part, has triggered the “Community Conversations,” where simplification is the guideword; no one studies maps, uses complex terminology or calls anything a task. Residents who didn’t even know they were neighbors sit side-by-side with officials to express their concerns, hopes and fears, reinventing democracy session by session as each community works to solve its own issues. One evening’s efforts hardly exhaust anyone’s schedule, and boxed suppers ensure no one leaves hungry.
Founded in 1996 with a mission of supporting Landscapes, the county’s nationally respected comprehensive plan, Chester County 2020 initially centered around a land trust alliance, unifying agricultural interests, natural landscapes and stream riparian buffer protection. Now its “Community Conversation” reports are helping shape policy for the 10-year review of Landscapes known as Landscapes2.
“The difference between CC2020 then and now is that it has finally morphed into an organization that makes things happen,” says Burt Rothenberger, a former chair of its board of advisors. “The integrity and drive to improve the quality of life in Chester County, without regard for politics, is what allows CC2020 to help folks tackle difficult and contentious issues, and makes people listen.”
In early 2002, with the county’s open space and farmland preservation programs flourishing around the Brandywine watershed, Chester County 2020 turned to addressing livable communities as another means of preserving critical natural resources. CC2020’s various summits and “Conversations” have since become a branded means of working with the wide range of diversity across the county.
“Observing productive dialogue evolve into solutions and action plans—watching people discover the excitement of cooperation, leaving contention far behind and rediscovering a sense of community—is so rewarding for everyone involved,” Mohr says. “Preconceptions and misconceptions dissolve as we help communities take steps that fly in the face of ‘just letting things happen.’ Every participant and partner becomes an ambassador for conversation, cooperation and conservation.”
Mohr believes the preservation of open space is inextricably linked to the towns and cities. Redevelopment, rather than new development, strengthens inner-ring suburbs and urban centers while preserving the outlying farmland. The investment in the “landscape of people” is the same as investing in saving the land. “Then no one builds in the cornfields,” she says.
These days, Mohr finds herself driving through neighborhoods where no one knows each other. Worse yet is a new trend: Because children bring school tax hikes, municipal officials are welcoming age-restricted communities rather than developments that support young families and affordable housing. “The trade-off is an erosion of generational diversity,” Mohr says. “A society of separateness is sprouting, dissolving connections that were once natural.”
To combat this trend, “Conversations” center on the respectful sharing of ideas, developing solutions based on the discovery of common ground and fostering a sense of community that may have been nonexistent at the outset.
Executive director of CC2020 since 2001, Mohr is hardly a novice to community action. She chaired the Chester County Task Force on Tax Reform from 1992 to 1999. She’s also worked as a consultant for the Brandywine Conserv-ancy to expand conservation easements in and around Unionville, and she’s a third-term member of the Chester County Planning Commission. “I have been very visible, but I don’t want this to be ‘Nancy Mohr 2020,’” she says. “Part of the transition to nonprofit status is that I can step back.”
At a June “Conversation” in Kennett Square, CC2020 consultants Mary Anna Ralph and George Fasic handled the meeting (with help from advisory board members) when Mohr couldn’t attend. The floor was first opened to anyone to raise an issue, with no topic out of bounds. The issues were then compiled into a list of bullet points and displayed on easels. Everyone in attendance was given five round stickers to put next to the most pressing topics. When the votes were tallied, each table in the room became a work group.
Among the issues of concern at the Kennett Square meeting: 26 acres of the former National Vulcanized Fiber complex. The land could be decontaminated and developed, contributing to the borough’s walkable urban center while reducing outer-edge sprawl.
“The whole evening there was a kind of calm, a respect,” says John B. “Jock” Hannum Jr., current chair of CC2020’s board of advisors. “It was a real A-to-Z of people in attendance, but everyone listened and was engaged in their community. We weren’t advocating; we were simply facilitating a process that’s in place to have people blend and work together.”
Often, it’s hard to convince people that such a constructive event can happen, Mohr says. Until it actually happens.
“You can describe it, but you really have to experience it,” she says. “If anyone goes in with skepticism, it doesn’t survive.”
If there was a session that could’ve been contentious, it was one last year in East Fallowfield, a township outside Coatesville that’s sometimes called East Battlefield. “I couldn’t separate husbands from wives,” Mohr recalls. “Others said they didn’t know anyone else. I was having a hard time heading up the natives.”
But as the evening went on, “the energy kept rolling and building,” says Mohr. “At the end, one gentleman stood up and said, ‘When I came tonight, I didn’t belong to a community—but now I do.’”
To learn more about CC2020, call (610) 925-0900 or visit cc2020.org.