Historic Downtown West Chester Abuzz with Shopping, Dining and Business

By Angela Wibking on April 28, 2011 at 11:16 am EST
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Downtown West Chester encompasses less than two square miles‚ yet it boasts enough restaurants to dine at a different place almost every day of the month. As the seat of Chester County‚ downtown West Chester is filled with law firms‚ government offices and financial institutions. Yet one can still shop for life’s little necessities in more than 60 shops‚ most of them privately owned.

Downtown is so architecturally rich that the entire area is on the National Register of Historic Places – yet the 18‚000 people who live downtown make it feel more like Main Street U.S.A. than a museum. In short‚ downtown West Chester is a place where big-city bustle and small-town style come together in a way few other cities its size can match.

“The downtown has a hometown quality to it‚” agrees Malcolm Johnstone‚ executive director of the Downtown West Chester Business Improvement District‚ an organization dedicated to revitalization and economic development. “You can walk from one end to the other and have a pleasant stroll past a large and diversified inventory of home-owned businesses.” The primary shopping areas along Gay‚ High and Market streets boast an array of art galleries‚ antique stores‚ jewelers‚ gift shops‚ coffeehouses and apparel stores. There are also more than two dozen restaurants‚ including several fine-dining establishments that are regularly and glowingly reviewed in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

To ensure that downtown development continues‚ the Business Improvement District has funded a number of initiatives. The district has also developed a system of signs designed to encourage people to use off-street parking lots and garages in an effort to alleviate traffic congestion and free up on-street parking for shoppers. Plans are in the works to construct informational kiosks in the downtown parking garages that will offer visitors ideas on what to do and how to get around in the downtown.

Downtown West Chester has been the heartbeat of the region for hundreds of years‚ according to area historian Paul Rodebaugh. “It was originally just a rural crossroads where High and Gay streets now come together‚” Rodebaugh says. “It really began to grow in 1786 when West Chester became the county seat.”

The elegant Chester County Courthouse‚ designed by noted 19th-century architect Thomas U. Walter in 1847‚ is the Greek Revival masterpiece that anchors the downtown today.

“West Chester was known as the Athens of Pennsylvania because of its Greek Revival buildings‚ its many private schools and learned organizations like the Academy of Natural Sciences‚” Rodebaugh says.

The city also welcomed the State Normal School in 1871‚ an institution of higher learning that eventually became West Chester University of Pennsylvania. The university continues to have great cultural impact today‚ bringing noted speakers and acclaimed performing arts groups to the community.

Jazz and comedy clubs‚ as well as annual music and entertainment festivals like Swingin’ Summer Thursdays‚ lend a lively modern twist.

“I’ve always enjoyed being downtown‚” says John Featherman‚ a partner in MacElree‚ Harvey Ltd. since 1969. Though the 135-year-old law firm briefly considered moving away from downtown‚ Featherman says the firm opted to open satellite offices around the region instead. Since 1972 MacElree‚ Harvey has operated out of a renovated 19th-century building that was once a livery stable. “There’s a drugstore‚ a hardware store‚ jewelry shops‚ restaurants and coffeehouses – and I can walk to all of them from my office‚” Featherman adds.

While all business types are welcome in the downtown‚ leaders of the Business Improvement District are targeting retail apparel‚ art and gift categories.

Improvement district plans call for an aggressive business recruitment effort that includes a downtown informational packet and Web site (www.westchesterbid.com). Most importantly‚ according to Johnstone‚ the improvement district staff acts as a clearinghouse for business resources‚ including grants for facade improvements and technical assistance.

“Only about one-third of the businesses downtown are retail now‚” says Johnstone. “The rest are professional or government. But the retail segment is the most visible. A healthy mix of diverse and interesting restaurants and shops define a downtown as a shopping destination and an alternative to the mega-malls. I think we are achieving that.”

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