Montco commits $233M to county seat facelift

     Montgomery County Courthouse will get an addition as a part of Montgomery County's ambitious plan to spruce up Norristown. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Montgomery County Courthouse will get an addition as a part of Montgomery County's ambitious plan to spruce up Norristown. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Downtown Norristown is dominated by imposing structures holding government offices: the historic county courthouse, and the more utilitarian One Montgomery Place building, among others.

    The Montgomery County Commissioners voted recently to accept a $233-$276 million plan to revamp the crumbling facade of One Montgomery – which holds many administrative offices for the county – as well as undertake new construction that they say will transform the county seat.

    The plan, which has three phases, calls for renovating and building an addition to the courthouse, renovating the courthouse garage, sprucing up Penn Street and expanding Hancock Square, in addition to redoing One Montgomery Place.

    Some departments will be relocated as new space opens up, or as their buildings undergo renovations.

    Commissioner Josh Shapiro said he hopes the outlay of public dollars will attract more businesses to Norristown’s center.

    “Whether it’s restaurants, or condos, apartments, other things that are going to increasing the value of the land around here,” Shapiro said, the result should be “increasing economic opportunities.”

    Downtown Norristown has had trouble keeping restaurant tenants and attracting visitors, as county seats Media, Doylestown and West Chester do.

    Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, said the plan is consistent with their recommendation of developing “centers,” areas that attempt to leverage existing strengths, whether it be infrastructure or job centers, to encourage future growth.

    “Montgomery county, is the largest employer, the largest tenant, the largest property owner in the municipality,” he said, noting that the sheer footprint of government offices in Norristown could have a catalyzing effect.

    The end result, Seymour said, could be “much like Univeristy of Pennsylvania and now Drexel are the centers of West Philadelphia and are building out University City to be a community that works for a variety of people.”

    Seymour said just having a “critical mass” of people won’t be enough to spark additional development. Making the area inviting and convenient through streetscaping and visually interesting buildings can help attract foot traffic and investment, he said.

    Bridging the divide between residents and visitors to the government campus is a key goal of the project, according to Shapiro.”Right now, I think the county government is viewed as a big tenant in Norristown,” he said.”

    The project will be financed by a series of bonds, which Shapiro said will be staggered to avoid a sudden increase in the County’s debt load. $937,000 is earmarked for design and engineering in 2016 and shovels could hit the dirt as early as 2017.

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