July 08, 2019
Bridgeport’s time to shine may have finally arrived.
The tiny, blue-collar Montgomery County borough in the shadow of county seat Norristown and economic behemoth King of Prussia has long waited to be discovered by new residents and businesses looking for a place to plant their proverbial flags.
Now, after a rollercoaster couple of years – from a high of electing Bridgeport’s first-ever openly gay African-American mayor to a low when that official faced death threats and racial attacks, sparking negative attention about the controversy – the town seems poised for its big breakthrough.
During the political upheaval, though, real estate values rose, with many first-time buyers drawn by affordable homes and access to public transportation and highways settling in Bridgeport, an eight-tenths of a square-mile borough with fewer than 5,000 residents.
There's more positive signs. New businesses have opened up, including several along the prime real-estate “gateways” into the borough. They include the well-known Conshohocken Brewing Company’s Bridgeport Brewpub located on DeKalb Street just past the bridge over the Schuylkill River from Norristown.
That progress has clearly helped foster a feeling of positive momentum, spurred in part a changing of the guard in its political and law enforcement leadership.
The sense of progress was on display in recent weeks, and not just because of the highly popular Bridgeport Carnival, which brought people together from June 18 to 22.
You could hear it while talking to the relatively new Borough Council President Kyle Shenk and Councilman Tony Heyl, when they sat down for lunch at the long-established Bridgeport Rib House to talk about their visions for the town's future.
That positive push also came across in a conversation with Police Chief Todd Bereda, a man with longstanding personal ties to the community who took over late last year after a rift over “targeted policing” drove a wedge between his predecessor, Mark Shannon, and Mayor Mark Barbee.
“That’s the beautiful thing about Bridgeport: it’s always been a little gritty, but people stuck together." – Police Chief Todd Bereda
As Bereda laid out the tangible steps he’s taken to help bolster the relationship between his department, residents and children, it was impossible not to hear his sense of purpose.
It was also evident in talking with Michael Feinberg, who just opened a high-end, built-from-the-ground-up rock-climbing gym in his industrial park along East Fourth Street. That location makes it essentially the anchor, or first thing people see, when they enter Bridgeport from the southeast.
From Thursday to Sunday, Feinberg’s Reach Climbing and Fitness will host the Youth Climbing Sport and Speed National Championship, billed as the “largest climbing competition in the country.” It's the first time a national climbing event of such stature will be held in the Philadelphia region.
More than 800 competitors – not to mention their families – will descend upon the borough to compete in a gym that features, among other things, a 55-foot championship-difficulty wall, Olympic regulation speed wall and a new-car smell (the building has only been open for about a month).
Making it a potential springboard is the fact that competitive rock climbing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and Feinberg holds out hope that the Olympic trials could be held here as well.
“This event is crucial for those hoping to compete on the world’s stage,” he said. “We are truly honored to have been chosen to host this event.”
Reach Climbing and Fitness is nestled in an industrial park between Route 23, East Fourth Street and the Schuylkill River. The new building stands out among weathered buildings as a beacon of innovation in the area, the former home of a carpet factory and candy manufacturer.
Feinberg, 35, knows this area well. He’s been a part of the park’s ownership group – “it’s a family business,” he said – for many years.
Of the decision to build the 22,000-square-foot climbing gym at this very spot, he said last week that he’s noticed an influx of young families moving to the area, new residential construction and businesses coming to the borough.
“We like Bridgeport. We’ve always liked it here,” he said. “The park is part of the traditional base of Bridgeport, but this (gym) project helped us use it in an innovative way.”
The Harriton High School graduate has been drawn to climbing since his childhood, and long rued the lack of championship-level climbing gyms in the Philadelphia region.
“I always wanted a place in the area that could host large events like this,” he explained. “There was nothing we could retrofit that would work, so we had no choice but to build from the ground up. We thought that if we built from scratch, we’d have the best gym possible.”
After navigating the requisite red tape, construction started a year ago, with Reach opening to the public on June 1. It stands in contrast to other climbing gyms in the region just by sheer size and impressive features, namely the 55-foot wall that led USA Climbing to choose to have its event here.
“People are really excited about it. Everyone who’s come in seems to love it,” said Feinberg, noting that relationships he’d built over the years with USA Climbing as a competitor helped draw the event. “They’d always wanted to host an event in the region. When we shared our plans with them a year ago, they committed to us before we even opened.”
“There will be lines out the door for this. It’s great for the area. It puts us on the map." –Michael Feinberg, rock climbing gym owner
Aside from helping get his gym established, he was excited about the impact some 1,000 people coming to the tiny borough would have on local businesses – and Bridgeport’s name recognition.
The public is welcome to attend, with Thursday and Friday being free and a $10 admission charge on Saturday and Sunday.
“There will be lines out the door for this,” he said. “It’s great for the area. It puts us on the map. All the shirts will say ‘National Championships, Bridgeport 2019.’ It’s a great feeling and a great thing for the area.”
While a single niche event can't spur community revitalization on its own, this week’s championship in Bridgeport can serve that role, if only symbolically.
Dr. Ray Abdallah, a local chiropractor who serves as president of the Bridgeport Business Association, has been here since November 1993. He agreed the event is a sign of growth in a place that’s trending upward.
He points to development like the climbing gym, the brew pub, a new animal hospital and the like – coupled with growing enthusiasm for events like the carnival, a best-pizza contest and fireworks in November – as evidence of great things to come.
“Bridgeport is near and dear to my heart. It’s a nice little town and we’re on the cusp of something great,” he said. “As a business association, what we try to do is encourage businesses in town to prosper and succeed. We’re perfectly located. There’s highways all over. It’s ripe for the picking.”
From their vantage points on borough council, Shenk and Heyl have sensed the same dynamics at play. Sure, they saw negative headlines rain down on the municipality in the past year, but much of these plans were in the works before then, and the negative news did little to slow the growth.
The carnival took the place of the longstanding Italian Festival, and was a rousing success in its third iteration. Business development at the entrances to town give a good first impression to those passing through, stopping by for a visit or coming home.
“There was no real tipping point,” Heyl said over lunch at the Bridgeport Rib House, a place that’s quietly one of the best bang-for-the-buck music venues and eateries around. “These things would’ve happened one way or another.”
With fresh leadership at borough hall – specifically in the police department – and the energy of a new principal at Bridgeport Elementary School, there’s a widespread belief that it’s Bridgeport’s turn to blossom along the Schuylkill River waterfront.
The rise in housing values, among the highest seen in Montgomery County, hasn’t resulted in people getting forced out.
Rather, coupled with access to SEPTA's Regional Rail lines and other amenities that help Bridgeport retain a small-town feel so close to a major city, it’s attracted first-time home buyers to plant roots.
In addition to the rock gym, they boast of the arrivals of a new veterinary hospital, numerous restaurants (including Mexican and Filipino cuisine) and a bike shop.
Proximity to the Schuylkill River Trail, and recent investment in new ramps for kayaks, haven’t hurt, either.
There’s also very little pushback from old-timers, they said, chalking that up to a governmental approach that always considers how new businesses will mesh with “what Bridgeport wants,” and asking “how can we make it happen” instead of putting up bureaucratic hurdles.
“There’s a very optimistic feeling here,” Shenk said. “We’re not here to say ‘We’re councilmembers.’ We just want the borough to be the best it can be.”
They point to Bereda as a perfect example of that mindset.
Coming over from the Tredyffrin Township Police Department, where he was a detective-sergeant, he's from a family with long ties to both local law enforcement and the borough.
He admitted some concern about the negative stories that preceded his arrival, but that was far outweighed by his family ties.
He ticks off the names of Bridgeport streets where his family lived after emigrating here in the 1800s. He grew up going to borough events and eating at its restaurants. In other words, it was a personal mission, not a job grab.
“You can go from one easy position to another, and think, ‘Well, I’m safe.’ I had the desire to go somewhere and make a difference, not to get paid,” he said last week. “It’s really easy to do a job if you love people the way I do. It’s more than a job. People know sincerity when they see it. You need a positive attitude to connect with people.”
Bereda put that philosophy to work as soon as he was hired, showing up at the Wawa near borough hall to buy coffee for residents – and get to know them personally.
“They’re not used to getting something without a hitch: a ‘scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ kind of thing,” he said. “I don’t know how much I’ve spent on coffee, maybe a few hundred bucks, but it’s enabled people to get to know me, it makes me approachable so they feel as if they can come talk to me about their real problems, and you can’t put a price on what the return on that is.”
That’s not to say it’s all peace, love and harmony. He said he had to arrest someone he saw snorting cocaine in the court’s parking lot recently, and he mentioned stepped-up traffic enforcement after a pedestrian was struck by a vehicle.
“We started sitting on that intersection and numerous vehicles were pulled over. Enforcement was up five- or six-fold. People could see that something’s being done, that we're not just about talk,” Bereda said. “You know what happened after that? People started having more respect for each other.
“Over a couple months, people started paying more attention, and that made the streets safer for our kids. We’re not getting a bunch of complaints about police officers because of enforcement. What we’re getting is a lot of ‘thank you’s.’”
Then, he said something that echoed the words of the politicians: “That’s the beautiful thing about Bridgeport: it’s always been a little gritty, but people stuck together. There are so many good things about Bridgeport, and people pulling together is among them.”
It’s that feeling of community pervading all the recent moves.
They say they’ll move forward in the same vein even as brand new homes come with a $400,000 price tag and work begins with the Montgomery County Planning Commission on a long-term plan to help the borough develop along the waterfront.
That 20- to 30-year plan could bring about a Bridgeport that looks substantially different from today, but there is confidence that the heart and soul of the place will be preserved.
As lunch was wrapping up, Melissa Navitsky stopped by the table. She’s a career bartender who – when the Rib House’s previous owner decided to sell recently – bought in.
A native of Shenandoah, Schuylkill County, she said Bridgeport reminds her of the sleepy small-town feeling there, particularly in how neighbors helped neighbors.
“That echoes what we were just talking about before you came over,” Shenk said. “We’re all in this together.”
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