Hunt writer Sharon Hernes Silverman interviews Malcolm Johnstone, Executive Director of the West Chester Business Improvement District (BID), on what’s happening in his fair city.
Q: What exciting developments are on the horizon for West Chester?
A: Every downtown manager wishes for a hotel. We’ve been talking about it for years, and now we’re almost there. Two high-quality properties are in the works. One proposal, from Zukin Realty, Inc., is for a 100- to 120-room hotel, part of a national chain, at Walnut and Gay Streets.
The other is for a 90-room hotel where the old Warner Theater was, at High and Chestnut Streets. Brian McFadden and the McFadden Group, Inc. are going to keep the Art Deco façade and lobby. The Warner Hotel will be associated with Historic Hotels of America and Sterling Hotels. This one will probably break ground first.
Q: Tell me about the popular ghost tours you host in the fall.
A: It’s a subset of a living history program I”m involved with. I take on the persona of Jesse Fell, an abolitionist and campaigner who helped talk Abraham Lincoln into running for president. Lincoln gave some handwritten notes to Fell, who expanded on them and provided them to Joseph Lewis. Lewis underwrote the publication of the first biography of Lincoln, printed in the building that housed The Chester County Times, now known as the Lincoln Building.
The tours are a lot of fun. I dress in costume, get to use my “outside voice,” and talk in lofty tones about huge concepts. When it comes to historical features, I do my research and try to be as accurate as possible. Every block has some connection to the past.
Q: Keeping a small town clean can be a challenge. What’s being done to combat the blight of cigarette butts, the most littered item in America?
A: You have to change the sociology and educate people to understand that cigarette butts are litter. We’ve actually been working on this with Keep America Beautiful’s Cigarette Litter Prevention program. We distributed 5,000 pocket ashtrays for free. Our approach is to offer people an alternative to tossing their cigarettes onto the ground.
We’ve also been working closely with restaurant owners and managers. Restaurants have purchased urns for cigarette butt disposal. The BID has a staff person who helps clean up. We want to teach people that it is not acceptable to throw any kind of trash on the sidewalk.
Q: Is the BID promoting any particular technology for its members?
A: We have agreed to participate in 7Mainstreet.com, a web site that provides resources at little or no cost, things that the BID does not provide. They focus on retail and restaurants, and offer e-commerce, networking, and other business functions. Other BIDs in the region participate. We’re committed to training people how to use the product. We hope 7Mainstreet will help local businesses” online presence to be more productive for them.
Q: I’ve had the privilege of hearing you play classical guitar. Are you still performing?
A. A while back, Chester County Night School asked if I would do a guitar recital, so I put together a nice little program, “Five Hundred Years of Guitar Music.” I was practicing, wondering how it would go and whether I could still do this. All musicians are looking for that groove. When I don’t achieve it, I suffer. The performance was held at my wife’s tearoom in The Lincoln Room, a little soiree in an intimate venue. It went so well that one woman told me that I should quit my day job!
Q: That’s a well-deserved compliment. You’re not going to quit your BID job, are you?
Q:You’re from California. What do you miss about that region, and what do you love about this area?
A. When I grew up in Santa Barbara, I was able to go to the beach every day. The West Coast does have this great energy, you’re outside, you’re socializing in a little more casual, dynamic way. I went to school in San Francisco and then lived in Oregon. I love the topography of the West Coast: Mountains. The ocean. The sense of lots of different environmentally friendly efforts.
But the East Coast is the heart of America. My office is in a building built in 1840. There is a rich sense of history here that will never be seen on the West Coast. We have that connection to our nation’s roots, to the founding of the nation. We get to live amongst it.
For information about The Lincoln Room events, including ghost tours, living history tours, and recitals, visit www.lincolnroomwestchester.com. For information about the West Chester Business Improvement District, visit