Alex Oliphant's one-man crusade

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By Brian Garner

You might call what Chester County councilman and prominent businessman Alex Oliphant is doing to bring attention to blighted properties in Chester a one-man crusade, but this is a cause he hopes others will take up the banner for.

Oliphant has long been a vocal critic of Doing Something about derelict and abandoned properties in Chester. He has tried to lead by example by demolishing the old Thomas & Howard building, taken part in overseeing the demolition and removal of the old Springsteen mill and is currently renovating the penthouse apartment in the Wylie Building (where the Summit is located) and renovating the depot building. He has also renovated at least seven buildings in downtown Chester. By pumping funds into so many renovations and demolitions, he has literally put his money where his mouth is.

Now Oliphant has started a Facebook page called “Change Chester” where he posts pictures of derelict buildings that need attention (either from private owners or action by local government) and invites other citizens to do the same.

Why is he doing this? What drives him? From the rooftop of the Wiley Building and from inside the penthouse apartment he is renovating, Oliphant answered some of those questions posed by The N&R.

He believes, “a community’s legacy should be when you leave it, you leave behind a better community for your children. We have not done that here very well, and the buildings continue to deteriorate.”

At the recent Chester TalkBack session, where residents could bring their comments and concerns to local officials, regarding derelict buildings, Oliphant said, “Curb appeal is important for the livelihood of our community, for every reason – for economic development, for your spiritual mindset and your physical health. If you walk outside and you see two or three big houses…that are crumbling and that’s all you see, you get used to it. We still have some houses in both the city and the county that are far gone and are sitting there. We need to take all of our neighborhoods back.”

Looking over Chester from the rooftop of the Wiley Building, Oliphant continued on this theme.

“Right now we have the perfect opportunity, the perfect storm for Chester because of all the new industry coming in. This should be the time that we shine, so that we have the opportunity to capture some of those people that we need that have extra resources that can help the rest of us out,” he said.

“You want to attract those folks in upper management of those new industries. We need them to want to come live here and help us change this community,” he said.

To the comment that there are not a lot of places in Chester for such people to live, Oliphant said there are many historic homes that could provide houses.

“But those people don’t want to come here, when they ride down the streets and see dilapidated housing. We have such a unique inventory of historic properties, both downtown and in the surrounding area. There’s no reason that every single neighborhood can’t be vibrant.”

Most if not all of the properties that Oliphant has posted to his Change Chester photo album on Facebook are vacant. Oliphant says he is not in favor of taking someone’s house that may be in poor condition, if there are people living in it. In those cases, he advocated the community coming together and try to help lift those people up.

“I’m only talking about these houses that are beyond repair, and a portion of the ones, maybe half of them, the bulldozer’s going to have to get them,” he said. Some of the homes could be saved, he said.

The mechanism for removing some of these homes is local government action, Oliphant believes.

“The nuisance abatement ordinances give us the tools we need to help motivate the owners to help bring those properties back. You do that with fining people. If you start dropping some fines on some people (for violating the nuisance abatement ordinances), then they will either clean the property up, demolish it if they need to or they will put it up for sale and get someone else to take it. There are ways to motivate people; you can send all the letters (notifying them about violations of the ordinance) you want to, but if you don’t go through the correct process, you’re wasting your time. And if you send letters to people but don’t back it up (with action) it has no meaning,” he said.

Both the City of Chester and Chester County have ordinances and procedures in place for dealing with derelict properties, Oliphant points out.

“I’m not singling out the City of Chester, it just happens to have a concentration of these buildings. We have them in the county, too. Since I’ve been on council I’ve been involved in taking down at least 40 structures that were dilapidated. The majority of those were in the city,” he said.

“The city and the county have participated and worked together, and we’ve made some pretty good progress; we just need to finish it off. The city will continue to flounder, unless we do something different.”

Oliphant says putting the derelict properties on Facebook has brought some awareness to the issue.

“I’m not through doing that, either,” he promises. “I’ve only received one pushback comment and that was from a local official,” he said.

“A lot of these properties are owned by people that have the means and the resources to deal with them, and to me, that’s when it really becomes shameful – when people actually have the means and they have properties that they let deteriorate. That’s like stealing from the whole community.”

He added, “We are falling way short here, and we can just do better. If we want to end up being a donut of poverty and dilapidated housing in the middle of a prosperous area, then that’s not acceptable and doesn’t help anybody.”

“I’m not trying to infringe on anybody’s rights, but when you let your property fall in and it takes value from the rest of the community, it’s a problem.”

He encourages citizens who are fed up with dilapidated buildings in their neighborhoods to go to their council meetings and tell the local officials “You want your community cleaned up. You’re tired of seeing it like this, it’s detracting from your life, and you want it cleaned up.”

“We’re not looking at millions of dollars here; we have resources in the county and the city and the city can partner with the county. We have places to put the debris and we can do this thing on the cheap. We just need to do it.”

Oliphant believes demolishing or repairing just one of those homes can have a positive “domino effect” on the others.

“What I have found numerous times is when you do go into a neighborhood or a street and you paint a house or you start enforcing the ordinances and get them cleaned up the neighbor next to that house will paint his house and the next thing you know, it will mushroom. And that’s what would happen here.”

Oliphant’s voice turns wistful as he describes his vision for what the city of Chester could be as “a prosperous, clean, healthy pretty little town on the hill. A vibrant town that has people walking up and down the street and there are little stores and where people don’t throw their garbage out on the street and kids can play outside at night without worrying about their safety.”

Achieving that vision may be a one-man crusade, or it may feel like a one-man crusade at times, but Oliphant is just the one man to do it.