By Holly Herman
Published from The Reading Eagle
POTTSTOWN, PA– Wearing a white hard hat, state Sen. Bob Mensch swung a sledgehammer and punched a big hole in a wall at the Beech Street Factory.
“I am used to splitting wood,” the Montgomery County Republican joked, after being the first of about a dozen federal, state and local officials to put a hole in the ceremonial wall.
The celebration Friday marked the start of construction of the $14 million Beech Street Factory project at the former Fecera’s furniture warehouse at Beech and Evans streets in Pottstown. The vacant building will be converted into apartments and an art studio.
“I have a wood-burning stove in my house, and I played a lot of golf and sports,” Mensch continued, as the others waited their turn to hit the wall. More than 100 spectators watched, some snapping photos with their cellphones.
“We are celebrating three years of planning,” Ben Lockwood, vice president of business development for Housing Visions, Syracuse, N.Y., told the crowd. “We are so excited. This has been a long time coming.”
Lockwood said his agency worked with Housing Visions and Genesis Housing, Norristown, to obtain funding for the project.
In August, the nonprofits received $11.6 million in tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Financing Agency, which allows developers to invest in tax-free, affordable apartments. The remaining $2.4 million is coming from county, state and federal funding.
Mensch was pleased that the project to convert the warehouse into 43 apartments will include six for mentally challenged individuals.
“Housing for people with special needs is critical,” Mensch said.
When the project is finished in February, there also will be space for ArtFusion 19464, a Pottstown art gallery and school currently located on High Street.
The construction actually began about three weeks ago with crews clearing out the 60,000-square-foot warehouse built in 1912 to house the Leibowitz Shirt Factory.
Blighted properties at 173 and 175 N. Evans St. across from the building were demolished to make way for parking.
U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, a Chester County Republican, said that when he was practicing law in Pottstown years ago, he was working with clients on the possibility of developing the property.
“This is a beautiful town,” Costello said. “It’s exciting to see this project come to fruition.”
Dan Weand, Pottstown Borough Council president, said he can remember shopping for furniture at Fecera’s with his wife when they moved to the borough in 1978.
“It was unfortunate that the furniture store moved out,” he said of the building that has been vacant for 12 years. “We have been working on this project for years.”
Pottstown Mayor Sharon Valentine-Thomas said the project is a great opportunity for more people to live in and visit the borough.
“I see this building as a beacon of hope for the borough,” she said.
Real estate investment service Investors Enterprise Community Partners, Columbia, Md., is providing the funding for the tax credits, and McDonald Building Co., Norristown, is the general contractor.