Kennett Square postcard

A postcard of East State Street in Kennett Square.

“Resilient communities tend to have three things in common,”says Historic Kennett Square Executive Director Bo Wright, “and Kennett Square has all three of these attributes.”

The community’s resilience goes back to its very beginnings. In 1735, an entrepreneurial Englishman decided to build a tavern at the crossroads of the main routes between Philadelphia and Baltimore and Lancaster and Wilmington. The Unicorn Tavern, on the northwest corner of State and Union Streets, was the first public building in what would become the Borough of Kennett Square. In 1821, with eight residences, Kennett was one of the largest towns in the area. By 1853, its population had grown to about 300. Agricultural manufacturing, the railroad, and the rose and mushroom industries all helped Kennett to grow, as did local inventors who designed, among other things, the hay knife and the asbestos stove plate. Although there have been many changes on State Street over the years, it’s not a stretch to think that someone like the New York Yankees Hall of Fame pitcher Herb Pennock (1894–1948) would recognize his hometown today.

This is important, says Historic Kennett Square Executive Director Bo Wright, because it reflects the town’s human scale. While our forefathers probably would have called their approach to developing the town good old-fashioned common sense instead of “incremental growth,” it amounts to the same thing. “Resilient communities tend to have three things in common,” says Wright, “and the first is a walkable main street and a strong sense of place.”

Second, resilient communities have what Wright calls “stage two” businesses. “There are two types of businesses in Kennett, and they’re both important. Small independent businesses help impart a sense of place. Bigger, stage two businesses are also committed to the place and sell commodities outside the community and spend money in the community,” Wright says. The decisions, for example, of businessmen like Michael Walker, founder of Genesis HealthCare, and Mike Bontrager, founder of Chatham Financial, to locate their headquarters in Kennett Square have helped the local economy to thrive. Mushroom farms, Wright says, are another example of businesses that sell their products outside the community.

The third component of resilient communities is something called social capital. “It’s the unseen force in many communities,” Wright says. “A community either has it or it doesn’t—you can just sense it. And Kennett Square has it.” To illustrate, Wright points to the example of Memphis, a city that’s struggling financially even more than Detroit is. “But Memphis is dripping with social capital. Residents come out in droves to support any and every initiative. And that’s what makes the difference.”

Social capital can be seen in the various nonprofits and organizations set up to communicate, organize, and coordinate response with community members and municipalities in a crisis like the one we’re experiencing now, says Nate Echeverria, Economic Development Director for both Kennett Township and the Borough. The outpouring of support over the past weeks for KACS, the Garage’s supply drive, and initiatives like Kennett Strong is further evidence of this third key to resilience in our community.

Small businesses have always lined State Street, and now there are independent businesses in other Kennett neighborhoods as well. “Small, locally owned businesses that have some relationship to one another, their landlords, and banks,” Echeverria says, “that know their customers, vendors, and suppliers, form a community, or neighborhood, infrastructure and can provide social capital during a time like this. Mutual understanding and benefits help them to survive.”

“With all three characteristics of resilience, Kennett Square can rebuild on the strong foundation laid by past decisions—as long as we continue to show up and support one another,” says Wright. Echeverria agrees. “We need to continue to support local,” he says, “and we need some form of ‘stimulus’ for small businesses to help them survive and come back stronger after the crisis.”

This, too, would feel familiar to Herb Pennock—a community of organizations, businesses, and citizens completely invested in rebuilding the place they call home.

Tara Smith is communications coordinator at Historic Kennett Square.
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