Movie critics, historians, and lovers of pop culture have long known that a film…a theatrical production…a book can change the world.
Witness this year’s Academy Award nominees, all cinematic masterpieces that drove home vivid narratives about the destructive intensity of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and ALS, the fading glow of fame, the roar of post-traumatic stress, and the sting of callous, wholesale racial discrimination.
Pennsylvania’s banking history has illustrated that not only movies, but theatres themselves, can act as powerful change agents.
The phenomenal success of even one quaint historic theatre can emanate forward in wave after wave and, from its triumphs, spur the growth of an entire community.
So it is with the Colonial Theatre, the centerpiece of historic Bridge Street in downtown Phoenixville, Chester County. With support from PACB’s “Grow Your Own Community” Award semi-finalist, Phoenixville Federal Bank and Trust, the painstakingly restored theatre at 227 Bridge Street became the superstar around which a stellar supporting cast was assembled. It became the catalyst for the rebirth of a town.
When the 658-seat Colonial Opera House first opened its doors in 1903, Phoenixville was a thriving industrial town built on iron and steel and dubbed the “Gateway to Valley Forge.” Though still unpaved, Bridge Street was framed on both sides by archetypal turn-of-the-century-era tenants that included a fish monger, a furrier, a paperhanger, a “Bargain 5 & 10 Cent Store,” a tailor, a confectioner, a jeweler, a hotel, and a hardware store.
But over time, the once-bustling steel and iron industry declined; manufacturing plants were shuttered. Phoenixville’s luster faded. Forlorn and forsaken, the town was left for dead.
Fast forward to 1996, when the Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation (PAEDCO) purchased the Colonial Theatre and began to restore it to its former neon-lit glory.
Soon, the Association for the Colonial Theater (ACT) was formed and agreed with PAEDCO to purchase the theatre.
In the fall of 1999, the Colonial Theatre re-opened, showing art and independent films, children’s programs and classic films.
Refurbished to its original 1950s heyday, the renovated theatre mimicked the façade that served as the setting for the schlocky sci-fi thriller and legendary cult classic The Blob.
But the regular showings of movies was not the theatre’s sole use or purpose. Its architecturally wow-worthy facade became the centerpiece in a town that started attracting tourists like a modern-day magnet.
One of the main actors in the theatre’s rebirth and, consequently, Phoenixville’s electric revitalization is Phoenixville Federal Bank and Trust’s Vice Chairman of the Board and CEO Richard A. Kunsch, Sr., a 57-year fixture at the bank.
Over his impressive tenure, Kunsch has overseen the bank’s expansion to five branches – in Phoenixville, Royersford, Collegeville, Kimberton and Limerick – and a Community Lending Center in Phoenixville.
The bank has been a part of the community for more than 100 years. It started in 1912 as a building and loan devoted to helping people secure mortgages and achieve their dream of homeownership. Over the years, the bank began to offer an added array of products and services.
Once operating as Oaks Building and Loan Association, the institution’s primary focus was, and remains, “homeownership,” Vice President of Marketing Carol Buckwalter said.
The bank offers all that the big banks do, but with a focus on the communities it serves. In 2003, wealth management and trust services were added, and the bank has grown to $380 million in assets.
Dick Kunsch has had a front-row seat to that success.
After attending Muhlenberg College on a football scholarship, Dick decided to work for Ma Bell, predecessor to Verizon. He logged in many hours climbing telephone poles in the harshest of weather conditions. When he went to cash his checks at the bank on Fridays, he longingly surveyed well-dressed tellers, ensconced in warmth, and decided that’s where he wanted to be.
He began as a teller, and a “jack-of-all-trades,” shoveling snow from the bank’s sidewalks, carrying in wood for the fireplace and doing anything else he was asked to do for the then-Phoenixville Federal Savings and Loan Association.
After a stint as a teller, Kunsch worked in the accounting and mortgage departments, before moving up the ladder to vice president, executive vice president, president and his current position as chief executive officer of the bank.
Over the years, he had three offices, all within walking distance of his home.
He became a community jack-of-all-trades as well. His civic responsibilities began as a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. At the age of 28, he became president of the Phoenixville Area School Board. Kunsch has also served on the boards of Phoenixville Hospital, the library and the YMCA.
Among his most satisfying experiences were the expansion of the YMCA and the Phoenixville Hospital, the rebirth of the Colonial Theater and subsequently Phoenixville Borough, and the formation of the Phoenixville Community Health Foundation.
Back in the 50’s, when he began, no mega-malls existed to attract throngs of shoppers and SUVs, with their gleaming floor tiles, cavernous temperature-controlled hallways, and noisy, neon-flooded food courts.
Main Street was the center of the action, but when the steel industry faded, countless jobs were lost and, with it, the vitality of the downtown.
“It wasn’t until years later that Phoenixville rose from the ashes,” Kunsch said.
“Now the town is flourishing, with activity, new restaurants, coffee houses, the Colonial Theater, shops and nightclubs. First Fridays here are like a madhouse. We have throngs of people walking up and down the streets, people dining outside the restaurants, the sounds of the bands performing along the streets.”
Kunsch believes that tellers are the most important position in the bank.
“The bank can open without the president, but it can’t open without tellers,” he said. “Tellers engage in 95 percent of our customer contacts,” so they must get it right. If customers keep seeing new faces in a bank, it telegraphs an unsettling signal, he maintains.
“Customers even have their favorite tellers, and they will wait in line for those favorite tellers. They bare their souls to them. They are like Father Confessors.”
Dick prides himself on the fact that the average staff member has been with the bank for 19 years, and many of them are devoted community servants.
But the bank’s work doesn’t just happen at the teller window.
“Since we are a mutual institution, we have an obligation to improve the life of our customers. We are owned by the depositors and exist for the depositors.”
“All we do makes life better for depositors,” he said.
Bridge Street and the banking industry may have undergone a dramatic metamorphosis, but “Our model has not changed. We’ve stuck to the tried and true.”
“We’ve never stopped lending money. We even had a sign that said that.” Dick pointed out that Phoenix Fed doesn’t sell its loans. When the 2008 banking crisis hit, people grew leery of big banks. Their fears underscored the importance of community banks, where depositors know the bank president personally.
Many customers come in and ask if Dick Kunsch is still there. They remember aloud how he lent them their first mortgage 30 years ago.
Carol Buckwalter, the bank’s Vice President of Marketing, called Kunsch the “driving force behind the institution.”
She had worried that when she made a career change 10 years ago from the YMCA to Phoenixville Federal, she might be forced to detour from a life of community involvement.
But when she made the leap from not-for-profit to for-profit, she found her worries to be unfounded. In many ways, her public service grew.
“Phoenix Fed” continues to be as much a part of the community as the broad Schuylkill River that courses through the region.
Whenever she tells people where she works, they often respond, “I love that bank! They’re involved in everything.”
Often called “Mr. Phoenixville” for his exemplary philanthropy, Kunsch was the winner of the 2014 Dr. Henry A. and Barbara M. Jordan Award, given by the Chester County Community Foundation.
Buckwalter recalls that Kunsch likes to always say, “I didn’t find a job, I found a home.”
“As a mutual community bank, we exist solely for our customers,” Kunsch said. “If we can improve the quality of life for our town, we are directly benefiting our customers. It is why we exist.”
The bank honors the sacrifices of many individuals and organizations every year at its annual “Celebration of Giving” Reception.
This past January, P. Douglas Darlington, the bank’s President and COO, offered 65 organizations both verbal and financial appreciation for the work they do to make their communities better places to live, work and play.
Through this yearly “Celebration of Giving,” they have donated more than $2.1 million since its inception in the 1990s.
This year, the bank gave out close to $100,000 at this single event, not to mention the more than $60,000 in checks that flow one at a time throughout the year.
The bank’s “Celebration of Giving” includes a one-hour reception complete with cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, photographs – and those checks.
Community non-profits who serve in the bank’s five branch areas of Chester and Montgomery Counties are invited, from police and fire departments to food banks.
At one time, the bank used to snail-mail the checks, but they found it so much more delightful to see the joy and appreciation first-hand.
“This year, 85 people came despite the snow,” Buckwalter said. A panoramic photograph of the grateful recipients and the smiling givers is a testament to Phoenixville Federal’s generosity.
The local food bank, a health clinic, a homeless shelter, libraries, fire companies, schools, a community theater, and youth sports leagues all came away check recipients.
“The response is so great,” Buckwalter said. “It was an eye-opener for all the attendees to see the variety of organizations the bank supports.”
A thank you from Mom’s House speaks volumes: “We are so appreciative of your kindness! Your contribution makes it possible for us to continue to provide free daycare and support for low-income, single parents who are pursuing their full-time education.”
Or this from Orion Communities: “Thank you for your generous support of our work. For over 35 years, Orion Communities has advocated for housing, food and transportation needs for individuals and families in the Phoenixville area. We continue to be able to support our ‘neighbors in need’ because of people like you!”
Or again, this, from Phoenixville Babe Ruth League: [We] were founded in 1953, the same year the bank moved to its present Phoenixville branch location. To my knowledge [we] have maintained a banking relationship with Phoenixville Federal throughout all those many years. In today’s banking environment, the fact Phoenixville Federal continues to serve the Phoenixville community is remarkable and a tribute to its leadership.”
The bank aims for a goal of 10 percent, tithing one-tenth of its net profits every year.
Bank officials said they target organizations that help with the necessities of life—“health, education, shelter, food.”
Like the mythological wooden phoenix that the town burns every year to symbolize the region’s meteoric rise from the ashes, the town of Phoenixville is “up and coming,” said Buckwalter. “Phoenixville is now quite a happening place.”
It is undergoing a marvelous revitalization, and “making a mark on the map,” she said.
The downtown area is becoming a destination for the entire region, due in part to the bank’s willingness to get involved in the community, she said.
Proof positive is the uber-elegant Phoenixville Foundry, the former home of Phoenix Iron and Steel Company, and now a dramatic, turn-of-the-century banquet facility that attracts discriminating guests from New York City, Washington, D.C. and beyond. Modern amenities mesh with timeless industrial character to make it a one-of-a-kind event space.
It is yet another example of success, feeding upon itself.
The bank has made so many large and small sacrifices to help the community. They have sown generously and reaped generously.
Asked on a 2009 radio show called “Executive Leaders,” what turns him on, Dick said simply: “What makes me happy is a satisfied customer – and satisfied employees.”
In a recent phone interview, Kunsch also told PACB that his favorite expression is a Winston Churchill quote: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
In his life of service, there has been no intermission.
This Community Bank Profile can be found featured in the March 2015 issue of Transactions. Not a subscriber? Visit the Transactions page on this website or call PACB at 717-231-7447 to start receiving the magazine.