Chester County Leadership: Marian Moskowitz
Real estate developer, entrepreneur, and member of both West Chester and Neumann University’s Council of Trustees Marian Moskowitz spoke with VISTA Today last week about growing up in Philadelphia, how the death of a close friend and a near-fatal dog attack changed her outlook, moving to Chester County and launching a career in real estate to make ends meet, purchasing and reselling a prime piece of real estate next to the Exton Square Mall, how she turned an abandoned factory in Phoenixville into a ‘feel good’ project for both her and the community and what an instructor at a seminar on blended families said that helped her and her husband Dave blend their extended families.
Where did you grow up Marian?
I was born the oldest of three girls and lived in the Kensington section of Philadelphia until the end of the third grade when my family moved to Northeast Philadelphia. My father was an electrician who worked on air conditioners for the A&P, and my mother was a waitress at a restaurant on the corner of Kensington and Allegheny in Philadelphia.
What memories do you have of growing up in Kensington or Northeast Philly?
What I remember most fondly about my time growing up in Kensington is walking to my mother’s restaurant after school and being served a bowl of rice pudding. I would sit at the counter, and she would serve me an ice-cold silver dish of rice pudding. To this day, rice pudding is still one my favorite deserts. I also remember going to the local candy store with my friends and buying candy for a penny a piece.
Moving to the Northeast must have been a big change for you?
Even though there were a lot of families from Kensington moving up to the Northeast and I already knew a few kids, the move was a big change for me. But from a personal growth perspective, the move was a good change for me.
When we moved, my mother enrolled me in Stephen Decatur Elementary School, a new public school that had just opened. It was the school’s first year, so all the students were new and I made a lot of friends. In many ways, I blossomed at the school. I was always interested in music and the school had an excellent music program and band. I was also taking ballet and tap classes. I was asked to dedicate the school, which was the first time I spoke publicly. I made lots of friends some of whom are still my friends today.
What musical instrument did you play?
I played the piano for my school and in concerts at Gimbel’s department store in Center City. I also played the guitar a bit. I had a nice voice and sang in the school choir. I still enjoy playing the piano, and on occasions when I’m stressed, I relax by playing the piano.
Where did you go to high school?
I went to George Washington High School in Philadelphia. With over 3,000 students and over 600 in my graduating class it was much bigger than my elementary school. They did not have middle schools at that time so I started Washington in 7th grade and stayed there until 12th grade. Except for biology, I was a pretty good student. I loved math, which was my best subject, but I didn’t like dissecting animals.
Did you play any sports when you were in school?
I played a little softball, but I had a bad accident with a dog and didn’t play softball that long. When I was eleven, a dog attacked and almost killed me. Thanks to a Jack & Jill truck driver, I am here today. As a result, I spent much of that year nursing neck and back injuries. I did love to roller skate and ice skate and after I started to heal I would go to the Boulevard Roller/Ice Rink on weekends.
What kind of music were you listening to in high school?
I listened to a mix of music because I played classical, a little jazz as well as modern music. But I loved Simon and Garfunkel, The Supremes, The Temptations, Sonny & Cher, The Beatles and John Denver just to name a few. In fact, I have all the 45’s I collected when I was growing up in a jukebox at home.
What did you do after high school?
My parents had gone through a very bitter divorce when I was 13 and there wasn’t money to send me to college when I graduated. I started working as a switchboard operator in high school at a medical practice right down the street from George Washington High when I was fourteen or fifteen years old and continued at the same place until I graduated. After graduation I went to work for a tractor-trailer training school
What lessons did you learn on that first job that stay with you today?
I always showed up on time and worked hard. I was never the type of kid who hung around and did nothing. I was always doing something. On that first job, I learned to listen to people. When patients would call in to make an appointment to see their doctor, they’re not going to be happy that the office is closed or the doctor can’t see them for three weeks, but they still wanted to be heard and understood. As a result of that experience, I am a good listener to this day.
Did you ever pursue a college degree?
I started taking classes at Bucks County Community College and then later at Neumann University at night. Neumann set up an adult learning program for me that I did two or three nights a week and on weekends. I had kids at home plus I was working full-time so it took me ten years to earn the credits I needed to graduate.
When did you start to see you had leadership ability?
I first saw that talent when I was selected to give the dedicatory speech at my new school in Northeast Philadelphia. I also think my experiences growing up and what my mother and my sisters and I went through, made me realize people need help. We didn’t have much money, and we struggled a lot. I realized back then that even the little things I did to help, could make a big difference in people’s lives.
After the dog attacked me, my parents divorced, and a friend died of cancer at 13, I was in a funk. I wasn’t happy. One day I decided I couldn’t go through life being unhappy and decided I would wake up with a smile and try to be happy every morning. I still live by that rule today! My husband Dave tells me I must be the only person in the world who wakes up with a smile every day!
Who gave you your big break Marian?
When I was 25 years old, I was divorced and had a three-year-old daughter to support. I worked full-time but needed more money to make ends meet and continue sending my daughter to a decent preschool. A friend of mine who sold leather jackets and clothes set me up on consignment, and I opened a “store” at an indoor flea market in Levittown called I-95 Marketplace. I worked my booth every weekend with my daughter and made enough money to keep her in the preschool. That was the first of many different businesses that I would eventually own.
What brought you to Chester County?
When Dave and I began our relationship we wanted to move because we were not happy with the schools in Levittown. He had a client in Chester County and the schools were very good so we moved here in 1984.
What was moving to Chester County like for you?
It was an adjustment. The kids were now in better schools but we had to make a living. Dave had a few clients but I had to find something to do. An opportunity came a few months after moving here. A friend from New Jersey told me if I found suitable land he would be interested in developing, I could become an owner, which would help support our expanded family (the Brady Bunch).
Some people wouldn’t deal with me because I was a woman driving a Chevette but eventually I met Harold Martin who sold me three parcels of his land in Exton. One of those parcels is the same land where the K-mart (soon to be WholeFoods Market) next to the Exton Square Mall would be built.
That sale got me started in real estate, which is something I continue to do today! I have also been an owner in 3 trucking companies, a cosmetics franchise and other small businesses over the years.
How did you get involved in Franklin Commons in Phoenixville?
We weren’t looking for the building that eventually became Franklin Commons. Rather, we were looking for the railroad siding that PolyChem, the company that owned the building that eventually became Franklin Commons, also owned. We had an agreement of sale to buy the 9 acres the railroad siding sat on for frontage on another property we owned down the street. PolyChem shut down one night and left us unable to close on the property.
Dave and I decided to buy the mortgage on the property and take it through foreclosure. On St. Patty’s Day in 2006, we went to the Sherriff’s sale with the intent to purchase the land at auction. We were sure somebody would want that big building. Dave and I walked into the room where the sale was happening and saw the room was packed but no one bid on the building. That night we went home with a 225,000 square foot building in Phoenixville.
Looking back, has your investment in Franklin Commons paid off?
The building has always been a ‘feel good’ project for us. It’s a unique project. We can’t find another building like it in the entire country. As developers, we don’t always have a chance to give back to the community with a project such as this. Franklin Commons was our chance to return something to the community that gave me so much.
As you look into 2017, what are the opportunities getting your attention?
My community service is always a challenge because I’m involved in so many things. I’m on CCEDC’s executive committee and serve on SeedCoPA, West Chester University, Neumann University and the Colonial Theatre’s board to name just a few. I am also a Commissioner of the Delaware River Port Authority.
I also serve on the board of Emerge America whose mission it is to train Democratic women to run for state and local office. Women are over 50 percent of the population but don’t have anywhere close to that number representing their interests in Harrisburg or Washington. I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, we need more women running for office and sitting at the table when decisions are made, and legislation passed.
I also continue to work in real estate and Dave and I recently became part owners in a medical discovery start-up company that we’re excited about.
What do you do to relax, Marian?
I love to cook, taking walks with our dog; reading and every now and then, I play the piano and hope to do so more often going forward. Dave and I also enjoy traveling.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
The best piece of advice came to me when Dave and I were merging our families, and all the kids were coming to live with us. We went to a seminar to learn how to merge our families, and the instructor teaching the course told us it was important to treat every day as a new day and not carry baggage over from the day before. No matter what happened yesterday, he told us, every day is a new day. Don’t be angry at anybody and it will get easier.
The advice worked! While it was hard in the beginning, today we are a big, close-knit family.
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