By Holly Herman
Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, the new chairwoman of the Montgomery County commissioners, has always been comfortable with seemingly daunting changes, finding useful connections between her past and present.
Arkoosh grew up halfway across the country in Omaha, Neb.
When she became a county commissioner two years ago, Arkoosh identified similarities between Pottstown and the rural areas of Montgomery County and her native Nebraska.
"I feel very much at home in Pottstown," Arkoosh said. "It reminds me of where I grew up. In my two years as commissioner, I spent so much time in Pottstown."
As a medical doctor, Arkoosh put her knowledge to good use when she entered politics in 2007: getting involved in a national effort to achieve comprehensive health care reform.
And when the 56-year-old Democrat from Springfield Township was appointed as a commissioner in January 2015, she made another major change: giving up her medical practice to become a full-time commissioner.
She recently was elected chairwoman of the three-member board when fellow Democrat Josh Shapiro stepped down after being elected state attorney general. Shapiro will remain a county commissioner until assuming the state post in January, but relinquished the chairman's gavel to facilitate a smooth transition.
During a recent interview in her office overlooking the county courthouse located across the street, Arkoosh said she couldn't be happier. She holds the top elected position in Montgomery County, which has 820,000 residents and a $420 million budget.
"I am joyful about my job," she said. "I feel I am doing the kind of work I really want to do. I see this as a job to improve the health and well-being of others."
Arkoosh said that during her first two years as commissioner, she has been attune to projects in western Montgomery County, working with leaders on recreational efforts such as the developing the Colebrookdale Railroad, the Carousel at Pottstown and the Schuykill River Trail.
"Pottstown and the surrounding communities are a tourist area," she said. "I am so excited about Pottstown. I am supporting all of the projects there."
Nathaniel Guest, executive director of the Colebrookdale Railroad, said the county is fortunate to have Arkoosh as its leader.
"You can tell by meeting her she brings a broad range of expertise and perspective to Montgomery County by having lived in a variety of places and we are very lucky in Montgomery County and Pottstown in particular to have her eyes to see what is needed," Guest said.
Guest thanked Arkoosh for providing the financial support for the railroad's station in Pottstown that provides transportation to tourists.
Mark D. Flanders, borough manager, described Arkoosh as compassionate and understanding.
"There is no doubt in my mind that commissioner Arkoosh wants to see Pottstown succeed," Flanders said. "Her medical background provides her with insights. She doing what she can do to be part of the revitalization of Pottstown. She is a friend to our community"
Arkoosh pointed to the Community Connections Office in Pottstown as the prime example of the types of service that she plans to promote as commissioner.
The office at 364 King St. provides a trained professional to help residents contact the human services resources available for veterans, child care, clothing and affordable health care, taxes, legal advice and more.
"It's one-stop shopping," she said. "It offers help with housing, job training and veteran benefits."
In the long-term, Arkoosh said, she hopes to see passenger train service restored between Pottstown and Norristown.
"Transportation is the key to jobs," she said, noting she looks forward to the completion of a Route 422 construction project, which includes upgrades to Schuylkill River bridges near Pottstown and at the Armand Hammer Boulevard interchange.
Steve Bamford, executive director of Pottstown Industrial Boulevard, praised Arkoosh's efforts on economic development in Pottstown.
"She is high-energy, extremely bright, and very engaged in the Pottstown community," Bamford said.
Overall, Arkoosh said she sees her role as commissioner as a perfect fit for her medical and health care background.
Arkoosh moved to Philadelphia in 1986 for an internship at Presbyterian Medical Center after graduating from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine.
An anesthesiologist, she worked most recently as a professor of clinical anesthesiology and clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
While practicing in Philadelphia, Arkoosh said she met many patients who did not feel safe sending their children outside and who did not have access to good nutrition.
The experience led Arkoosh to return to school to obtain a master's in public health at Johns Hopkins Bloomsberg School of Public Health. From there, she got involved in the National Physicians Alliance, a public advocacy nonprofit in Washington.
"I did a lot of work in explaining how Affordable Health Care Act works," she said.
Arkoosh said the advocacy job led her to her next challenge: a run for Congress.
"I didn't win, but I enjoyed the process," she said. "It's increased my desire to be in public service."
Several months later, county judges appointed Arkoosh to the board of commissioners, replacing Leslie S. Richards, who was appointed as Gov. Tom Wolf's secretary of transportation. As chairwoman, she'll be paid $90,846, a considerable reduction from her income as a physician.
Arkoosh, who is married to Jeffrey T. Harbison and has three children, acknowledged that her career path appears unusual.
"It didn't happen overnight," she said of the evolving career. "I love working in public service."