Opposition to a state-subsidized development in Germantown blazes on, but as opponents angle for ways to stop the project, thousands have recently loaned their names in support of it.
Ray Welsh of Germantown said he signed the petition in support of a new Save-A-Lot discount grocery store at the Chelten Plaza development because when money is tight, “Save-A-Lot helps a lot of families out… especially those that can’t afford to shop at a regular store.”
The petition of roughly 2200 names asked signers if they would be in favor of a new Save-A-Lot store at the location on Pulaski Avenue between Chelten and Rittenhouse.
The petition also mentions a Subway sandwich shop along with Anna’s Linens and a Dollar Tree as tenants of the strip mall, and it touted 100 new jobs for local residents.
Many Germantown residents have been steadfastly opposed to the Chelten Plaza development chiefly because of the planned Save-A-Lot store and Dollar Tree slated for the site. The planned $14 million development will receive $3 million in state subsidy by the time it is finished and opponents have said that with such a high level of tax-payer support, Germantown should get more than a limited service market and dollar store. Most have expressed a desire for higher-end development.
But the list of Chelten Plaza supporters is roughly twice as long as a recent survey of the Germantown community by the Greater Germantown Business Association, which garnered 1000 names in opposition to the development.
Shawn Rinnier, the president of Save Philly Stores LLC, which will operate the new store, says he collected the names in April from shoppers at the existing Save-A-Lot store on Wayne Avenue, just a few blocks away from the new site.
He feels the petition accurately captures the desires of a significant segment of community members who the opposing side might not have adequately considered yet.
“Just by being in the store, you can tell,” he said, getting excited, “The customers coming into the store want a new Sav-A-Lot.”
State Rep. Rosita Youngblood has been one of the most vocal community members against the Chelten Plaza development. She has claimed that funding set up for the project years ago through the office of State Rep. Dwight Evans has been kept a secret, and that other local politicians have either sat on their hands about the development or failed to do their job of including the community in the plans.
Most recently, Youngblood has accused the project developer Pat Burns, who is also the president of Fresh Grocer – which has strong ties to Rinnier, of being in violation of state DEP regulations because of a lapsed ground water contamination monitoring plan laid out years ago at the site. DEP has recently sent violation letters to the developer relating to this issue.
Youngblood had a chance to review Rinnier’s petition, and when she saw some names she recognized lending their support to the project, she started making some calls.
In a conference call to NewsWorks facilitated by Youngblood, Wayne Allen, a committee person for the 12th ward, said he originally signed the petition but later realized it was a different campaign than he thought. “The information that they gave us was that they pretty much had lost their lease,” said Allen over the phone.
Allen now says that he is “desperately against” Chelten Plaza and wants to see a more upscale supermarket in its place, like a Whole Foods. He claims that Sav-A-Lot was even giving out coupons in exchange for signatures: “Buy one get one free” for sodas and “turkey oven stuffer bags.”
Rinnier admits they did offer refreshments, soda or juice, but that it was free for anyone in the store and nobody was forced to sign up. Rinnier denies that anyone was told about a lease expiring.
Youngblood also criticized the petition saying many of the signers provided addresses outside of the community.
A NewsWorks examination of the signatures showed many addresses that were not in Germantown – some as far off as West Philadelphia – but many that were too, with an apparent concentration in lower Germantown and East Mt. Airy.
Doris Lowry of West Philadelphia signed in support of the Save-A-Lot because, as a senior citizen, she said saving money on groceries is crucial. She is often in the neighborhood because she is a member of Center in the Park, and she said it is a quick walk to the Wayne Avenue store.
Lowry says she would not want a more expensive store in the new development. “I like the atmosphere [of Sav-A-Lot],” she said, in a recent phone interview.
Of those signers contacted who lived outside of the 19144 zip code, many said they shop at the Wayne Avenue store because they frequent Germantown for things like events or to visit family in the neighborhood.
Of the Sav-A-Lot supporters who live in Germantown, Larry Brown said he supports the new development and is a Sav-A-Lot regular because he saves money. His only criticism of the store was the bring-your-own-bag policy, “You have to buy a bag to carry your groceries home in, I don’t like that,” he said.
Of the supporters that NewsWorks spoke to, most described the petition as a ‘Save the Sav-A-Lot’ campaign. The same amount said they would not usually shop at a more expensive store, like Fresh Grocer.
One of Youngblood’s executive staff, Bill Thomas, said he has received over 1000 emails from residents in Germantown about Chelten Plaza.
“We didn’t set up a table,” he quipped in a recent phone interview.
Thomas has been investigating the Chelten Plaza development for some time and says Youngblood’s office is prepared to “protect” the Germantown community from what he deems a “dubious development.”
He called Rinnier’s petition a “marketing tool” and said it was a false image of support for the project.
But Amy Hillier, a researcher and professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, has been looking at access to healthy food for years now and says her work shows that most people travel beyond their neighborhood to shop.
Though her research centered in North Philadelphia and focused on low income children and adults, she said factors like bargains, food quality and habit played important roles in shopping choices, not just convenience.
Wherever the bulk of his shoppers come from, Shawn Rinnier said he hopes to see the local community embrace the new store, and he is working to make it the kind of place that will encourage that.
“I think people are going to be surprised, it’s going to be a good store,” he said.
Meanwhile, a group of those opposing the Chelten Plaza development has recently launched a new Web site called Germantown Cares devoted to stopping construction at the project.