Business corridors still bustling despite economic crunch

For Samuel Nalbandian, owner of Rising Sun Pizza in Lawncrest, the business is a way of life and the recession is nothing to worry about.

“For me, it’s been the same,” he said of business during the past several months. “It’s always good, as long as I’m here managing. The customers are satisfied.”

Nalbandian, who opened the pizza parlor in 1982, said while he did see a slight drop in business last year that he attributed to the recession, he doesn’t worry about the shop.

“I do worry for other people not having jobs when the economy is bad,” he said. “But as long as I do the right thing, I don’t worry [about the business].”

Like some owners throughout the Northeast’s many neighborhoods and myriad business corridors, Nalbandian is a small business owner lucky enough to skirt the worst of the decline, avoiding being hit as hard as other businesses, especially larger ones. While there are not concrete statistics for our region of the city specifically, in terms of the economy’s effect on the businesses, a consensus exists among owners and civic leaders that while the Northeast’s businesses were hit, they largely weren’t hit too hard, and will pull through and stay profitable.

Al Taubenberger, president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, said in several business corridors throughout the Northeast, especially Frankford Avenue in Mayfair, Bustleton Avenue in Somerton and Frankford Avenue’s far north end near the Bucks County line, there is no palpable decline.

“I’d have to say [those areas are] growing in a sense that a shop is always replaced if one closes,” Taubenberger said. “There’s actually probably a slight growth with new businesses being built.”

But Taubenberger said other areas in the Northeast haven’t been so lucky, especially, he pointed out, Frankford Avenue under SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line in Frankford and lower Bustleton Avenue near Oxford Circle.

“As a child, I can remember actually shopping with my mother on Frankford Avenue, where it is now part of the Frankford [Community Development Corporation], and certainly the shops are not the same type of shops,” he said. “Frankford Avenue has had some real difficulties and real challenges over the past many years.”

Frankford CDC Main Street Coordinator Theresa Hanas, however, reported a net gain of 10 businesses in her organization’s district in 2009, the year the economy was at its worst. She said in that year, 24 new businesses opened, while 14 closed or relocated outside the CDC’s coverage zone.

“[Frankford] has been pretty consistent with other commercial corridors,” she said. “Small businesses and main streets are seeing growth. I attribute it to people being laid off or forced into retirement and seeing it as an opportunity to go into business for themselves.”

She said Frankford has a larger business corridor than most areas, with 200 storefront spaces, roughly 40 of which are currently vacant, meaning that about 80 percent of the storefronts are filled.

In the Holmesburg Village section, about 3.5 miles north of Frankford along Frankford Avenue, Holmesburg Civic Association President Fred Moore reported that 25 percent of the storefronts in the neighborhood on the Frankford Avenue corridor are vacant.

“[Business] has been doing mediocre, but the recent economic downturn hasn’t had much effect. The vacant stores just remained vacant,” Moore, who has served as president for the last 10 years and lived in the area for the last 23, explained. “That’s just an ongoing thing. It’s been that way for 20 or 30 years.”

Eugene Oliveti, who says business is always ambient, fixes a pair of shoes in his Frankford shop.
(Eugene Oliveti, who says business is always ambient, fixes a pair of shoes in his Frankford shop.)

Frankford storeowner Eugene Oliveti, who owns Lou’s Shoe Repair, opened by his father on the Avenue in 1972, said he only felt the recession hit his business “a little bit,” citing that business in the store has always been somewhat ambient.

“It always was,” he said. “It’s strange just how it works, one week we’re slow, the next week we’re busy.”

Oliveti, whose shelves and worktables were full of shoes from work boots to high heels awaiting repairs, said the average cost for a shoe repair in which he generally replaces half the soles and the heels starts around $45. Hanas reasoned that price isn’t bad, considering people often spend upward of $100 or so on a pair of shoes.

“It gets a lot of customers because it’s a working class neighborhood where people invest a lot of money in shoes and need them every day,” she said.

Unlike Oliveti, Chuck McIlvain, who works the sales department for Neil’s Discount Furniture across the street from Lou’s Shoe Repair, said business has dropped, though not enough to require the store to lay off any employees.

He didn’t blame the drop in revenue of the business, located in the area for the last 30 years, solely on the economy, though.

“I attribute some to the Frankford section changing demographics,” he said, motioning to vacant storefronts nearby. “If you look around, you’ll see all these stores closed. It’s not a good neighborhood, a safe neighborhood, any longer.”

But, McIlvain, who grew up in Frankford, said he thinks things will turn around for the area.

“You have to be optimistic and hope it does,” he said. “There are small changes.”

In the video, local business and civic leaders explain how the business corridors have adjusted with the economy.

Taubenberger said he believes that neighborhood and business corridor development is cyclical and that the Frankford section will soon see a renaissance he likened to the one Society Hill experienced about half a century ago.

“Society Hill peaked and declined several times 100 years ago and went into a steep decline until after World War II,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden, people gravitated there … I tend to think in the long run that things will change radically and there will be almost a flip to revitalization of the extreme south end [of Northeast Philadelphia along Frankford Avenue].”

Further north on Frankford Avenue in Mayfair, Kathy Baumann, who helps her husband run Mayfair Bakery, which his family owned since the 1960s, said the business has undoubtedly been affected by the economy.

“Since the fall, we’ve had less customers. People don’t have the money to put out,” she said. “[But] it’s still pretty steady. We get a lot of repeat customers. We have slowed, but we have enough business to keep everyone employed.”

She said in general, bakeries have faced hardships in the recent past due to competition posed by so many supermarkets selling baked goods.

“People are into the convenience of supermarkets and trying to save money,” she said, adding that many of the bakery’s old loyal customers have also moved out of the city.

Though there are not concrete trend statistics available for commercial and small businesses throughout the Northeast, the University of Pennsylvania’s online Philadelphia NeighborhoodBase reports that the area, isolated according to its 10 ZIP codes, had 841 vacant properties in 2007, down from 885 in 2006. The total number of commercial properties reported in the most recent statistic, for 2007, was 4,161.

Taubenberger said the economy has had a sort of opposite effect on Chamber membership among businesses throughout the Northeast, with businesses that may be feeling the economic crunch becoming easier targets for new membership.

“In a strong economy, many businesses are fat and happy,” he said. “But now, we’re still the cheapest way to advertise.”

Morgan Zalot is a Temple University journalism student working with Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a class devoted to covering under-reported areas of Philadelphia.

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