Time for a better Germantown – a journey towards empowerment

    Yes, they did it again!

    A few leaders went behind closed doors (and the community’s back) to form a “partnership” with the developer, Pat Burns, in his bid to get a $4 million state grant to build a Dollar Tree and other low-end stores at Chelten and Pulaski Avenues.

    In my view, Burns is using leaders of Germantown Community Connections (GCC), treating them as the “voice” of Germantown to his advantage with little tradeoff, which should not have been a surprise.

    He made promises to build a decent grocery store six years ago, received public funds, and then never kept his word. Much has been written about opposition to his new development. It’s time to take this conversation to higher plane. First, however, here’s a brief background.

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    It looks like GCC leaders may have settled for crumbs.

    The developer plans to build the  Dollar Store, relocate the existing Save-a-Lot, and bring few new jobs and limited food choices to the site. Imagine a developer using a $4 million grant, a private loan of $9.6 million, and little of his own money at risk, while ignoring community participation and full compliance with state law and guidelines.

    Design ideas not enough

    GCC’s leaders respond to Burns’ “take it or leave it” attitude with a new site design prepared by volunteer architects, asking Burns to include residential use and various aesthetics. GCC leaders lamented, “If we block Burns’ plan for the Save-a-Lot, Germantown will end up with an abandoned site.” Instead of opposing the stores, GCC produced ideas for design and landscaping, as a feature for the “next stores” to occupy the site.

    Here’s their reasoning: If GCC gets Burns to beautify the site, the stores coming after the Save-a-Lot will have an attractive site. We just have to be patient. “Anything is better than nothing” is GCC’s impotent and flawed mantra for negotiating with Burns, a familiar story in Germantown.

    GCC’s fears and acquiescence undermined its will, leverage and power. Creating good design may feel productive, but we’re still left with the low-end stores.

    Focus on design would be secondary if a Trader Joe’s had opted to come there. Why is Chelten Plaza, on a prime piece of land, adjacent to a busy train station and luxury apartments, bringing more of the same exploitation while on the public dole?

    Why has GCC settled for “crumbs” of aesthetic design instead of fighting for long-term outcomes of economic development? Given another developer’s announced interest in buying the site, why assume it would be vacant if Burns’ is blocked?

    Actually, GCC is no longer relevant. A much bigger story, the story of a community becoming empowered, is the exciting prospect we’re witnessing. The synergy of this movement comes from people unafraid in their resolve and unwilling to settle for crumbs.

    A growing resolve

    From a resident’s phone call to me in February, saying with alarm, “What can we do…the Fresh Grocer closed suddenly,” I’ve witnessed, coached and represented hundreds of people who, in exercising a strong voice of opposition, have found the will to change Germantown.

    I’ve come to know many residents as my “new best friends” whose voices resound in principled determination. The 5500 Block of Morris Street and other homeowners, the Greater Germantown Business Association, Historic Germantown Properties, West Central Germantown Neighbors, Price-Knox Neighbors, S&L Enterprises LLC and thousands of residents have decided to take steps to change Germantown to a place where “outside” people are drawn to spend their money and enjoy the ambience of history.

    The journey is powerful because more and more smart, diverse, energetic people are beginning to coalesce around a resolve: To improve the Germantown commercial district.

    These G’Towners understand the imperatives of historic treasures and commercial opportunities. They know what becoming a destination place can do for Germantown.

    I’ve known Germantown from years ago when my mother took me there to shop in stores better than we had in Tioga. We were an African-American family of educated people with limited means. We knew quality and demanded good service, and still do.

    Chelten Avenue was diverse, with people of all stripes, culture and income. Then, as now, Germantown was a place where people wanted to own a home or rent one of its spacious apartments. It also looks after its less fortunate people with abundant social services.

    A vision of quality

    The housing stock of Germantown is diverse and architecturally beautiful. It spans the economic spectrum. Variety in itself is a stabilizing element. Yet, a Better Germantown is not just about housing. It’s about controlling excess dollar stores, nail salons, daycare centers, wig stores and other low-end stores.

    It’s about enlightened planning, preservation and vital commercial corridors, all with engaged community participation. It’s about living-wage jobs, safety, good schools, support for artists and green, sustainable projects.

    People, no matter how poor, respect quality.  Businesses should encourage standards of a community rising, not participate in its exploitation.

    Germantown residents expect more. Rich and poor, black and white – and all in between  – want quality and say that no one, no one, wants more dollar stores, more $10 an hour jobs, and especially more failure to use the potential of the Chelten and Pulaski Avenues site. In our demonstrations to oppose Burns’ project, people may stop and say, “I like shopping at a Dollar Store” But when I ask, “Do you need the 13th dollar store in Germantown?” all of the dozens of people I spoke to have said, “Hell no!”

    After several hundred people expressed opposition in a meeting with Burns, a small group launched GermantownCares.org to inform people about all aspects of Germantown’s interests. Anyone who wants more information should go to the website. Please sign the petition against this development, add your voice to the discussion and/or just get involved.

    Reaching for an ideal, being unafraid to demand a good shopping experience, and having the power, the faith, the resolve to fight corrupt practices and abuse of power – all of this tells the story of this journey. Now is the time,and it’s about time for Germantown to be all that it can be.

    Yvonne Haskins is the acting executive director for West Mt. Airy Neighbors. 

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