Germantown Avenue businesses worry about impact of GHS closure

At the end of the month, Debra Carter will close her second-hand clothing store in central Germantown.

The life-long resident opened Runway four years ago on Germantown Avenue, the neighborhood’s commercial corridor. She figured a recession was a great time to offer affordable clothing.

“My motto was to whomever came in, they would leave with something. I was very negotiable, very understanding.” said Carter one recent weekday afternoon.

Carter’s reasons for closing are, as expected, largely financial. But the impending closing of another building was certainly on her mind when she made her decision.

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GHS closing factored into decision

Following this academic year, Germantown High School, which Carter can see from her shop window, will close as part of the School District of Philadelphia’s facilities master plan, a right-sizing effort aimed, in part, at addressing an ongoing budget crisis.

Carter estimated that 75 percent of her traffic comes from the area’s school community.

“Monday through Friday, you know the school is there,” said Carter. “It’s going to be a major fall.”

Business-corridor impact

The stretch of Germantown Avenue that runs in front of the hulking four-story GHS structure that’s nearly a century old has seen better days.

GHS and Fulton Elementary, which is also slated to close, will join a trio of large vacant buildings within a three-block radius, including a former YWCA and Germantown Town Hall.

“[Businesses] are shutting down without even the school closing,” noted Gregory Morse, a barber who works at a vintage, unmarked shop directly across the street from GHS’ doors.

But it’s no ghost town. There’s a mix of hair salons, barber shops, day cares and clothing stores.

Still, like Carter, several owners and employees are concerned business will die down without Germantown High in the picture. Others are convinced of it.

Prom-season ramifications

“It will affect my business tremendously,” said Elena Rodrigues, who owns Elena’s Glitz & Glamor Accessory Boutique.

The shop, located just a few doors down from GHS, specializes in women’s fashion, including prom accessories and makeup.

Spring is Rodrigues’ “prime time.” It’s when students, many from Germantown, stop by her shop to complete their prom looks. She’ll miss that business dearly.

“That’s going to play a major role, knowing that they’re not going stop here anymore,” said Rodrigues, noting, however, that her business is less tied to foot traffic than others in the area.

Aja Hooks, a stylist at Chez Fabulous, also relies on the influx of teenagers that the high school has routinely brought to the area.

Sitting inside the corner salon, she estimated nearly 75 percent of her clientele are teenaged girls who come in for prom, back-to-school, graduation and otherwise.

Hooks said the young base is a boon for the shop.

“The younger group of girls brings in more money than the older women,” she said. “Younger females, they want a lot more stuff and it brings in a lot more money. They want to keep up with the Hollywood styles.”

Will young customers return?

Hooks thinks that once Germantown students leave, they will be gone for good.

“If they don’t have enough time to come from Roxborough or King [High Schools], they may not show,” she said. “If they’re coming right down the street, they’ll come and get their special on Wednesdays and go on about their business.”

Under the district’s plan, students from Germantown can transfer to either Roxborough High School or Martin Luther King High School in nearby West Oak Lane.

Roosevelt expansion not expected to help

Late last month, the school district told NewsWorks that Roosevelt, which currently serves students in sixth through eighth grade, would become a K-8 school. The school was initially on the closure list.

Some owners don’t think the change will necessarily help offset the loss of Germantown.

“Roosevelt is really out of the way,” said Rodrigues.

That impact of it all may be felt sooner rather than later since there are just over six weeks left in the school year.

“You look forward to school time,” said Mark Lightfoot, owner of the Philadelphia Hair Company, “because in the summer time, a lot of businesses drop down because the school being closed.”

News of Germantown’s closing sent shockwaves through the community. Though some nearby business owners understand the decision, they’re disappointed nonetheless.

Landmark and neighborhood anchor

City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, whose Eighth District includes Germantown, was visibly frustrated following the School Reform Commission’s school closings hearing in March, saying at the time that she felt “disrespected on behalf of my constituents.”

Like nearly everyone, she is worried about the eyesore GHS’ building will become if left vacant and the impact that will have on the revitalization of the neighborhood.

She called the school’s closure a “serious blow” to those efforts.

“You’re taking away a significant amount of support and what are we adding?” said Bass.

GSSD impact

This summer, the Germantown Special Services District will re-launch.

The public-private enterprise aims to buoy the neighborhood’s commercial corridors.

Keeping the area clean and inviting is a major component of the program, which is paid for through grants from the city’s Commerce Department and assessments on individual businesses.

“Naturally, having a large vacant building, adding to those quality of life issues, impacts those efforts,” said Cornelia Swinson, director of G’Town Restoration CDC and a member of GSSD’s steering committee.

But Joseph Corrigan, Bass’ spokesperson and a fellow steering-committee member, said he does not think Germantown’s closing will impact the program’s ability to keep the streets clean, a service for which businesses have craved.

“Germantown High School is at the Northwestern most corner of the GSSD,” he said. “It’s geographically a small part of the SSD.”

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