Mt. Airy business community speaks out about state of entrepreneurship

 (Jana Shea/for NewsWorks, file)

(Jana Shea/for NewsWorks, file)

Michael Driscoll wasn’t at all surprised to learn how some small business owners operating in Northwest Philadelphia feel about city taxes.

After all, in addition to serving as vice president of business development for the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union, Driscoll operates a couple of eateries in Northeast Philly.

When Driscoll recently received the new city assessments on his commercial properties, he noticed a jarring revelation — his taxes had tripled from what they previously were.

“We’re in the community and it’s not easy right now,” Driscoll told a group of about 25 entrepreneurs at a Mt. Airy USA meeting last week.

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The offices were the scene of a meeting jointly hosted by the credit union and the Business Association of Mt. Airy to address the results of a small business owners’ business climate survey that was circulated to folks from Oct. 7 to 22.

The meeting was designed to gauge the input of neighborhood small business owners on the state of the local economy and the perceived direction of entrepreneurship in this little corner of Northwest Philadelphia.

Feedback from local entrepreneurs

Among other things, they learned that it’s often tough for the self-employed to stay afloat in the City of Brotherly Love.

“We are actually here as your neighbor,” Driscoll told the crowd, emphasizing that the credit union empathizes with those who struggle with city property taxes, business taxes and other levies that make running a small enterprise here trying.

The business climate survey — while there are approximately 700 businesses in Mt. Airy, only about 50 responded — asked people about their respective operations and about their feelings on the general state of business in Mt. Airy.

Driscoll, who walked attendees through the survey’s results via PowerPoint, said many respondents came across as “a little more positive” about their own businesses than they did about business as a whole in the community.

One respondent mentioned the struggling state of city public schools as a factor that “detracts from growth,” another highlighted the detriment that comes from having visually displeasing empty storefronts on the commercial corridor, while yet another respondent said being part of a larger business community is beneficial when it comes to networking.

Northwest Philly vs. the suburbs

Of course it didn’t take long for the topic of taxes to come up during the discussion.

One meeting attendee, John Siemiarowski, who runs Electrical Wizardry, said operating a service-oriented business is often difficult in Philadelphia when competing with similar businesses that are located in suburban communities.

Levies such as the business privilege tax and the use and occupancy tax don’t necessarily exist outside the county, meaning small business owners typically fare better in locations outside of Philadelphia.

The ultimate goal, people like Siemiarowski say, is to make Philadelphia more attractive as a locale for those who desire to run their own businesses.

And the way to do that is not through ever-increasing business taxes and unfair assessments, they say.

“We are a little scared of these taxes,” Driscoll said, empathizing with the other business owners.

Other challenges

One survey respondent mentioned needing assistance with advertising to help promote individual businesses and the business community as a whole, since the first thing to often go from a budget during tough economic times are advertising dollars.

Nearly half of the survey’s respondents said they would consider expanding outside of Mt. Airy, 81 percent said they are satisfied with the products and services offered by local banks and financial institutions, and some said a challenge they often face is retaining reliable employees.

Driscoll spoke about the “emotional struggle” experienced by business owners when it comes to making difficult decisions such as firing an employee simply because a financial reality calls for it.

One meeting attendee said the survey results were helpful, but she would have preferred to see a ratio of storefront businesses versus those located off of a main commercial corridor.

Unfortunately, the survey results weren’t tabulated that way, said Elizabeth Moselle, director of commercial corridor revitalization and business development for Mt. Airy USA.

Moselle, however, said her group would consider getting that information out to the business community.

Those who attended the meeting seemed pleased with the effort to try and gauge how self-employed individuals in Mt. Airy feel about the state of business in the community, and where it may be headed.

A similar sentiment was shared by the meeting’s presenter.

“I think there’s some valuable information in there,” Driscoll said of the survey.

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