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This story is a part of the Every Voice, Every Vote series.
Chef Jennifer Zavala closes her South Philly kitchen by 9 p.m. on Saturday nights but it’s not because there aren’t customers hankering for late-night Mexican food.
Zavala is concerned that it’s simply not safe for her employees to commute home late at night, even riding on SEPTA’s Broad Street Line. It’s not unusual for her employees to arrive late and share videos of violence on the subway that delayed their train car.
Even in the Passyunk Avenue neighborhood where she opened her first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Juana Tamale, she’s experienced the weight of violent crime.
“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” she said about the neighborhood near the Broad Street and Snyder subway stop.
One night she was walking home with her husband and her son’s childhood friend who is now 16-years-old.
“And there was a shooting,” she said. “We literally just walked through.”
Several small business owners say that public safety needs to be the first priority for Philadelphia’s next mayor. Beyond that, business owners say the city needs tax reform and to streamline its bureaucracy.
The neighborhood nearby Zavala’s Mexican restaurant already has several addiction treatment clinics. There were plans for a supervised injection site nearby her restaurant but the local neighborhood association and business owners stepped in to protest.
Zavala says the city forced her to spend thousands of dollars on a zoning attorney so she wouldn’t have to replace a sign outside her business. The sign has been there for the past decade but inspectors told her that it’s against zoning law after she purchased the business. But she says the city needs to focus on public safety outside her doors instead.
“It’s something that is terrifying to think about. Someone coming to work getting hurt,” she said. “I won’t be able to get over something, I would probably feel I was responsible for it in some way.”
For Zavala, it’s been disheartening to watch the mayoral debates because she says the candidates seem out of touch.
“And as I watch these people who could potentially be the next mayor of Philadelphia, I don’t feel necessarily so hopeful that the issues that small business experiences are really going to be even addressed properly, because everything that they’ve said about it comes from a place of privilege and detachment,” she said.
Philadelphia can be a difficult place to keep highly educated and experienced workers because of high crime, said Lou Rodriguez, CEO of a professional engineering and land surveying firm, Rodriguez Consulting LLC.
Rodriguez, whose office sits near the Girard train stop in South Kensington, stopped riding the Market-Frankford Line train into Center City for business meetings about three years ago. His employees have been assaulted near public transportation.
“I used to ride the El all the time. I won’t ride it, but I have staff that has to come through there,” he said. “And we’ve had situations where they’ve been assaulted.”
Rodriguez says he wants to see Philadelphia’s next mayor tackle public safety because he sees it as a detriment to all other efforts to improve the quality of life. For example, there’s an after-school program for students inside the McPherson Square branch library which sits on the edge of a Kensington park infamously known as Needle Park due to drug use.
“How can you have an after-school program sitting in the epicenter of the largest opioid crisis in the world and no one doing anything about it?” he queried. “You could see the crime occurring and you can see these third graders, fifth graders walking through it. It’s unacceptable. And to me, like, who’s ever mayor, I think, you know, out of the gate is like, that’s unacceptable for any civilized nation to be operating that way.”
After public safety, Rodriguez says he wants to see workforce development especially for individuals under 25 years old beyond the dichotomy of military service or college education.
“If You’re driving down I-95, there’s going to billboards, you see it’s military and college,” he said. “I think there’s not enough like quasi professional jobs. People that wear polo shirts like me.”
And the next mayor can start addressing that issue by more apprenticeship style programs for civil service jobs that don’t require a test up front but enable individuals to earn and learn, he said.
West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative President Jabari Jones never considered that economic development efforts along business corridors would include giving out free security cameras already connected to the Philadelphia Police Department’s SafeCam system. But that’s what dozens of residents and business owners said they wanted to help curb crime.
“We have businesses that have been victims of all sorts of crimes, from retail theft to property damage to, you know, assaults,” Jones said. “The crime in the city has gotten so bad that, you know, things we’re doing, things that we find way outside of our scope of things that we would normally be doing.”
The program stood up last year was funded by a $182,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.
“You can’t even talk about some of the basic things like business education and tax reform, regulatory reform if people don’t even feel safe to open,” he said. “We have businesses that really aren’t growing and unfortunately, we have not really seen leadership from a council standpoint or from a mayor to say, let’s put together a plan that’s going to help our business community grow and create jobs.”
There’s already a sluggish response from the city when business owners request permits and licenses, he said.
“You can submit a license request and the city might take four or five weeks to respond to you,” he said.
When Jeff Shablin gets a call from the manager of his Center City gym because there’s an individual experiencing a mental health crisis outside the front door, he regularly dials the city hotline for help. Sometimes, nobody picks up. When mental health counselors are dispatched, individuals may refuse assistance, Shablin said. .
“Unfortunately, these people are mentally ill and the police can only do so much when you call the police,” said the co-owner of Optimal Sport Health Clubs on Walnut Street. “[Police] can only ask that person to move. The mental health advocates, they just say, ‘Do you want help?’ And [individuals in a mental health crisis] they’re not in a position to ask for help. So we continually have the same situation happening over and over again.”
Philadelphia’s next mayor needs to repair the relationship between the police and city leadership, he said.
“We need a better mayor from the top down who also has a very good relationship with the police,” he said. “Our police need to be trained. We need to have the resources to train and recruit and bring the numbers back up. And when there’s a disconnect between the mayor, the district attorney, and the police. Our city is broken.”
Shablin said that the city is hostile to small business owners and it’s difficult to even pay for basic $200 licenses, often requiring an in-person visit to offices with limited business hours and the potential of being turned away.
“Everything about it is antiquated and you cannot resolve issues,” he said. “You can’t even pay things simply. I have had issues of just paying simple licenses that I need to pay online because they don’t accept checks. You can’t send the checks. So you have to go through the system. And I repeatedly have had issues trying to pay what I’m supposed to pay, and they make it very difficult. So the whole system is backwards.”
Business owners said they wanted to see substantial tax reform, which is already on the table as the city council is poised to cut both the Business Income and Receipts Tax and the city wage tax in the coming weeks. But beyond marginal cuts, there’s no further relief on the horizon.
Shablin said that paying taxes for a business that lost money over the year, “never made sense to me.”
The first few years of tax bills can be especially difficult for new businesses, echoed Jones.
“I think it’s a terrible tax that disproportionately affects smaller Black and brown businesses,” he said. “Most new businesses that start, they have a loss because at the end of the day.”
For one West Oak Lane catering business, the big tax burden means they’ve held off hiring more employees to make sure they can pay the tax bill.
“It prohibits us from hiring, we allocate so much revenue [for taxes]. I think the city could do better,” said Jennifer Alvarado, co-owner of Joshua’s Catering. “I would love more tax incentives.”
And it’s unclear how well that tax money is even spent, Alvarado said.
The catering company paid for professional landscaping of city-owned historic properties in Fairmount Park out of pocket, which cost thousands, before client events because the venue was in such disarray and pleas for help were ignored.
“We spent a lot of money just maintaining those grounds because the city won’t do it,” Alvarado said. “It’s hard to get anybody on the phone still and we’re three years out [since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic].”
Joshua’s Catering co-owner Brian Hardaway said sometimes it’s difficult to book Philadelphia’s city-owned historic mansions especially in neighborhoods where clients say they don’t feel safe holding events there.
“We could probably book [Strawberry Mansion] a lot more,” Hardaway said. “It’s really challenging to get diverse groups of people to rent the venue because of the crime in the area. And that’s going to be an ongoing problem until the area develops.”
This story is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. Learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters here.