It can happen.
Over and over, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell stressed that simple, but important, phrase as he spoke Thursday night to a room filled with Germantown residents who desperately want to turn the neighborhood’s fortunes around.
“Anything that really is worthwhile is going to be hard to accomplish. The more worthwhile it is, sometimes the harder it is to accomplish,” said Rendell during the first-ever fundraiser for the Germantown United Community Development Corporation. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not doable and it’s not achievable.”
Speaking from experience
Rendell knows a little something about revitalizing struggling commercial districts.
While serving as Philadelphia’s mayor, Rendell worked to transform Center City into a safe, clean and welcoming shopping destination.
“Center City had become a place that no one wanted to go to,” said Rendell.
Initiatives like the Center City District and an increase in the number of foot-patrol police officers were part of what helped kick-start positive change, he maintained.
Rendell said similar efforts could help Germantown’s revitalization, especially having more police walking up and down the neighborhood’s commercial strips and building relationships with shop owners.
“That’s the way you build a sense of confidence in the safety of the area,” he said.
It’s something that Rendell said has steadily dwindled over the years and contributed to fewer and fewer shoppers coming in from outside of the neighborhood, including the long-time East Falls resident.
Thursday night’s crowd inside the historic Oaks Cloister mansion certainly encouraged Rendell, but he said nothing would improve if the pushing stops once guests drive away.
“You can’t write a check and then say, ‘Let other people do it,'” he said. “You have to participate.”
Germantown doesn’t have a dearth of residents interested in improving the neighborhood. It’s long been a place with a bevy of active community groups.
Those groups, however, haven’t always seen eye to eye.
Some residents have also historically had a certain degree of hesitation when it came to trusting organizations looking to fix things up.
The neighborhood was home to Germantown Settlement, a now-defunct social-services agency which mismanaged its vast real-estate holdings with millions of taxpayer dollars on the line.
What they’ve done
Joe Martin, a board member with GUCDC, said the organization does have a “chip on its shoulder.” However, he said that the two-year-old nonprofit has already started to show residents that they can trust his group.
“The title itself is very descriptive,” said Martin, who runs Acclaim Academy on Germantown Avenue and helms the Germantown Special Services District. “The objective is to bring Germantown together at a time when Germantown desperately needs to be together.”
So far, GUCDC has organized community cleanups and hosted events like “Stars Under the Trees,” an outdoor movie series in Vernon Park, and a street festival tied to the upcoming revitalization of Maplewood Mall.
Executive Director Andy Trackman, the organization’s first employee, said those kinds of projects will help build the kind of foundation the organization needs to get widespread neighborhood support they seek.
“The key is engaging the community from the get-go on any kind of idea or plan,” Trackman said.
“They need to be in the conversation at the start, and not coming around when it has already been decided. They need to be part of the decision,” he continued. “We have to earn Germantown’s respect and buy-in everyday. We can’t just take it for granted.”