(Revised 2/23/11: Correctly states the number of groups working on Chestnut Hill’s retail strategy and the number of business openings and closings for Mt. Airy)
One glance at the Business section of any daily newspaper is enough to know that individuals and families are not the only ones mired by the current economic downturn. Existing businesses, big and small, are shuttering their windows or merging for their lives; new businesses are struggling to find enough capital to get off the ground. Nowhere is this trend more worrisome than in small towns and communities that are defined by, and depend on, their local business communities.
Sections of Philadelphia based on “downtown” communities such as Chestnut Hill, Manayunk and Germantown have encountered this problem like most other small towns, and each have devised ways to tackle the problem head-on, believing that a solution lies in creativity, determination, and never saying “die.”
Chestnut Hill’s strategy
Chestnut Hill has three parties designated to losing sleep over such matters: The Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District (BID), the Chestnut Hill Business Association (CHBA) and the Chestnut Hill Community Association (CHCA). During the summer of 2010, the BID initiated and now manages a retail recruitment program and hired, Eileen Reilly, an integral part of the BID plan for maintaining and developing its downtown community.
Reilly’s job is to research other, similar communities in the area to discover what appears to be working or not working, and then to utilize that information, along with Chestnut Hill’s inherent attractions, to lure new businesses or existing businesses looking to move or expand.
Reilly shows spaces to potential business owners an average of three times a week. So far she seems to be doing a good job of closing the deal. During her short tenure, at least five businesses have opened or are in the process of opening. She and the CHBA are encouraged by this success and the apparent interest in Chestnut Hill as a landing place for new businesses.
“There’s such a sense of commitment here,” Reilly said of the community she is helping to grow.
With Reilly keeping a watchful eye on the future, plenty is being done to help merchants presently struggling through a tough economic transition.
Chestnut Hill hosts special events several times a year with the hope of enticing shoppers to support their local merchants. This past holiday season, for example, the town held their annual “Stag and Doe” nights, a series of three evenings in December when businesses stayed open later to accommodate holiday shoppers, and children and adults alike enjoyed the entertainment of choral groups, a brass band, and other holiday festivities.
While turnout was high for “Stag and Doe” nights this season, a consistently high volume of foot-traffic is difficult to sustain year-round, so the Chestnut Hill Business Association encourages its merchants to have an online presence and that it be linked to the CHBA website.
Hoping to provide additional support for local businesses at a recent CHBA meeting, CHBA president and owner of the Chestnut Hill Grill and Sidewalk Café, Greg Welsh, presented CHEAP (Chestnut Hill’s Energy Alternative Program), a proposed energy cost-cutting plan for local merchants.
With all that’s being done to help them, the onus lies ultimately on the shoulders of the merchants to keep themselves afloat. Continual reassessment of ones business model and image are important to remaining viable, and sometimes that reassessment leads to redevelopment.
O’Doodles, now a full-blown toy store, began its business life in 1954 as O’Donnell’s, a stationary and office supply store. But when Staples moved in across the street in 1997, the family-owned O’Donnell’s had some decisions to make. Fran O’Donnell sent cards to 250 customers asking what they would want in a “knock your socks off” toy store. After much consideration, the transformation was made from O’Donnell’s stationary to O’Doodles toys.
O’Donnell laughs as he mentions that people still come in asking for stationary supplies and photocopies.
“Some of our older customers remember O’Donnell’s for all their school supplies,” O’Donnell said, putting all humor aside to note that “if we were not a local store with loyal local customers we would not have survived.”
Mt. Airy’s approach
That strength of community has helped businesses in nearby Mt. Airy. Though there is no formal business association anymore, local business owners have banded together to weather the economic storm.
When Sherman Oberson’s Jean Jacques Gallery fell on hard times, a decision was made to quite literally band together with Amy Lydon’s One Salon across the street.
“Amy and I had been talking about joining forces for the last year,” Oberson said. “It seemed like a natural step for us.”
Mt. Airy does have what is called the “Avenue Project,” and director Elizabeth Moselle of Mt. Airy U.S.A. is working to do her part in keeping Mt. Airy’s business district alive and growing. Not quite a retail recruiter, she does regularly show vacant properties to interested businesses.
One area Moselle notes could be greatly improved is the online presence of local businesses. She is disappointed that no Mt. Airy merchants have been able to set up online versions of their businesses and is doing what she can to change that fact.
Moselle is also able to assist businesses in Mt. Airy with physical improvements such as storefront maintenance, helping merchants secure grants to rehab their properties. Currently, the Mt. Airy U.S.A. website is a basic introduction into the neighborhood, but Moselle sees a bright future for Mt. Airy.
“We’ve always had to be creative,” Moselle asserted, “doing what you can to package it to make it work.”
Creativity has paid off. 2010 was a drastic improvement, 13 businesses moved in as four closed, a net gain of nine businesses at a time when many communities grappled at the weight of the recession. Moselle sees this as a major accomplishment, an indication that Mt. Airy is on the way up. The businesses are working together to make the community a shopping destination.
Sensing a niche to be filled, Amy Kunkle opened Food for All in September 2010. The locally grown, sustainable agriculture market and allergy-sensitive café has appealed to Mt. Airy residents from the start, and has already established a loyal following.
“I knew that this was something that was really needed,” Kunkle said.
Seeming totally in her element, Kunkle cheerfully moves from customer to customer, ringing up grocery orders or preparing a plate for someone’s lunch. She seems to know most of the people who walk through the door, and a few patrons hang around just to continue talking to her.
“From the beginning we have gotten a lot of regulars,” Kunkle said, adding “we’re seeing a lot of new people recently.”