In a paternal fashion that befits his French origins, Bernard Guet likes to refer to Roxborough as “my village.”
Guet is executive director of the Roxborough Development Corporation, a non-profit organization located on Ridge Avenue that is tasked with and dedicated to improving the business climate and the residential environment in and around Roxborough.
The RDC is one of three development corporations in Northwest Philadelphia that Newsworks will be profiling this month in order to identify accomplishments from the previous year, establish goals for the coming year, and recognize the people who are bringing these many plans to fruition.
A bit of history
The history of the RDC dates back to 1992, when a group of volunteers from area civic associations, residents, and the Roxborough business community teamed together to develop what Guet termed a “two-pronged goal” for improved quality of life and commerce in the area.
“The goal was – and is,” said Guet, who signed on in 2007, “to put together residents and business for the good of the community.”
After approximately 10 years of work without dedicated staff, in 2003, a Business Improvement District was created for Roxborough, which provided the nascent RDC with a concrete apparatus for funding.
As explained by Guet, with the establishment of a BID, the RDC now receives a percentage of a Roxborough business’ real estate assessment tax as collected by the city. Businesses in Roxborough’s central corridor are charged a slightly higher assessment than those on the periphery, as they receive more services from the RDC and benefit from more commercial traffic.
This assessment, combined with both private and public grants at the federal, state, and municipal level, provide the RDC with funding to retain two full-time and two part-time staffers, who work closely with volunteer staff from the RDC’s board.
While Guet admits that the RDC’s budget can be described at times as “shoe-string,” he is proud of the accomplishments made in spite of these constraints.
“We stretch the money,” he said, “and are able to do a lot.”
Asked for RDC’s major accomplishments from 2011, Guet provided three examples that he says will expand Roxborough’s current commercial offerings and enhance its appeal to residents and visitors alike.
Among the most exciting announcements of the previous year was the landing of the Foodery, a specialty retailer stocking a large variety of craft beers along with deli offerings, chocolate, and cheese.
Slated to open in April 2012, the Foodery will be establishing its third Philadelphia store in RDC’s former location at 6148 Ridge Avenue.
For Guet, the Foodery will provide important variety to Roxborough’s extant commercial outlets, and will serve as an anchor for Roxborough’s “evening economy” – defined by Guet as those establishments open past standard business hours.
Guet was quick to point out this term’s distinction from the “night economy” – nightlife, and its attendant implications – typically associated with Manayunk.
Also of note were two projects undertaken to improve the facades of Roxborough businesses.
The first was a $250,000 grant financed by the City of Philadelphia in 2010. Through what he called “leverage,” Guet was able to complete $350,000 in improvements through the grant, which concluded last year.
A second grant, funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, gave the RDC $30,000 a year for six years. The $180,000 grant, which concludes at the end of 2012, has been leveraged by RDC to amount to $240,000 dollars.
According to Guet, over 85 facades have been improved as a result of these grants.
Lastly, an ambitious beautification project, funded by $2.2 million in federal, state, and city grants, has begun, with decades-old sidewalks being replaced, along with the addition of trees, landscaping, garbage containers, and 85 planters on Ridge Ave.
The streetscape project will be completed later this year.
An uncertain future
Looking ahead to 2012 and beyond, Guet expressed concern about the availability of grant-based funding, due to the dim economic condition of government revenue.
“Now – and for the future,” he observed, “it will be very difficult for us to get grants.”
While grants authorized prior to the economic downturn are not in jeopardy, Guet noted that at present, the funding that is currently available is being directed toward low-income neighborhoods.
Thus, said Guet, “our number one goal (for 2012) is funding.”
He stated that at present, the RDC is in good shape – assessments and money earned from real-estate developments will keep his organization solvent in the short-term.
Guet stated that he is “100-percent certain” that economic fortunes will eventually turn around, but he remains unsure of the outlook for the next three years.
A charter school in Roxborough?
In the interim, Guet is alight with ideas for what could take shape this year.
Paramount among them is securing a new permanent home for the RDC – its prior location having been sold to the Foodery, RDC is temporarily occupying a former storefront at 6111 Ridge Ave.
It won’t be as easy as it seems, said Guet, as Roxborough has historically avoided high rates of vacancy, recession notwithstanding.
“And now,” gasped Guet, “our problem is that we have no place to go!”
Less concrete plans include the development of a BYOB in Roxborough.
Guet, himself a former hotelier and restaurateur, envisions soliciting proposals from students of local culinary schools and giving them carte blanche.
“We would give them the space for a year for free – with conditions,” he said, adding that his experience in the field could help secure a successful outcome for the project.
With an eye toward education, Guet spoke about the work done so far at improving education in Roxborough, and pointed out the interconnectedness of good schools with good neighborhoods.
“A school is the third leg (of a stool) – along with the residents and the businesses,” he mused, noting that if a public school fails, residents will be forced to look into alternate means of schooling – or leave.
To remedy this, the RDC is participating in discussions to ensure a quality education for residents.
In addition, talks are underway to bring a charter school to Roxborough.
“It’s coming close,” said Guet in reference to the charter school proposal. “It’s not here yet – but it could happen.”
Stay tuned to Newsworks for future installments of the NW Philly development corporation series – coming next week, Gina Snyder of the East Falls Development Corporation.