On September 21, the city of Chester held its largest community event of the year in the parking lot of the Wharf at Rivertown, a former power plant turned business complex located on the banks the Delaware River.
Local businesses lined the asphalt, selling everything from jewelry to fried fish. Young artists handed out mix-tapes. Families gathered for live musical performances and children raced between the tents gripping containers of locally-made fruit juice.
The Riverfront Ramble, now on its ninth year, was started by Delaware County’s Brandywine Conference and Tourism Bureau to bring the county closer to its namesake, the Delaware River, which borders the county on the south and brushes along some of its poorest townships and boroughs.
For Chester, the Riverfront Ramble has become more than a chance for the city to reconnect with the river and attract visitors: it’s an opportunity for Chester to celebrate and enforce its own small businesses community, drawing over 10,000 people over the course of day and featuring about 50 vendors.
“We realized that it was really about small businesses, and so the Ramble became the perfect opportunity to showcase our local entrepreneurs,“ said James Turner, director of business development for the Chester Water Authority and one of the head organizers of the Ramble. “Some of them make more money in one day at the Ramble than they make in a whole month,” he added.
The idea for the Ramble, Turner explained, began with a meeting over nine years ago when county officials and Chester City officials gathered to discuss the future of Delaware County. One of the exercises in the meeting was to envision what Chester would look like in 2020.
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Turner said the Chester group imagined a Chester waterfront that would attract visitors from around the county and serve as a point of pride for the city. Running with this idea, Chester and the county teamed up to create the Riverfront Ramble. At its peak, the Ramble included five communities and funding for transportation from the county.
But the county, after a change in the administration, stopped funding five years in. Chester now pays for about one third of the event itself, and the rest of the $150,000 total is paid for by sponsors, such as PECO and Mercy Health System.
Turner believes that the Ramble is worth the expense and crucial to building up Chester from the inside. “What I realized was that we were never going to turn the City of Chester around with huge businesses coming back to the city,” he said.
Building a Small Business Network
Chester still contains some of the heaviest industry in the region, including waste plants, water treatment facilities and scrap yards. The city has also taken steps in recent years to draw nonindustrial heavy-hitters such as PPL Park and Harrah’s Casino.
But local businesses have stood on the side-lines of these developments, sometimes benefitting and other times getting bypassed–literally.
For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation built two ramps off Route 322 that allow visitors to go directly to PPL Park and the Wharf at Rivertown without spending anytime in Chester at all. While this is good for bringing visitors to the waterfront, Chester’s small business are in effect cut out of the loop.
So even as large developments crowd into the waterfront, the city and a number of third parties are working together to develop small businesses, from Tony B’s Barbecue to Phatso’s Bakery (recently featured in the Inquirer).
Entrepreneur Works, a community development financial institution (CDFI), is a part of this network and has worked in Chester since 1999.
A CDFI is essentially a community lender and business support network. In addition, Entrepreneur Works provides technical support and financial guidance for individuals.
For the Riverfront Ramble, Entrepreneur Works provides workshops on preparing a booth, $500 loans for supplies, and day-of support.
“Our involvement, since they began doing this event, is working with the businesses and providing them with the support they need to be ready,” said Antoinette Truehart, managing director of Entrepreneur Works and head of operations in Chester.
Truehart explained that helping businesses prepare for the Riverfront Ramble has expanded its access to the community.
“Some of them continue with us because they are also in need of growing their business as a whole, not just for this particular event,” Truehart said. “Often what happens is that after their first introduction to us… they become clients and gain access to the rest of our services.”
The biggest problem for Chester’s small businesses, Truehart said, is access to capital and figuring out their finances. She added that while many business owners have a passion for what they do, many lack formal business training.
Entrepreneur Works has also prepped businesses to become suppliers for large companies coming into the city, such as Harrah’s Casino, by helping them form business plans and receive various forms of certification.
But Entrepreneur Works is just one part of this support ecosystem. As businesses grow, Entrepreneur Works passes them onto the Widener Small Development Center, which works with slightly larger enterprises. The city government also works closely with these groups on economic development through entities like the Chester Water Authority.
Finding a Place on the Waterfront
Just as Chester officials envisioned almost a decade ago, large portions of the waterfront have transformed from brownfields into new developments. Visitors–soccer fans and gamblers in particular–are coming from all over the county and beyond to Chester.
But small businesses are still figuring out how this transformation affects them and whether there is a place for them on the waterfront and the long-term revitalization of the city as a whole.
For the Riverfront Ramble, at least, the city has brought the small business community out onto the waterfront for the day to benefit from the high-profile location.
“There are so many businesses that are born right here that are getting regional and in some cases national exposure because people have come to the Ramble to see what they’re doing,” Turner said,
This kind of development can’t be achieved by building a strip mall, Turner stressed. “You have to create a place. You have to create an experience where people can come and where you can strengthen the folks that you have and expose them.”-30-
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