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What does a scalable roadmap for revitalization look like for Philly’s commercial corridors?

Community development pros and panelists. September 24, 2018 Category: EventFeaturedMediumMethod
Almost everyone in University of the Sciences’ auditorium instantly had something in common last Thursday evening when Yvette Núñez, VP of civic affairs at the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, asked the room how many people were first-time visitors to the campus: Most raised their hands.

The Chamber’s “Roadmap for Growth: Enhancing Philadelphia’s Commercial Corridors” event had already delivered on one goal, because, as Núñez explained, it had been intentionally hosted in a neighborhood that Chamber members and other event attendees might never visit otherwise.

As part of its multi-year Roadmap for Growth initiative, the Chamber convened a panel to discuss commercial corridors — geographical areas where residents work, shop and socialize — and their potential to stimulate prosperity in Philly neighborhoods.

John Grady, president and CEO of PIDC; Karen Lockhart Fegely, deputy commerce director of Neighborhood Business Services in the Department of Commerce; and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell of West Philadelphia delivered opening remarks on corridor development and maintenance, and the value of partnerships.

The panel, moderated by Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians Director of Business Development Elbert Sampson, included:

  • Jim Burnett, executive director of West Philadelphia Financial Services Institution
  • Monique Greenwood, CEO of Akwaaba Bed and Breakfast Inns
  • Jabari K. Jones, president of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative
  • Ryan Spak, Project Rehab manager at University City District and founder of The Spak Group

Several themes emerged as the panelists reflected on requirements for a thriving corridor, considered the building blocks of Philly’s retail economy, that bolsters the small business economy and creates jobs:

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Savviness about resources

Lack of access to capital is one of the biggest challenges for business owners. The joint advocacy and support structure provided by collaborative organizations, such as the one he oversees, provide clarity and help members avoid scams by identifying legitimate funding and consulting services, said Jones.

According to Burnett, corridor tenants should also make sure they’re getting the right funding for their type of business and seek out ways to “stack” public and private funding of different repayment structures and purposes, such as for the facade, in-store equipment and security cameras.

(Photo by Elina Tonkova)

The experience

Corridors succeed when they provide shoppers with a particular experience. Referencing urbanist Jeff Speck’s book “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” Spak said that means a corridor must be useful, comfortable, safe and interesting.

Beating the convenience of online shopping requires brick-and-mortar stores to leverage their in-person advantage to connect with their customers. According to Greenwood, shops can use digital spaces to maximize relationships and broaden their reach by posting their items on sites like Etsy or Amazon.

Synergy within corridors

There is a synergy inherent to corridors, especially those with a diverse mix of shops that bring in greater traffic and more potential customers for each store. Jones described how an overarching entity like a collaborative can harness and multiply that synergy through their collective power, such as by creating large events that generate more consumer traffic or establishing partnerships for members to gain technological training to advance their businesses.

Representing the community

Unfortunately, commercial development can also be damaging for long-term residents. According to Burnett, community members’ participation in corridor development may offset the negative effects of gentrification. Panelists emphasized intentionality in leasing corridor spaces to those who look like people in the neighborhood or live within walking distance to ensure the corridor reflects the community and what it needs. Incoming developers must become part of the neighborhood, added Greenwood.

Ultimately, the panelists advocated, successful commercial corridors stabilize their communities through economic opportunity and neighborhood revitalization. If established and maintained in a thoughtful way, they may be an opportunity for positive impact that each neighborhood deserves.

As Fegely put it: “Philadelphia is doing well when all of Philadelphia is doing well.”

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