by Wesley Ratko
While some questioned the need to expand its boundaries, the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District used a March 12 open house hosted by the Woodmere Art Museum to make its case in several presentations that demonstrated just how the organization had improved the neighborhood since it was first created in 2004.
According to executive director Martha Sharkey, the BID was formed in 2002 as a response to a declining retail presence in Chestnut Hill, an increase in crime, and a desire from business owners for more city services.
The renewal of the BID this year will come with an increase in the number of properties included within its boundaries, so as to grow its budget from $240,000 to $320,000. Several attendees Wednesday night wanted to know the reason for the expansion.
Seth Shapiro, BID board president, said the board started looking for gaps in Chestnut Hill that needed to be addressed. When they finished their review, they had $280,000 worth of projects on a $240,000 budget. They were left with no alternative but to expand the district.
“We’re increasing the budget to deal with the challenges in the neighborhood,” Shapiro said.
Twelve years ago, the Chestnut Hill Business Association led a task force that recommended forming a business improvement district. The BID is a nonprofit organization created by property owners and merchants to provide services, activities, and programs that promote local improvements and public safety within a discrete geographical area. Property owners or merchants within that area are charged an assessment to fund services and activities the BID board decides on.
Chestnut Hill’s BID has won multiple awards. Of those, Sharkey said she takes the most pride in being voted “Best Main Street Shopping” by Philadelphia magazine in 2012 and a City Council citation naming Chestnut Hill as Philadelphia’s Garden District.
Sharkey said the BID’s mission was to build a brand and get people to come to Chestnut Hill. She touted the partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Chestnut Hill day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, as well as the working relationships with area media outlets and success with social media like Facebook and Twitter. She talked about events like Harry Potter Day, Halloween on the Hill, and Holidays on the Hill. She said the BID is looking to build a relationship with SEPTA.
Sharkey said she wants the website – chestnuthillpa.com – to be “the destination for living, dining, and shopping.”
“The website will be dedicated to living in Chestnut Hill,” she said.
“Chestnut Hill is really magical during the Christmas season,” Peggy Miller, deputy director of BID, said.
Miller talked about the “greening” of the Avenue and the flower baskets and window boxes maintained by the BID, specifically by Bob Markowski and by Arthur Rackley, who collected 20,000 pounds of trash above what the city sanitation department collected.
She added that the BID worked with 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass to get the streets plowed and is working to get the potholes filled.
Miller also announced that the Philadelphia Police Department has assigned two cars to patrol the 19118 ZIP code – one during the day and one at night.
“They’ve taken a proprietary interest in this community,” she said.
There are also several security cameras along the Avenue, although, she added, there are not as many as they’d like. Repairs have also been made to the Belgian block crosswalks.
Laurie Wightman, BID retail coordinator, referred back to a report completed four years ago by retail consultant Downtown Works that assessed what was and wasn’t working in Chestnut Hill, and BID determined that the “right kind” of retail mix was necessary to reinvigorate the avenue.
A prime indicator of a healthy main street is a vacancy rate that is less than 10 percent. In the past three-and-a-half years, Wightman said, retail recruitment has reduced the vacancy rate from 20 percent down to 11 percent, which exceeds the national average. Those new businesses include 15 new retail stores and eight new restaurants.
In addition to these, Wightman said that there were two leases in the works – one, a national retailer for the 8500 block that Wightman hopes will be a magnet for other retailers.
“That would be extremely exciting,” she said. She added that the goal is to attract a mix of national, regional, and local independent businesses.
In the meantime, Wightman said the BID is working to create branded signage that can be used to fill the windows of vacant storefronts that is intended to represent Chestnut Hill.
Two local business owners – Amy Edelman, owner of the Night Kitchen Bakery at 7725 Germantown Avenue, and Ann McNally, owner of McNally’s Tavern at 8634 Germantown Avenue – spoke in favor of renewing the BID.
“There’s a lot of [tax] money going downtown,” McNally said, “and I’m not sure I’m getting the most bang for my buck.” With her BID assessment dollars, she said she can see where the money is going.
“We will survive – we will be beautiful,” she added.
“I felt satisfied someone was working on my problem,” McNally said, referring to a call to Martha Sharkey regarding a plumbing issue on the 8600 block of Germantown Avenue.
Cindy Bass complemented both Sharkey and Chestnut Hill, saying that wherever she goes in her district, people are always asking her if they can do things “like they do in Chestnut Hill.”
Shapiro stressed that Councilwoman Bass’s presence at the meeting spoke volumes about the partnership the BID has established with the city.
Representatives for the George Woodward Company, a real-estate management entity, questioned the amount of money they were assessed, saying the large number of properties were residential and didn’t directly benefit from the efforts of the BID in the same way that the commercial spaces do. He said the company spends $20,000 on the BID a year, despite only having five commercial properties along the avenue. Stanley Woodward, board chairman of the George Woodward Company, said he should not have to pay for the assessment of his residential properties.
Shapiro expressed gratitude to Woodward for all that his company does for the BID and said that the board considered the matter, but ultimately decided against making exceptions.
“We are not in a position to give property owners a discount,” Shapiro said. “Assessments are based on property values determined by the city.”