Laurie Wightman

by Lou Mancinelli

When Borders closed more than two years ago at 8501 Germantown Ave., where the bookstore served as an anchor and drew many consumers from out of town to the commercial corridor, the realities of the slumping economy arrived in Chestnut Hill.

Even before that, the signs pointed towards trouble, when a year earlier Magarity Ford closed its doors at 8200 Germantown Ave. after two decades of successful business. Plans for the development of a grocery and other residential and retail space by Bowman Properties have since been approved at that location.

The closures sparked the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District (BID) to create a position its members had discussed before the downturn, that of retail recruiter. Shortly after Borders closed, members of the BID hired Chestnut Hill resident Eileen Reilly to serve as Chestnut Hill’s inaugural retail recruiter.

Last Monday, Laurie Wightman started her term as Chestnut Hill’s second retail recruiter, with Reilly remaining onboard as a consultant. During Reilly’s term, vacancies dropped by about 20 percent. There are approximately 125 retail spaces along the Avenue, with about a 12 percent vacancy rate, according to Wightman.

“One of the biggest parts of this job is building relationships,” Wightman said.

Wightman spent her first week on the job meeting the business owners along Germantown Avenue, as well as meeting various landlords and Chestnut Hill marketing representatives.

It’s those relationships in Chestnut Hill and beyond that Wightman will lean on to attract the right retailers to the Avenue. To accomplish that goal, Wightman plans to travel to various Main Streets and commercial corridors across the Tri-State area.

She’ll work to develop relationships with business owners at those marketplaces and to establish herself as a learned, credible and trusted representative of Chestnut Hill. Her selling point is steeped in her sentiment that Chestnut Hill is the quintessential Philadelphia neighborhood.

“It’s like a little jewel box filled with charm and allure that many Main Streets don’t have,” Wightman said.

She’ll try to convince potential retailers that Chestnut Hill is a unique, affluent community filled with residents dedicated to supporting independent retailers. And she’ll likely cite a 2007 Forbes Magazine article that listed the neighborhood “famous for its cobblestone streets, stately colonial-style townhouses and upscale restaurants and cafes,” as one of the top urban enclaves in America, to support her claims.

But Wightman is poised to face some obstacles, as a number of the current vacant spaces are large and expensive to rent, according to Reilly. Like the site of the former Children’s Place, a 5,000-square-foot space at 8512 Germantown Ave. that closed in 2011, where it operated for more than a decade.

A need for children’s, men’s and women’s apparel retail seemed to be echoed by many Avenue business owners with whom Wightman visited last week, a visit-trail she’ll continue to walk this week.

She’ll also be challenged to attract businesses for locations zoned for specific businesses, meaning retail in areas zoned for retail, and restaurants in locations zoned for restaurants.

Some specific ideas she’s envisioned include a tapas bar, live-music, a high-end deli, similar to the Italian Market’s Di Bruno Brothers, and family-style restaurants. And there’s the vision for a speakeasy in the basement location underneath Starbucks at 8515 Germantown Ave. that has remained vacant for almost 20 years.

Wightman, 34, developed an affinity for Chestnut Hill as a girl from Maple Glen who visited the town with her family for shopping and holiday dinners at restaurants.

The process that culminated in her hiring started last year, when Wightman called Reilly about opening her own high-end home furnishing shop on the avenue. When that project petered out, and Reilly decided the end of her term was near, she suggested Wightman might be the perfect candidate to replace her.

Reilly herself has plans to develop an online marketing company. She recalled her biggest obstacles as recruiter were managing her own expectations. She wanted things to happen faster than they did.

“I want her to be aggressive,” Reilly said, “kind of like keep her eyes on the prize and relentlessly pursue. It’s hard.”

For example, if Reilly wanted to speak with Iron Hill Brewery decision maker Kevin Finn, the process required more work than simply walking in to the brewery at 8400 Germantown Ave. First one had to speak with the managers and hope one’s message was passed on.

Reilly also explained that local landlords are flexible and generally excited about attracting new tenants.

Wightman attended Upper Dublin High School (Class of ’95) and graduated from Penn State University in 1999 with a degree in journalism. She spent most of her career in advertising and marketing in the publishing industry in New York City, where she worked for Martha Stewart Living, U.S. News and World Report and Entertainment Weekly.

She moved back to the Philadelphia area three years ago because she wanted to give home a try again, she explained. She lives in Maple Glen and allegedly plans to move to Chestnut Hill.

She said one of the biggest obstacles she’ll be faced with is convincing business owners that even though they will be operating in Philadelphia, and thus subjected to higher taxes, operating a business in an affluent neighborhood steeped in community support is an opportunity to be capitalized upon.