Germantown Avenue thrives because of collaboration according to local leaders.

by Paula M. Riley

It’s a basic concept. By pulling together with others, you become stronger. This is what the Chestnut Hill community has been doing for the last five years ,and the results have been amazing.

Seth Shapiro, president of the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District (BID), attributes collaboration in Chestnut Hill for the success of recent events, increased occupancy and accolades such as Philadelphia Magazine naming Chestnut Hill Best of Philly for Main Street Shopping 2012.

He explains that most local businesses, associations and institutions have very small staffs and small budgets. They have a hard time making a financial impact and recognized that they needed to work together to fight a challenging economy and competition from suburban and Center City destinations. By joining forces, they have experienced success that the entire community can enjoy.

In 2011, representatives from Chestnut Hill Business Association (CHBA), BID and business owners met with Chestnut Hill College to explore opportunities to work together. They learned that the College’s Quidditch tournament drew 200 people from schools across the Northeast. CHBA and BID members asked each other, “How can we draw these people to the Avenue?” The answer? Turn Germantown Avenue in to Diagon Alley.

Thus, the Harry Potter Festival was born. A planning committee with representative from community organizations, local institutions and business was led by volunteer Mary Kate McGrath May. In its first year, the festival drew over 2,000 people from around the region and become one of Chestnut Hill’s most successful weekends ever.

“We identified an asset that the college had, and, together, we built upon that asset,” Shapiro said. “Everyone played a part.”

Fast forward two years. There was an opportunity for Chestnut Hill to partner with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society at the world’s largest Flower Show. “Destination Chestnut Hill” involved all corners of the community and invited the over 350,000 Flower Show visitors to come explore Chestnut Hill.

With a booth featuring Chestnut Hill’s signature lamp posts and cobblestone streets, “Destination Chestnut Hill” was created and staffed by community volunteers. Contributions from the CHBA, BID, Bowman Properties and others paid for the production of the booth, but it was the 100 volunteers that greeted visitors at the booth for a total of 103 hours that made it such a success.

These volunteers collected email addresses, encouraging visitors to join the raffle for “A Day in Chestnut Hill.” Each day of the show, a winner received a package valued at $800 and included an overnight stay the Chestnut Hill Hotel, gift certificates to local restaurants, passes to Morris Arboretum or Woodmere Art Museum and items from local retailers.

“As a result of the Flower Show, we doubled the number of people on our mailing list,” said Peggy Miller, deputy director of CHBA. “This is a huge accomplishment that wouldn’t have been possible without all of us working together.”

Pooling resources also led to the addition of the Mural Arts Program’s “Wissahickon Crossing” on Bredenbeck’s wall. The BID was the single largest financial contributor, but Shapiro was quick to point out that this is just a piece of the success.

“Once again, volunteers came together and crafted this community wide project,” he said.

The mural is now included on the Mural Arts Germantown Tour, drawing more visitors to the business corridor.

“The business association works to draw shoppers to the Avenue businesses but ultimately, we are all working together to make the Avenue the best it can be for retailers, property owners, residents, and customers,” Miller said.

A key element of the BID is the Retail Recruitment Program. Started four years ago based on recommendations from a study by Downtown Works, the retail recruitment program includes a full -time recruiter charged with drawing new businesses to the shopping corridor. Originally held by Eileen Reilly, the role is now filled by Laurie Wightman.

Since the inception of the Retail Recruitment Program, Mica, Heirloom, Thai Kuu, Chestnut 7 and Iron Hill Brewery joined Chestnut Hill’s dining options. Retailers such as Indigo Schuy (Best of Philly winner), J.McLaughlin, Earth, Taste of Olive, Oxford Circus Toys, StyleCamp and many others have opened their doors and occupancy is now at 88 percent.

Residents often focus on vacancy rates, but Shapiro explains that the real question is whether the right occupancy is on the Avenue.

“The goal is to make sure people have access to all categories of retail so they don’t have to go to Chemical Road – they can get all they need here in Chestnut Hill,” he said.

In examining shopping competition, suburban malls and strip malls seem the obvious competitors. Shapiro points to the resources that surround the Chestnut Hill shopping corridor as the region’s greatest advantage. Within a mile of the Germantown Avenue business district is Woodmere Art Museum, Chestnut Hill College, Morris Arboretum and Wissahickon Valley Park, these Shapiro says, are Chestnut Hill’s “anchors.”

Director and CEO of Woodmere Art Museum, William “Bill” Valerio, offers countless illustrations of how collaborating with other Chestnut Hill organizations and leaders have benefitted the overall community. Friday Night Jazz at Woodmere attracts almost 200 visitors to the Museum. After these early evening performances, guests head to the Avenue for drinks and dinner. Valerio worked with Miller at CHBA to create a postcard that includes a schedule of performance on one side and list of restaurants on the other.

“Just by providing the information to the customer, we can make a big impact,” Valerio said. “These small interventions make a difference and illustrate how just a little bit of coordination can bind us together and enhance the visitor’s experience in Chestnut Hill.”

Pooling resources, sharing costs and leveraging assets is the hidden secret behind the increased occupancy, extensive exposure and successful programs in Chestnut Hill.

“Our entire community benefits from business, organizations and institutions working together, “said Miller. “We have long known how special Chestnut Hill is, and now, as result of our collaboration, greater Philadelphia knows this and they are coming in droves to check us out.”

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