by Philip Dawson
This past Friday, I celebrated two years as executive director of the Chestnut Hill Business District. The time has flown by from my perspective – driven onward by the feverish pace of the district’s many festivals, business meetings, and ongoing initiatives – but the milestone encouraged me to pause and consider what we have achieved over the past two years, and where we are headed next.
Our Business Improvement District is taking the lead on critical physical and infrastructure improvements in our commercial area. Working towards the implementation of our 2015 Streetscape Master Plan, some of our proudest milestones have included securing $225,000 in additional funding towards new streetlights along Germantown Avenue, and securing the implementation of three significant capital improvements to SEPTA infrastructure on the Hill.
The restoration of the historic Chestnut Hill West newsstand canopy, lead paint remediation and repainting of more than 60 trolley catenary poles, and replacement of degraded concrete in the roadway are all projects which happened as a direct result of the BID’s advocacy, and which will benefit the district for decades to come.
All BID services have been maintained or improved over the past years, with annual autumn leaf vacuuming now expanded to cover the entire BID footprint, ornamental tree lighting extended year-round, and the Avenue’s flowering program jointly supported by the Garden District Fund earning two consecutive PHS Blue Ribbon awards. As 2019 draws to a close, I’m excited to announce that the BID has initiated work with a professional consultant to develop state-of-the-art wayfinding signage for the Business District, moving forward on a critical item for which many merchants have been advocating for years.
In July, the City’s Commerce Director Harold Epps visited Chestnut Hill’s Business District, lauding it for maintaining the lowest commercial vacancy rate among all of Philadelphia’s neighborhood business districts. That’s not to say that our work is finished and that we don’t face challenges. This fall, for instance, three beloved businesses – Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop, Top of the Hill Market & Café, and Osaka – closed their doors within 60 days of each other, and although each closure was precipitated by particular circumstances unrelated to the general health of the retail district, the coincidental timing generated palpable concern and disappointment in the community.
While all commercial areas must contend with this sort of turnover, Chestnut Hill is able to field these changes better than most of its competitors by virtue of being a managed district that is in high demand as a business location. Our retail recruitment program has successfully generated 15 new business openings in the past two years by proactively recruiting tenants, and exciting prospects for some of the recently closed sites are already progressing.
For the Chestnut Hill Parking Foundation, I have focused on modernization and achieving a state of good repair across our parking facilities. Following a systematic assessment of lot conditions, the CHPF invested more than $30,000 in projects such as patching, painting, drainage, tree maintenance, fencing and signage. Meanwhile, the adoption of ParkMobile has made our community lots more convenient and competitive for visitors, with the popular app logging over 5,100 transactions in its first five months.
Finally, a successful grant application to Weavers Way’s Environmental Committee has provided the CHPF with starter funding that it will use to develop electric vehicle charging stations in its lots in early 2020, making Chestnut Hill more hospitable to new technologies and more of a destination for EV drivers.
For the Chestnut Hill Business Association, the past two years have been defined by growth and an expansion of services for our merchants. During the last two years, the CHBA has seen a net increase of 27 members, bolstering the ranks of an organization that already boasts one of the highest local membership rates in the region among its peers. In order to provide more opportunities for those merchants to participate in our work and connect with each other, we’ve created a monthly General Membership meeting for the first time in the organization’s history and expanded the number of committees to allow businesses to collaborate on the planning of our events.
Being involved and informed is also easier than ever thanks to communications enhancements, such as the addition of text message reminders, a new comprehensive membership guide, and a written annual report. Perhaps most importantly for small business owners, the CHBA has focused on strategic improvements to marketing and events that increase the visibility of our merchants.
Over the past two years, we’ve increased the destination marketing budget for Chestnut Hill to a five-year high, received over one million page views on our website, achieved remarkable 25% growth over a single year in our Instagram audience, and individually featured more than 100 businesses across multiple media in our Insiders Guide to Chestnut Hill series. We enjoyed increases in attendance to our four largest events from 2018 to 2019, and even managed to restore the magic of our Witches & Wizards Festival after its predecessor was dealt a blow in 2017.
Among our community partners, the extraordinary generosity of two local companies – the George Woodward Company and Elfant Wissahickon Realtors – secured the Business District years of predictable funding under the City’s CDC tax Credit Program, as reported in the Local earlier this year. Our annual corporate sponsors, led by Subaru and Bowman Properties, also continue to perceive the value of our work and Chestnut Hill’s importance as a destination, and a 13% increase in corporate event sponsorships over the past two years has given us the ability to strengthen our popular festivals.
In sum, the last two years have generated increased Business Association membership, additional marketing, new infrastructure funding, expanded BID services, improved parking lots, and more new businesses. Looking back, I am proud of the milestones that I’ve been able to accomplish in this Business District with the help of our hard-working staff, our committed boards of directors, our many generous corporate sponsors, and the contributions of the hundreds of merchants and property owners who sustain our work. With the continued unity and support of our stakeholders, I am equally excited by the potential for what we can achieve together in the coming year.