Resilience and progress in 2020 point to hopeful future for Business District

by Philip Dawson
Posted 1/29/21

Looking back on 2020, I see a year that was profoundly different than what any of us expected but also one in which our impact in Chestnut Hill was more important than ever.

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Resilience and progress in 2020 point to hopeful future for Business District


At the beginning of each year, I like to the offer the stakeholders of Chestnut Hill’s Business Improvement District an update on the progress that our organization has made in its mission. Looking back on 2020, I see a year that was profoundly different than what any of us expected but also one in which our impact in Chestnut Hill was more important than ever.

While small business support has always been one of our organization’s activities, it took center stage in March 2020. At the start of the pandemic, the International Downtown Association encouraged downtown management organizations to concentrate their energies where they could provide the greatest added value, without duplicating others’ efforts. For our organization, that focus was on communicating timely information and resources to stakeholders, promoting Chestnut Hill and its businesses to the public as conditions evolved, and organizing a local grant fund to supplement other sources of financial assistance. Chestnut Hill was one of only three business districts in the city to start a grant fund and we were able to raise and distribute more than $55,000 through the generosity of dozens of small local donors, philanthropists, and the Chestnut Hill Community Fund.

Marketing efforts proved equally important, as local consumers turned to the Business District’s website for updated information on when businesses were open, what they were offering, and how they could support them. As the year drew to a close, we found that traffic to Chestnut Hill’s website during the 2020 holiday season was up 29% over the 2019 holiday season, as customers searched online for local shopping information. We also worked to ensure that the beloved traditions of our holiday season were maintained—modifying them where necessary in the interest of safety—and the media coverage and business generated during that time provided a lifeline for many businesses during an incredibly challenging year. In sustaining our activities, we owe much to the generosity of long-term funders like George Woodward Company, Elfant Wissahickon, and Bowman Properties, but we are also humbled by the support of individual shoppers. The CHBA encouraged our community to commit to “shop small” and keep their dollars on the Hill, and those patrons answered the call, with December sales of Chestnut Hill Gift Cards reaching record levels.  

Our Business Improvement District (BID) remained steadfast in its mission to strengthen the commercial core of Chestnut Hill and maintain its enduring appeal. Through the support of our property owners, the Garden District remained in bloom, the lights remained twinkling in our trees, and the Avenue remained clean. We also continued to look forward, pressing on with projects that invested in Chestnut Hill’s future. 2020 saw the construction of two handsome welcome signs at Chestnut Hill’s gateways, an improvement that will stand for decades to come thanks to funding from the BID and generous local donors. We initiated and completed the process of creating professional designs for new Wayfinding signage, a project whose implementation will make it easier for visitors to orient themselves and find businesses on all parts of the Hill. We also completed the final coordination efforts for the first phase of streetlight replacement due to break ground in summer 2021.

To be sure, the past year was one of unparalleled difficulty for our shops and restaurants. Most sustained deep decreases in revenue, many were forced to curtail staffing and hours or modify their business model to remain profitable, and a few made the difficult decision to close permanently. Even so, there may be no greater testament to the resilience of Chestnut Hill than the fact that 12 new businesses opened in our District between March and December of 2020. From a new café to a new salon, a women’s accessory shop, a unique houseplant boutique, and more, Chestnut Hill demonstrated its continued appeal as a place to open a new business. Indeed, the influx was such that the District ended up experiencing no net loss of businesses during the tumultuous year, a rarity among commercial districts. Chestnut Hill is fortunate to be a neighborhood with a walkable downtown, parking and public transportation access, a well-preserved historic fabric and streetscape, and a high concentration of distinctive small businesses. These characteristics give it a competitive advantage over other local shopping districts and malls which have helped it to weather the current climate, just as it has endured through shifts and contractions in retail for decades.  

This competitive advantage, together with our organization’s efforts, and the creativity and persistence of our merchants, portend a hopeful future for our District this year. As the first month of 2021 draws to a close, our annual ice festival is set to move forward with safety modifications, and interest from the public and media are higher than ever. This year, we eagerly anticipate debuting new landscape lighting and plantings at the gateway to our district, cleaning up a potential new park space on the south hill, seeing brand-new lampposts on several blocks of the Avenue, reaching new audiences through our marketing and branding efforts, investing in the continued improvement of our parking lots, and producing exciting promotions that will give the public even more reasons to fall in love with Chestnut Hill. I look forward to working with our boards and stakeholders to leverage our assets and realize growth and success this year, and I ask all our readers and residents to further that mission by supporting our businesses.

Philip Dawson is the executive director of the Chestnut Hill Business District