Commerce director tours Northeast business district

Ready to revive: Joe Managhan of the John J. Rendine III Agency speaks with city officials and community leaders during a walking tour of the business corridor in Upper Holmesburg. PHOTO: PHILIP FORREST

Philadelphia Commerce Director Harold T. Epps has toured 21 business districts around the city since taking office in January, but a visit to Upper Holmesburg last Friday surprised even him.

“Forty years ago, the city had two million people and now it has 1.6 million. The population is under its historical capacity, so there’s going to be (business) vacancies,” Epps said. “But today I saw more vacancies in the Northeast than I thought I’d see.”

In a six-block stretch of Frankford Avenue between Ashburner Street and Academy Road, Epps saw two empty supermarkets — a former Pathmark and a former Food Basics — as well as a Kmart department store that was in the final days of a going-out-of business sale. There are also two vacant banks and numerous other empty storefronts in the corridor.

Commerce Department officials, city planners, elected officials and community leaders toured the area on Friday, meeting with local merchants to solicit their suggestions about revitalizing the avenue as a shopping destination.

Neighborhood denizens are plenty familiar with the problem. And they want help from the city in attracting new businesses.

“I think the message I wanted to get across is it’s time for us to go on the offensive,” said Stan Cywinski, president of the Upper Holmesburg Civic Association. “Over the next two years, we’re going to have a lot of positive information to share. If we do a good job advertising that, it’s going to bring businesses into the community.”

The good news, Cywinski explained, is that the long-delayed redevelopment of the former Liddonfield Homes public housing project is imminent. The civic group expects to see detailed plans in the fall. NewCourtland Senior Services, which was awarded development rights earlier this year, plans to build hundreds of senior apartments and a senior center two blocks east of Frankford Avenue. Another portion of the Liddonfield site will be converted to an athletic campus for Holy Family University.

But for now, Liddonfield is just an empty field with a fence around it. And people keep seeing stores close.

“I get calls. People stop me all the time. They’re very concerned. They see the things we see,” Cywinski said.

State Reps. Mike Driscoll and Martina White joined the tour group, which met for breakfast at the Dining Car restaurant. Nancy Morozin owns the diner and is a board member for the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

“I really think that Commerce Director Epps heard the beat of the drum that the city needs to cooperate to get another supermarket in here. We’ve lost a lot of big anchors,” Morozin said. “We want the kind of businesses that appeal to everybody.”

Gregory Waldman, the city planner for the Far Northeast, said that the City Planning Commission will examine conditions along Frankford Avenue closely in the coming months as part of its Philadelphia 2035 project. Planners will host three public meetings to discuss problem areas, assets and goals for the Far Northeast. The meeting dates have not been announced.

Among the merchants that remain on Frankford Avenue, fortunes have been mixed of late.

Sandy Patel said that times are getting tougher for his Frostee’s beer distributorship due to the city’s and state’s tax policies.

“I sell three things: beer, soda and cigarettes,” Patel said.

In October 2014, the city launched a $2 per pack cigarette tax to benefit its financially strapped public schools. Patel’s competitors in nearby Bucks County are not subject to the tax. In June, the city passed a sugary drinks tax of 1.5 cents per ounce to fund pre-kindergarten programs, recreation centers and libraries. It will take effect in January. Again, the tax doesn’t apply in the suburbs. Also in June, Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation to expand the sale of alcoholic beverages to grocery stores.

“If they can sell beer, why can’t we sell groceries?” Patel asked the public officials.

Curtis Gregory, senior director of the city’s Office of Business Services, said that Patel’s alcohol-related issues are really a state matter, but the Commerce Department can direct him to the proper authorities.

Chris Hess, who coordinates the Center for Small Business Education at Community College of Philadelphia, said that Patel is not alone.

“It’s a shame because this is all over the state of Pennsylvania. Once you start selling beer in supermarkets, their business becomes invalid,” Hess said.

At Deluxe Pharmacy, owner Van Balumuri told Epps that the city should streamline business licensing. He also wants better parking accommodations, although about 30 percent of his customers walk to the store. Balumuri said that his sales have declined since the loss of the Pathmark across the street last year. The supermarket seemed to attract customers to all of the nearby stores.

The tour wasn’t all doom and gloom. Barbara Sullivan and Ro Morris opened RB’s Chocolate Revenge, a custom chocolates shop, two years ago and business has been growing. Previously, they had a shop near Bustleton Avenue and Rhawn Street.

“I was surprised how well the neighborhood welcomed us,” Sullivan said. “There are not a lot of candy stores around, so we have a little advantage. We actually grew a little too fast at Easter. We were running out of stock. But we’ll be ready for next Christmas and Easter.”

Epps said that each commercial district is unique and presents different challenges. In the Northeast, parking seems to be a higher priority.

“This one probably has the greatest auto orientation that I’ve seen so far,” Epps said. “The challenge is to change with the (public) preferences and demographics. The population in the Northeast hasn’t shifted in the last number of years, the sheer numbers (of people). So we have to understand the changing characteristics that are creating the open spaces.” ••

Ready to revive: Sandy Patel (left), owner of Frostee’s beer distributorship, speaks with city officials and community leaders during a walking tour of the business corridor in Upper Holmesburg. photo: PHILIP FORREST