Commerce director visits Fox Chase merchants

Harold Epps spoke to local business owners about the state of business in Philadelphia.

Keeping it local: Harold Epps, director of the city Department of Commerce, discussed shopping locally with Northeast business owners last week. TOM WARING / TIMES PHOTO

Harold Epps, director of the city Department of Commerce, was in Fox Chase last week to meet with business owners.

Epps and the others, members of the Rockledge/Fox Chase Business Association, met at Joseph’s Pizza, 7947 Oxford Ave.

For Epps, a proponent of shopping locally, it was his 45th visit to a neighborhood business corridor.

Epps noted that many corridors have a 20 percent vacancy rate, and even South Street is not immune to the struggles. He blames e-commerce and the historical difficulty of startup businesses succeeding.

Why should businesses open in Philadelphia, the merchants asked Epps, noting the challenges they face.

“It is improving,” he replied, adding that Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.

The commerce director is co-chairing the city’s effort to lure Amazon to town. Philadelphia was one of 238 cities that applied to become the Seattle-based company’s second headquarters. The list was trimmed to 20, and Philadelphia remains in the hunt.

The new headquarters is expected to employ 50,000 people, many who’ll earn high wages.

“We need more jobs in Philadelphia,” Epps said.

While Philadelphia’s unemployment rate is the lowest in 20 years, Epps said, it is still higher than the national average.

Also higher than the national average are construction costs, Epps said, putting Washington, D.C.’s cost as 35 percent less than Philadelphia. That’s why he supports the city’s temporary, 10-year tax abatements on new construction, as an incentive for developers and buyers.

Epps said the Philadelphia area could grow by about 100,000 people if Amazon opens in the city. Pointing to Sally Danciu, owner of Sally’s Flowers, and Claire DiLullo, owner of Joseph’s Pizza and Moonstruck Restaurant, Epps said their businesses and others will benefit in some way with the arrival of new Philadelphians.

The tax revenue generated by Amazon’s move to Philadelphia, Epps said, will be a big boost to public schools.

Epps was pleasantly surprised when one of the business owners, a contractor, credited the much-maligned city Department of Licenses and Inspections.

“Write that down,” Epps said. “He said, ‘Kudos’ to L and I.”

The merchants expressed various concerns.

Tim Sharpe, owner/operator of Meineke Car Care Center, said Philadelphia requires too many licenses compared to his other site in Southampton.

High taxes have driven people out of the city, Epps agreed, helping contribute to Philadelphia’s 25 percent poverty rate, the highest of any city with at least 1 million residents. Millennials and immigrants moving to Philadelphia are helping the city experience a small increase in population, he said.

While acknowledging that his boss, Mayor Jim Kenney, wants to increase property taxes, Epps said the money would be well spent by the School District of Philadelphia. He said the city is in need of revenue, in part, because hospitals, universities and other nonprofits don’t pay real estate taxes.

Background checks to see if an employee has committed a crime involving a minor can get expensive, the business owners explained, adding that it makes them less likely to hire a teenager. Epps responded by urging them to each hire one or two young people.

After one man called the city’s vocational technical schools “lousy,” Epps said they are getting better, just not fast enough. Epps said the city’s junior highs and high schools have to become more attractive to parents, or many of them will continue to move out of Philadelphia.

Danciu presented Epps with a petition signed by more than 1,900 people calling for sidewalk installation on a block-and-a-half portion of Oxford Avenue. Epps, who checked out the area before he left, said he believes City Councilman Brian O’Neill will listen if so many people believe the lack of sidewalks is a safety issue and a detriment to businesses.

Danciu did announce some good news, as a new owner has renovated a formerly rundown apartment building on Rhawn Street. Now, efficiencies go for $850 a month and two-bedroom apartments cost as much as $1,250.

After the roundtable meeting, Epps took a short tour in the rain, stopping in Rieker’s Prime Meats. He was impressed by Fox Chase’s suburban feel in an urban area. He liked how the train can take people to Center City in under 20 minutes. He encouraged merchants to keep their corridor safe and clean, so real estate values rise. ••