August 6, 2009


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The Chestnut Hill Local
8434 Germantown Ave.
Phila. PA 19118
Ph: 215-248-8800
Fx: 215-248-8814
2009© Chestnut Hill Local
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PECO workers waited for a spare part while at least nine Avenue businesses were without power on Friday, July 31. (Photo by Erin Vertreace)

PECO should show them the money

In theory, public relations is the art of minimizing harm to a reputation through subtle persuasion.

In practice, it’s often the sloppy science of smothering crap with kitty litter and calling it a raw diamond.

Don’t get me wrong: PR is a tough job. Convincing people that global warming (a.k.a. global climate change) is a myth, for instance, must be particularly grueling, especially when you have to smile politely while reporters strafe you with questions.

But that’s a portrait of high-profile PR. The day-to-day response to simple inquiries is what concerns me here.

Reporters know better than to expect a direct answer from a PR rep, even when the question is something as innocuous as “What happened yesterday?” Sometimes the answer is truly mind-boggling. Sometimes it’s so distorted that I find myself wondering if the person on the other end of the phone truly believes the nonsense (s)he is spewing.

Last week, PECO communications manager Cathy Engel gave our intern, Olivia Biagi, a baffling account of a power outage that left much of the 8500 block of Germantown Avenue in the dark on Friday.

Engel initially told Olivia that only five PECO “customers” were affected by the outage, which was caused by … well Engel wasn’t really sure what caused it, apparently.

“It’s a piece of equipment,” she told Olivia, as if that answered the question.

When Olivia told Engel that she had seen at least nine businesses closed, Engel revised her account. She said that 20 customers had originally experienced problems (or was it 27? she said that once, too), and qualified her original account by saying the shift manager had told her that only five customers were seriously affected.

Maybe it was an honest mistake on Engel’s part. Maybe she was caught off-guard and didn’t know what to say. But she still managed to make a significant problem seem insignificant.

It took PECO nearly 24 hours to put in a new electrical transformer — a trifling “piece of equipment”—and restore power to the 8500 block of Germantown Avenue. This was on a Friday, mind you, when many Avenue stores are usually buzzing with business.

It’s hard to quantify exactly how much money was lost by businesses that had to close or slow down during the power outage, but I’m willing to wager that it was a substantial sum.

At the very least, PECO owes those businessowners a public apology. (You may have a few days to rehearse, Ms. Engel.)

But I don’t think an apology will suffice from a government-authorized monopoly. Since PECO is “an award-winning organization for its corporate philanthropy,” I was thinking Ms. Engel could pass around a collection plate in order to — hmm, what’s a good euphemism? — remunerate all of the business owners who had to deal with power outages last week.

I promise it will be a good opportunity to polish the company’s reputation.

Joel Hoffmann


Notes from the CHCA
Community association posts net income of $15,800 for year

The fiscal year ending in March showed the Chestnut Hill Community Association (as a consolidated entity comprised of the CHCA, the Chestnut Hill Local and the CHCA Program and Community Service Division) with a net income of $15,800 (which may be changed after audit). 

On a total budget of $1.2 million, that’s a bit more than a 1 percent profit. This was a slight improvement over the previous year in which the same figure showed a loss of $2,200.

You might say that the mere fact of getting into the black during a year in which many corporations were going in the opposite direction is a reason to feel a bit positive about our finances. A bit positive, yes. Comfortable, no.

The basic financial question in front of the CHCA today is essentially the same as it was a year ago, namely, “Is the CHCA a going concern?”

This is the question that our auditors, last December (and the year before) informally asked the CHCA board to consider. Translated into English, the question is: Will the CHCA realize its expected income and meet its obligations over the current year?

Before I go into how the board has begun to address this question, allow me to provide a little more information behind those numbers.

First, how are the two divisions doing? Last year, the Program and Community Service Division made a net income of $25,600 (and made $24,900 in the prior year). In the same two years, the Local improved from a loss of $27,900 to a loss of $10,000. I think these numbers show that the days of the Local being a “cash cow” (if it ever was) are gone. 

In fact, last December, the Local (a $1 million operation) had to borrow a few thousand dollars from the Program and Community Service Division to meet the Local payroll.

Even so, the Local has done better than many other regional and local newspapers. 

Due in part to the fact that, unlike many newspapers, it does not get significant revenue from automobile and job advertisements, the paper did not suffer a large decline in advertising revenues in the most recent fiscal year. And of course most newspapers are expected to generate a lot more profit than is targeted by the CHCA.

But the current year is different. The last three months for which we have numbers (April through June) show that the Local is not immune to trends in the newspaper business or in the economy. We finally had a significant drop (10 percent) in advertising income, which is the Local’s primary revenue source.

In the past, it would be difficult to respond adeptly to sudden changes in our financial status (even when predictable), primarily because the Local was either managed by a committee, or sometimes was left with no integrated management at all.

But we now, for the first time, have in place an associate publisher who can find revenue opportunities and rationalize our costs far better than a committee. The addition of the AP was probably the most important act of the board to confirm that the CHCA is indeed a “going concern.”

The Program and Community Service Division has a different challenge. Although it had a nice income over the last two years, its second largest revenue source (after membership) is an extremely generous $40,000 annual gift currently in the fourth year of a five-year lifespan.

This Division has historically generated income from membership, the Holiday House Tour, other events (like the Black and White Gala), and gifts (contributions to the CHCA are not tax-deductible, whereas contributions to the Chestnut Hill Community Fund, of course, are). 

The board is now engaged in finding other revenue sources (e.g., grants, other events) to address our dependency on a single generous individual.


Hello, my name is Jen and I’m a trash picker

It all started out innocently enough. My friend Colleen and I would go out for a morning walk after dropping off our children at preschool, trying to get in some exercise while her seven-month-old slept peacefully in her stroller.

We’d power-walk around the neighborhood, taking different routes each time, discussing the various landscaping, architecture and which house we’d buy if we won the lottery.

On Friday mornings we’d find ourselves dodging trash barrels on the sidewalks, occasionally spotting a useful object or two on top of or beside the cans. “Wow!” one of us would say, “I need one of those!” We would admire the item, place it carefully around the sleeping baby and triumphantly return home with our treasure.

It wasn’t long before the facade of exercise was replaced with a well-timed, well-planned course that took into account the garbage truck’s route, and the single stroller was replaced with a double to accommodate our acquisitions. The thrill of the hunt had begun. 

We couldn’t stand to see perfectly good “stuff” thrown away, even if we couldn’t use it ourselves. We’d carry home ladders, headboards, chairs, filing cabinets, lampshades, Christmas decorations, rakes, axes, bikes. We would “stash” what we couldn’t carry, coming back later with the car. Once, our stash was even “stolen,”  We were more careful after that!

It was a magical time. If we waited long enough, everything we needed would eventually make its way into someone’s rejectamenta and then into our stroller. I was convinced that we’d never have to purchase anything again. The world was ours for the gleaning. 

There were good weeks and bad weeks, weather determining our booty much of the time. But then we started to notice that we were not alone in our quest to find the perfect I-don’t-know-‘til-I-see-it thing. Roving pickup trucks trolled the areas that we did. We called one the “Metal Guy” who picked up anything metal and the other was the “Furniture Guy.” 

They were smart. They had a giant stroller with an engine, able to cover 10 times the area twice as fast as we could. At one point we were coming down opposite ends of a street, converging on a large assortment of detritus. They saw us and we saw them, the race was on. We ran, they stepped on the gas. They won. The broken dining chairs were theirs. 

After months of this, we both came to the realization that we just couldn’t take any more stuff; our homes and husbands were close to the bursting point. We donated much of it, sold some of it, but, as you know, there is only so much room on your porch, in your basement and behind your couch.

I also realized that there should be some kind of “trash etiquette” so that more useful items could be rescued from the landfill. So here are some ideas that I thought could help both the gleaner and the conferrer.

When throwing out working or non-working appliances, electronics, etc., label them as to their problems or defects. People will take them if they think they can fix them. Place reusable items on the curb and in plain sight the night before trash day to give gleaners extra time to come across them. 

I also place ads on the web at phillyfreecycle, found under Yahoo Groups, and under for sale/curb alert to increase the chances of finding my belongings a new home. If it’s raining, I wait until the next week to put out items easily damaged by water. Many times I have put boxes out on my steps, away from the trashcans, with a free sign and left it there for a couple of days. This works well for books, videos and knickknacks. The “free” sign works wonders. Flies to honey, moths to a flame, you get the idea. Whatever is left I take to the mission or thrift store on my way to do other errands. 

It pains me to see useful items in the trash and I still have to stop myself from picking things up constantly. It’s part of the pack-rat gene that I inherited from my father. One mustn’t throw anything away because it may be useful at some time in the future if, and only if, you’re either very lucky or extremely organized and can find it when you want it.

Since I now know that everything I need will come to me as I need it, I am less likely to keep every little thing I find, stowed away in the hidden recesses of my home. My goal is to keep something if it serves me or get rid of it so it may serve someone else. What comes around goes around.

Pareto’s Principle, called the 80-20 rule, or “the vital few and trivial many,” can be applied to all of the items currently residing in our homes. It basically means that we use 20 percent of what we own 80 percent of the time, which conversely means that 80 percent of our stuff is only being utilized 20 percent of the time. All that stuff, so little time.

Reusing and repurposing is the current, chic thing to do, as artists, builders, architects, crafters and many others are finding new uses for old stuff and are trolling trash for free treasures. 

Trash picking also gives you great stories to tell. The best one I’ve ever heard, told to me by my son’s preschool teacher, was about her aunt and mother who found a sofa on the side of the road. They couldn’t fit it in the Cadillac, so they stuffed one end into the trunk and her aunt ran behind the car holding up the other end while her mom drove home. Classic!

If you Google dumpster diving or trash picking, you will find more than enough information about the art of routing through someone else’s garbage for fun and profit. has tips for the best times to peruse the refuse and has project ideas for many items you would usually toss away such as Breyer’s ice cream containers and old CD jewel cases. Please contact me at or Happy pickin’!