January 7, 2010


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Essay: Signs of life on the Avenue

This year was unique for Chestnut Hill in many ways when it came to Germantown Avenue. Not unique in a first-ever kind of way, and I’m sure much of what transpired up and down the Avenue has happened before. But 2009 represented a departure from the status quo for many of the businesses along the Avenue as well as the general culture of the business community.

Spurred by a terrible economy and beleaguered by years of discord, the business community began pulling together in 2009, even as store after store closed. Perhaps it was the sobering reality of the demise of Caruso’s. Hurt by the lagging economy, the small grocer’s sales were certainly failing well before John Capoferri bought the business, but it was Capoferri’s dubious financial maneuvering that undid what seemed like the last of the Chestnut Hill institutions.

Sure, losing Magarity Ford was a blow. It was large, visible and symbolic. A car dealership represents money, big money. Unlike the mom and pop independently owned specialty stores, a car dealership is a measure of prosperity. Magarity Ford was a casualty of the national economic collapse – a casualty of Ford’s collapse – but it still felt personal for Hillers.

Perhaps it was the stark reality of the ’08 holiday season, or perhaps it was the unavoidable reality of the increasing number of vacant storefronts, but – for whatever reason – this year saw a more sincere, forthright tone from business leaders. For the first time in years, people were talking about numbers, real numbers. They also began meeting regularly to talk about business, how to attract it, how to work together, how to bring much needed customers to the Avenue.

This year also saw the return of Richard Snowden, of Bowman Properties, as a leader. After Bowman purchased the Magarity lot, Snowden himself became more visible and involved. Devoted Hillers noticed the new sense of momentum and cohesion as the year wore on.

It is not to say that in 2009, the Avenue changed dramatically or the problems facing the Avenue were resolved. The vacant storefronts are still vacant, more every day it seems, especially with the impending departure of Borders. The difficulty in attracting businesses to the quaint, community association-regulated Avenue is still real (just ask Bob Elfant). The national economy is still suffering, and sales were again dismal for the ’09 holiday season.

In some ways the Avenue’s vulnerabilities were more pronounced in 2009. Despite the efforts to hold biweekly meetings, businesses struggled to attract new customers. Despite Snowden’s efforts to renovate a handful of buildings, they remain without tenants. Even Magarity, the crown jewel of Hill parcels with its abundance of square footage and parking space, remains empty.

There is hope, as evidenced by the interest in the idea being floated by the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District to bring in a retail recruiter to help guide the Avenue towards prosperity. There have been pledges of funds and support from the leading community groups for the effort.

We may know by the end of 2010 if Chestnut Hill’s business community can move past its recent history and realize the full potential of the efforts it made in 2009.



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