Ann Nevel, retail advocate for the Chestnut Hill Business Association, insists that she brings no magic powers to the task.
After a little more than a year on the job, Ann Nevel, retail advocate for the Chestnut Hill Business Association, insists that she brings no magic powers to the task…
But given the success she’s having in recruiting new restaurants and shops to the neighborhood’s central business district, it's no wonder that landlords, retailers and residents are wondering.
Nevel, who has decades of retail experience under her belt, stepped into her position at the CHBA with a comprehensive understanding of what makes a shop thrive, as well as connections in the biz. And it’s having an impact. Empty storefronts that had been casualties of COVID are beginning to find new occupants -- a fact which has not gone unnoticed by both of the district’s largest commercial property owners.
“Ann is a super valuable resource, and she’s made a big difference,” said Sanjiv Jain of Legacy Real Estate.
“Ann is very passionate about getting unique and independent stores here. In the kind of retail environment we're in right now, that is really what Chestnut Hill needs for long-term prosperity,” said Richard Snowden, founder of Bowman Properties.
Retailers, meanwhile, say they’re watching it all with a sense of relief.
“In 2021, we were not only concerned about our businesses surviving, but also the Chestnut Hill business corridor as a whole,” said Cynthia Fillmore, owner of two Windfall Gallery locations on Germantown Avenue. “Today we have new and exciting restaurants, studios and retailers with a lot of good energy on the avenue – a rebirth!”
Building on social media
Nevel, meanwhile, said she thinks the district’s new use of social media is part of why Chestnut Hill is “well on our way out of the pandemic slump.”
“It became apparent to me that, with all of our strengths, we were missing out on some of the buzz-generating, spirited food and drink scene that’s happening elsewhere in the area,” Nevel said. “Now, because of our expanding social media presence – and our fun and interesting events – we’re on the radar of businesses that we’d like to recruit. Successful business owners are watching us. They follow us on social media and have friends and associates who have discovered us.”
The result? She can be more selective when it comes to filling vacancies.
“I have a picture in my head of how our retail corridor could be populated – the ideal mix and placement of businesses, merchandise and product categories,” she said. “Of course, it’s always subject to modification. It’s shaped by real time market and cultural forces. And it’s always with the goal of complementing existing businesses rather than creating competition for them.”
Courtney O’Neill, CHBA’s new executive director and another former New Englander, said she appreciates all of Nevel’s marketing savvy – as well as the team spirit she brings to her job.
“It’s been wonderful working with Ann. She has helped me acclimate to the culture here and given me a deeper understanding of what Chestnut Hill is about,” O’Neill said.
Nevel grew up in West Philadelphia, where she worked in pharmacies run by her parents and her grandmother.
She went on to major in art history at Boston University, and graduated from Villanova School of Law. She worked in environmental law litigation and then served as an Assistant District Attorney while living in West Mount Airy with her husband, Roger Pratt, and their three sons.
“Later, we moved to a wonderful 19th century farmhouse in rural northwestern Connecticut. I had my own special-education law practice there, representing children with disabilities,” she said.
Then, Nevel’s career took the scenic route. “I gave up law to open my own store. It was one of the early ‘lifestyle’ stores that combined men and women’s wear, jewelry, gifts, furniture, vintage pieces, artwork, antiques and accessories for the home.”
Next, after 13 years as a store owner, Nevel spent a decade working for a New York City wholesale showroom.
“I sold gifts, furniture, apparel and home accessories to some of the best independent shops and museum gift shops in New England, New York State and the Mid-Atlantic. I continued to work for that showroom after I moved back to Philadelphia following my husband’s death 11 years ago,” she said.
Then the job in Chestnut Hill opened up, which she describes as “perfect for me.”
Newcomers and new interest
Now that she’s here, Nevel said she is particularly enthusiastic about the new entrepreneurs who are interested in taking over long-vacant spaces on the Hill – and grateful for the way in which property owners are working with her.
“Because these vibrant prospects are local and indie, rather than national with deep pockets, it requires flexibility and foresight on the part of the property owners to accommodate them,” she said. “Our commercial property owners are willing to be creative and unconventional and that’s just what we need.”
Examples include: Char & Stave, a whiskey and coffee company; Home Works, which offers products and services to enhance the work-at-home experience; PTK Gallery rug center; Garden State Tile; Elizabeth Valucci Skincare Studio and Northworks Architects.
Trust is all-important
If there is a "magic sauce" that makes recruitment work, Nevel said, it comes down to trust.
“I have to earn everyone’s trust,” she said. “Property owners have to trust that I’m promoting a business that’s likely to succeed. The existing businesses have to trust that my recruitment choices are designed to complement, not compete with, their shops and restaurants. And prospective businesses have to trust that I’m suggesting a location where they can be successful.”
In addition to recruiting new businesses, Nevel said, her job is also to support existing ones. And she is quick to acknowledge that Chestnut Hill’s “heritage businesses'' are the bedrock of the Avenue.
Places like Kilian Hardware, which opened in 1913; Bredenbeck’s, which got its start in 1889; The Night Kitchen, which has been in business for 40 years, and McNally’s, which dates to 1921, all demonstrate what’s possible to new business owners.
“These are beloved businesses that have been serving Chestnut Hillers for generations and are going strong,” she said. “That means a lot to a new business opening up. It points to a loyal community.”
And she gets extra pleasure, she said, out of helping new and existing retailers find ways to support one another.
“For instance, Foliage plant boutique on Germantown Avenue has been displaying plants in vessels and on tables that come from Blum’s Antiques over on East Chestnut Hill Avenue, and selling those pieces along with the plants,” Nevel said. “I’m very proud that I helped facilitate that.”
Next, she plans to form a coalition of retailers that focus on design.
“We now can boast of some 14 design-related businesses – interior designers, architects, furniture and home decor stores, flooring stores, antique furniture, outdoor furniture and, in addition, we have many stores selling decorative accessories and artwork,” she said. “I’m going to be working to form a coalition of these businesses with the goal of making Chestnut Hill a design destination.”