Corridors Connect program empowers Business Associations to “Make own destiny”

Brian Higgins, owner of Powelton Pizza on Lancaster Avenue, resisted joining a Business Association (BA) for the first 14 years he was in business. Now Higgins is advocating for a “Super BA,” a coalition of Business Associations representing seven of the commercial corridors in West Philadelphia.

What changed? The past two years, Higgins admits, have been transformative to say the least. “When I bought the business, I was just interested in running the business,” he said. “I never really saw the bigger picture of, ‘If everything around me is successful, I’ll be successful.’”

Higgins said he learned this lesson after a series of changes: purchasing a property on his corridor, joining a Business Association, and participating in the Corridors Connect program this past year.

Higgins was one of four leaders from Lancaster Avenue in Corridors Connect. They joined 20 or so other business leaders representing Business Associations on seven commercial corridors: Baltimore Ave, Lancaster Ave, 60th St, 52nd St, 48th & Spruce Sts, 45th & Walnut Sts, and 40th St. The program facilitated conversations between these BA leaders and business consultants, academics, business district leaders from across Philadelphia, national commercial corridor experts, and policy advocates. The Enterprise Center’s Retail Resource Network provided technical assistance to the BAs and administered the program, with training support and certification from Drexel and funding from SCI-West and LISC.

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Lancaster Avenue was one of seven corridors to send leaders to participate in the Corridors Connect program.

What Higgins learned through these exchanges opened his eyes to the important roles BAs play in helping their corridors – and their surrounding neighborhoods – flourish. “The Corridors Connect program has been very empowering,” he said. “Some of the things we’ve discussed, we learned to take back to our corridor to help other businesses move in and grow, in a nurturing process.”

But more than equip Higgins and his BA with the knowledge, resources, tools, and networks to drive change on his corridor (he has an ambitious vision for Lancaster Avenue), the Corridors Connect program has instilled in him a profound respect for collaboration. “I’d like to see it continue, even if we just continue to meet and share our struggles and our progress with the other corridors,” he said. “I think its important that we continue the friendships and the relationships that we started to establish. And that we continue to support each other.”

This process of “empowerment” was both messy and difficult. Higgins met financial troubles when he first purchased and renovated his building in 2009. This made it even more complicated than usual to think about anything outside of his business. “My general contractor failed to pay two subcontractors, so I was out that money. That was at the worst possible time, at the downturn of the economy,” he recalled. “But we hung in there, came out on other side. And we’re doing really well today.”

Once Higgins had earned back some of the money he lost, he realized that participating in the BA may help attract more business in the long run. George Stevens from Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Association (LA21) was persistent and kept asking Higgins to join the BA. “The more I had a stake, when I bought the building and became more of a stakeholder, I realized the upside of joining the business association,” Higgins said. He finally joined LA21.

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Higgins decided to be a leader in his business association on Lancaster Avenue after purchasing the building that now houses Powelton Pizza.

Through LA21, Higgins learned of the Corridors Connect program and he was asked to step up as a leader and representative of the BA.

The BAs met once a month in a corner classroom at Drexel University, from 1 to 5 on Wednesday afternoons. It was hard to find a time that worked for every business owner, given everyone’s busy schedule, but most of the corridors found someone to attend each meeting.

They tackled organizational governance first, looking at how to assemble a business association board, how to apply for nonprofit 501(c)(3) status, and how to set up bylaws, schedule regular meetings, and hold elections. Some of the BAs lacked any organizational infrastructure whatsoever. LA21 happened to be a relatively well-organized group, with “a foundation for success,” says Higgins, including monthly meetings, regular seminars for businesses, and an active board. Higgins was able to share these ideas with other groups such as the Spruce Street BA, who has since adopted regular and consistent monthly meetings.

Early in the program, the corridors also took time to share their challenges. “I realized, by hearing what goes on in other corridors, that Lancaster Ave. is not alone in our struggles to come up with an identity and to make a successful corridor,” Higgins said. Now he was finding common ground with businesses from other corridors, too, and particularly other BA leaders as they worked to promote their corridors in the face of economic decline, vacancy, redundant retail offerings, crime, and low foot traffic.

One of the most useful components of the program was the market report generated for each West Philadelphia corridor. The reports showed the BAs how much “leakage” their area suffered from – how many dollars neighbors were spending outside of the neighborhood. The BAs could also get a good idea of the demand for different businesses, products, and services, which helped them to market the corridor to specific businesses. “It was extremely helpful seeing our corridor and University City as the numbers that companies look at,” Higgins said.

This data, combined with training on “managing the retail mix,” really changed how Higgins thought of his role at the BA. At first, he thought it was controversial for a BA to limit what kinds of new businesses they would allow on their corridors. “Is it really my right? Who am I to say, ‘You can’t open a check cashing place here?’ I would have said, ‘No, it’s not my responsibility,’ beforehand. It’s been through the program that I have come to understand that it is my responsibility. It would be doing them a disservice by allowing them to open, and I am doing every other business that is already in existence a disservice by allowing them to open.”

Ultimately, a better mix of different kinds of businesses, of complimentary (instead of competitive) goods and services, winds up attracting more customers to the corridor and generating more revenue for all businesses. “If I want to see a successful corridor, as everybody does, we need a diverse mix of businesses,” Higgins said.

With this greater sense of responsibility, knowledge about what makes corridors successful, and market data showing the supply and demand for different businesses, LA21 is now working to “manage its retail mix,” or generally control what kinds of new businesses are welcome on the corridor. Higgins explained, “We’re starting to formulate a vision, help bring in other businesses, help establish the corridor and not allow it to run amock with people who want to open another hair salon, pizza shop, or check cashing business. There’s already too many of them.” LA21 has already opposed one entrepreneur who recently wanted to open a check cashing business on Lancaster Ave, using the market data as evidence to back up their position.

It’s not easy for a struggling corridor to turn away businesses. Many of the BAs struggle with attracting businesses on their corridor to join and to pay their membership dues. Corridors Connect invited BAs to consider their suite of services for businesses. Rather than assume everyone wants to join for the sake of joining, or that all members need to attend meetings, consultants recommended that the BAs focus their efforts on providing real, tangible services that businesses want and need. For example, LA21 is considering offering free wi-fi hot spots for one year to businesses that join LA21 as new members. In addition, they are working to promote the Lancaster Ave. corridor as a whole.

Leaders from Philadelphia’s exemplary business associations, such as the Chestnut Hill Business Association and the East Passyunk Business Improvement District, pointed to their events as a key strategy for attracting customers to the corridor. Baltimore Ave. in West Philly shared their approach to the Dollar Stroll, which attracted thousands of people to Baltimore Ave. and is one reason 10 new restaurants have opened on the corridor in the last 5 years. “It’s going to be up to us to drive the Avenue,” Higgins shared, “but we can go out and start raising money and holding events, promoting it as Lancaster Ave., just to try and drive traffic to Lancaster Ave. There were good lessons for how to do that.”

These presentations, combined with visits to a few corridors, set the stage for the BAs to create a vision for the future of their districts. Higgins explained his vision: “We would like Lancaster to be well-lit, similar to Baltimore Ave., with streetscape lights, businesses open until midnight, having a safe pedestrian environment, having trolleys running through our corridor, and bringing in some bigger, more established retail to anchor Lancaster Ave. and give it an identity. We’re just starting to establish that identity, and it’s about taking that identity further.”

Small grants invited the BAs in the Corridors Connect Program to really prioritize and think about taking small concrete steps toward their vision. On Lancaster Ave, the $3,000 grant translated to less than $1 per linear foot. “In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t go very far,” said Higgins, “but the best grant given is lessons learned, not the money.”

Groups were able to use this grant money in different ways, depending on the needs of the corridor. The BAs filed 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status paperwork, hosted corridor-wide promotional events, developed marketing materials, and created websites for their corridors, among other projects. Ultimately, these small projects helped the BAs meet some of their fundamental goals, such as attracting new members and bringing more customers to their corridors. Higgins summed up the program’s ultimate message to BAs: “You can build your own destiny. We can’t do it for you. You’re not alone, here are some resources.”

The BAs were also challenged to consider throwing their money together into a larger pot, to be used for a collective project impacting all of the corridors. Higgins liked this idea, but the group couldn’t reach an agreement. The differences between the corridors meant they had slightly different priorities for their next steps. At the very least, this discussion pushed the BAs to think about ways of remaining connected beyond the program.

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Bringing the ingredients of corridor and neighborhood development together is kind of like making the perfect pizza pie.

“As we move forward, what I would really like to see is establishing a larger business association,” Higgins shared with the group during the final training session. “If we need something out here, going to City Hall as 10 businesses, we don’t have a lot of pull. But as West Philly Business Alliance with 5 or 6 corridors tied into it, and maybe 150 businesses, we have a lot more pull.”

It’s a huge leap, moving from focusing on your own business, job, home, or family to taking responsibility and leadership to drive change in your neighborhood and city. But it’s worth the risk. And, you don’t have to do it alone.

Higgins used to think that he had to attend only to his business and “force success outward,” but he realized that was an impossible undertaking. LA21 and Corridors Connect invited him to take a new role in helping Lancaster Avenue to be successful. “As I’ve gotten older, I’d like to think I’ve gotten a little wiser,” Higgins said. “It’s easier to help everybody else around you succeed, in order for you to succeed.”

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