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Corridors Connect underway – business associations across West Philly work together to strengthen their corridors

May 17, 2012

Business owners and leaders representing seven commercial corridors across West Philly have come together to build the capacity of their respective business associations. The program is called West Philadelphia Corridors Connect (WPCC) and is being led by The Enterprise Center’s Retail Resource Network and a team of partners convened by SCI-West. The collaborative effort of business associations, business owners, corridor managers, and CDCs from different parts of West Philadelphia distinguishes this initiative.

WPCC is an innovative program that incorporates hands-on support for individual business leaders, a business leadership training certificate program from partner Drexel University, and capacity building for leaders from seven neighborhood Business Associations.

One major goal of the endeavor is to increase the bottom line for businesses along West Philadelphia corridors. To do that, WPCC partners aim to strengthen the business associations representing those corridors, ensuring there are effective entities working actively to improve conditions, engage businesses, and attract more customers.

Algernong Allen, owner of Elena’s Soul (4325 Baltimore Ave) and board member of the Baltimore Avenue Business Association, said “Our overall goal is to increase retail traffic, which in turn increases revenues for the businesses.” The Baltimore Avenue Business Association is moving in a positive direction, he said, but the organization still needs help getting more organized, increasing its membership, and improving the image and visibility of the corridor. “[Corridors Connect] offers us that opportunity by bringing consultants and people who have taken their business associations to the next level, so they have been through the same process that we are going through,” Allen explained. “They can offer us formalized advice, practical experience, and encouragement to move us in that direction.”

Building the capacity of businesses and Business Associations on the ground will create a strong foundation for corridor and neighborhood revitalization. By identifying each corridor’s needs, the program hopes to attract additional public investment and increased private partners for future corridor development.

“We are kind of still in an incubation period. We have good membership – it’s last count was over 70, and they’re all active, and we’re working together of one accord,” Art Williams said about his association, the 52nd Street Business Development Corporation (BDC). Williams, who owns a salon called The Art of Beauty, says the program is helping the 52nd Street BDC work toward its goals. “Where I would like to see things go is that the BDC would be a model for other business associations in the area. I am hoping that we will be able to change the perception of people about shopping on 52nd Street. And, in the far future, I hope that we have our own initiatives for cleaning, security, and things like that.”

Business associations will leave the program better equipped to attract members and raise funds, according to Derise Stovall, Retail Support Specialist at The Enterprise Center. “There have to be some benefit to belonging to the business associations. Businesses need to see growth and opportunities in joining.” Stovall would also like to see business associations empowered to identify and attract a mix of businesses to fill vacant storefronts.

Corridors Connect goes the extra mile by bringing leadership from different corridors together. According to SCI-West director Iola Harper, strengthening connections across corridors is a viable strategy for economic development. “It’s not just consumer driven, but also relationship-driven,” she said. “The additional value that this program brings is in building social capital.”

In this way, different corridors have the opportunity to share successful strategies and even collaborate on corridor initiatives. “In the long term, there’s lots of potential for well-organized, large-scale cooperation among the groups,” said Allen. “The highest potential for economies of scale is marketing, perhaps a centralized administration, and the facilitation of fundraising opportunities.” For example, participants will use lessons about joint marketing to develop new cross-corridor marketing.

The Business Associations are also looking into collaborative fundraising and group purchasing for things like lighting and security cameras for multiple corridors. Williams said, “Once things are settled down in my little universe here at 52nd Street, I would love to get more involved with 60th Street and other corridors that are neighboring.”

The neighborhood-wide collaborative can more easily take advantage of city-wide services, which will have greater impact on multiple corridors. Moreover, the diverse group of stakeholders will be well-positioned to advocate for policies that benefit neighborhood businesses and districts.

Moving toward a collaborative model requires a change of mindset for businesses who are used to competing with each other. “We understand a few things that have never been present before, and one is that we are not competing against each other,” Willaims said. “We have to focus our attention on making people want to spend more time on our business corridors.”

West Philadelphia business associations, business leadership, corridor managers, and CDC’s are all working together to make the project successful. Each party was invited in early on to help determine the program’s overall goals, suggest training topics, and recruit participation among corridor businesses. The collaborative held a focus group dinner at Drexel University on March 15th in order to incorporate the essential input of business leaders and corridor managers into the implementation of WPCC.

“I think the dinner was a great way to elicit our feedback in creating a program that would fit the needs of the people going through the course,” said Allen, “so that the result is a tailored framework as opposed to a standard cookie cutter model.” In this way, business association leaders are engaged as partners in implementing the program, in addition to being participants and clients.

The first session was held on April 25 on Drexel’s campus. Guest speakers David Feehan of Civitas Consultants LLC and Laura Schwartz of Regional Housing Legal Services spoke to the participants about structures and strategies for governance that allow a business association to be sustainable. The session explored financial controls, organizations best practices, and the core functions of a business association.

Ali Hossain, a member of the 52nd Street Vendors Association who participated in the two sessions so far, said, “My goal is to get as much information I can get and also to learn as much as I can and then pass it on to the other vendors.” While Hossian appreciates the opportunity to help strengthen and lead his organization, he hopes the pilot program can expand to include more participants: “Only a couple of people are getting the knowledge… I think everybody should be involved with this program.”

Williams agrees that more businesses and association members need access to the information. “It’s really hard to get business owners out into a room right now,” he said. “[Corridors Connect] at least allows myself or any other person in leadership to come learn and take it back to the nest and share the information.”

Corridors Connect is a collaborative effort among a great group of SCI-West partners: Philadelphia LISC, The Enterprise Center, Drexel University Center for Public Policy, the Partnership CDC, People’s Emergency Center CDC, University City District, the Philadelphia Commerce Department and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. The collaborative aims to develop this pilot project into a replicable and scalable program, building on its projected success in West Philly as well as working with business associations in new parts of Philadelphia. Allen and other participants are hopeful: ‘Like any prototype, it takes iterations of work to make it scalable and replicable. I think we’re at a good starting point.”

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