Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Merchants Fund – A Friend to Philadelphia Businesses

By John Ungar

John Ungar is Executive Director of the Mount Airy Revitalization Corporation. He has worked as a community development practitioner in Philadelphia for over 12 years.

As commercial district managers and advisors, one of the biggest challenges is getting business owners to make improvements. Skeptical business owners may not see the benefit of making their storefront more attractive. Even if they do, they often lack the desire or ability to make the investment. Often, the only way to make these ideas a reality is to help secure funding for the project. Depending on the neighborhood where your commercial district is located, government resources may be available. However, there are many communities where businesses are not eligible for government funding is not available, but they still need financial help.

The Wadsworth Avenue commercial district, located in the East Mount Airy section of Philadelphia is one such case. Wadsworth Avenue is the main shopping district for this stable middle-class African-American community. The Mount Airy Revitalization Corporation (MARC) manages the commercial district. MARC had completed major public streetscape improvements such as lighting and landscaping, but many of the storefronts still needed upgrades.

The City of Philadelphia offered resources to businesses on designated commercial districts in low to moderate income neighborhoods. However, Wadsworth Avenue businesses were not eligible because of the income level of the surrounding community. Fortunately for Wadsworth Avenue and similar commercial districts, Philadelphia is home to a small foundation dedicated to helping small businesses. The Merchants Fund has played a key role in supporting Wadsworth Avenue businesses where other resources were not available.

Patricia Blakely, Executive Director of The Merchants Fund, understands the needs of small businesses and their important role in our community. “Small business is the backbone of healthy communities and a vibrant local economy. Buy local is not just a catchy marketing phrase; it is about the building blocks of our economy and keeping money flowing.”

MARC directed several businesses to submit grant requests to The Merchants Fund. In just over a year, six businesses on one block received grant awards. In addition, The Merchants Fund awarded MARC a grant to hire a marketing consultant to conduct customer surveys and “mystery shopper” reviews. The project helped merchants engage customers, evaluate the customer experience and improve their customer service. The results of these grants are clearly visible to shoppers.

Most of the businesses used their grants to make major improvements to their storefronts, including Lee's Boutique, shown in before and after images at right. Many business owners were then inspired to invest their own money to complete their projects. Area shoppers have responded positively, and many of these businesses have reported an increase in sales and new customers. By working with businesses one at a time, The Merchants Fund has helped fuel the district’s revitalization. Wadsworth is more vibrant each time we help a store or restaurant owner. “

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