9th Street Eyes A Bid

Filed under: Featured News,South Philadelphia,South Philly,Subject Categories |

by Maria Merlino

SHOPPERS delight in the bargains to be found in the 9th Street Market. Would their delight be increased if the merchants formed a Business Improvement District? Photo by Maria Merlino

SHOPPERS delight in the bargains to be found in the 9th Street Market. Would their delight be increased if the merchants formed a Business Improvement District? Photo by Maria Merlino

Some 9th Street business folks are bidding to have a BID, a Business Improvement District. They believe by spending a little money to spruce up the street, its businesses will prosper.

Is everyone on board? Not really. Some merchants are culturally wary of bureaucracy, while others are ready to retire without taking on new challenges. And many, particularly from immigrant communities, just don’t like to offer opinions about public policies.

What can BIDs do to for the community? The BID for the 9th Street Market, if it passes, will have an immediate effect and will change the whole community, say its backers.

“The streets will be cleaner,” says Michele Gambino of the South 9th Street Business Association. “So, instantly, that will make a difference for cleanliness. It’s a positive impact. The parking lot will be cleaner, and walking to it will be safer. A number of jobs will be created. There will be a team of employees walking the area with a good knowledge of the market. They can answer questions about shopping. All the things that tourists want to know about the fabulous stuff right in our own backyard.

“If you want to envision a trip from City Hall going south on Broad Street, you have one – City Hall; two – the theater district; three – a large swath of Broad Street that is almost empty; four – the true neighborhood business strip; and five – the stadiums,” Gambino continued.

The Center City part of Broad Street has long been administered by Philadelphia’s first BID, Center City District. It is credited with dramatically transforming first the shopping experience in Center City from the dismal 1990s, and now with triggering a residential boom there as well.

The Sports Complex Special Services District at the far end of S. Broad Street is very similar to a BID.

Other BIDs have been popping up around the city’s commercial corridors. “There are nine BIDs in the city, each varying in its mission statement,” explains Gambino. “They are all very successful, so we know they work. We actually have been thinking about this service since 2008. The association has been working on it for three years. We got the go-ahead, were awarded a preliminary grant in 2014 and received it in 2015. We’re currently working with two consultants, one to write the BID grant application and the other to take us through the planning process.”

A BID is a legally designated area in which property owners jointly plan, fund and manage commercial-district enhancement services. It aims to improve the business environment and shopper experience.

Covering a rectangle along S. 8th, 9th, and 10th Streets from Federal Street to Fitzwater Street, the S. 9th Street Shopping District has been a key to cultural-heritage tourism and a shopping attraction for more than a century.

Emerging in the 1880s, the commercial street began when Italian-owned businesses, including pushcarts, butcher shops, restaurants and bakeries, began serving the immigrant community and formed what is now the oldest year-round, open-air marketplace in the country.

Over the last two decades, dozens of Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican and Cambodian businesses have opened up along Washington Avenue and now serve a diverse and rapidly expanding clientele. Complementing the many Italian merchants along S. 9th Street, Washington Avenue has grown to specialize in culinary attractions and now boasts one of the nation’s densest concentrations of Vietnamese businesses. The ethnic diversity of both retail and dining establishments along both S. 9th Street and Washington Avenue present dramatic opportunities for attracting new clientele.

“We get no trash removal,” continues Gambino. “We hire a private hauler. We get no street sweeping. The city doesn’t have the capacity or the bodies. We’re treated as a private entity with our own responsibilities. This is why business districts almost have to become BIDs if they want to make sure they survive. It’s a natural evolution.”

As can be expected, there is opposition. “I only see it as an improvement. But a lot of the older merchants, the ‘old school,’ are leery and don’t understand it,” says Tina Grassia, owner of Grassia’s Italian Market Spice Co. “We’ve had numerous meetings. We’ve hired different interpreters and translators for the Asian and Hispanic owners. We’ve answered questions. We have absentee owners who have empty buildings because they put a high price on the rent. Then we have the Old World merchants who have been around for years and they see retirement down the road. They don’t necessarily want to build their business. They won’t effect change.

“But a lot of care has been put into this BID proposal and it will benefit all merchants in the long run,” she continues. “I’m a relative newcomer. I’m here 18 years. I’m a woman business owner. My landlord has the option to raise my rent by passing the tax to me if this goes through. Yes, I’m scared. But if you break down the increase over 52 weeks or even daily, the amount won’t break us. We need the curb market. Merchants need to be on board.”

The process is complicated. 1st Dist. Councilman Mark Squilla has been active with the process for the last two years. “The community and commerce must get together,” says the Councilman. “We have two council meetings about it. The first one is on Sep. 7, where we introduce the BID at a hearing. We get feedback. Also, if someone opposes the BID, a written submission of the reasons and thoughts will be looked at and we’ll see if any changes need to made. We notify every business for a response, either yes or no. We want to keep the Italian Market forever and make it a special place. When people come to Philadelphia, they want to see the Italian Market. It’s iconic.”

I wanted to talk to some of the new immigrant merchants about the BID, but was met with stares and shrugs. “Many get nervous if they don’t understand. It’s lost in translation,” says Gambino. “There is insecurity, an apprehension about not understanding how things work.

“Some don’t want any exposure,” she explains. “If a food critic like Craig LaBan or Michael Klein from the Inquirer eats at one of the places, he’s not telling them right away. He’ll come back and then talk.”

The Italian Market will address five issues: cleaning, parking management, public safety, promotion and communication. “It’s a nice place to live, with easy city transportation, many cultures and unique experiences,” insists Gambino. “S. 9th Street is important to the landscape of South Philadelphia and the entire city.”

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