Fairmount: CDC Builds Momentum with New Executive Director

By: Sarah Metts & Bri Hofsass

Although the Fairmount Community Development Corporation is a newer organization, it still hosts a calendar full of events to benefit the community. A huge part of that is because of its new executive director, Sarajane Blair.

The CDC’s office, located at 2837 W. Girard Ave., is right next to the Trolley Shop, a former apartment turned pop-up event space that will become a taco restaurant later in the spring. The CDC has used the pop-up space to host community events. After the taco restaurant moves in, Fairmount CDC plans to keep The Trolley Shop name for other vacant venues they will temporarily take over when hosting neighborhood events.

“Having events at the Trolley Shop — our pop-up art space — has really brought together a number of folks from different parts of the neighborhood and different socioeconomic statuses,” she said.  

In addition to hosting events at the Trolley Shop, Blair has organized a variety of service programs. Blair is currently working on projects like bringing street sweeping services to Fairmount and placing streetlights in poorly lit areas of the neighborhood.

Blair has served as Fairmount CDC’s executive director since July of 2018 and was introduced to the organization during her time in graduate school at University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government where she earned a master’s in public administration. She previously worked at the Mt. Airy Community Development Corporation, which connected her with other CDCs in Philadelphia.

Blair said her four years of community development experience created a natural fit for her in Fairmount.

When people think community organization events they think manual labor. What initiatives did you take to promote fun events like the Sips and Samples on March 1st?

It’s been a very interesting experiment.

In our events category we have the Girard Avenue Street Festival, which happens every October. We do the Fairmount Food Fight which is an annual fundraiser … we have about twenty-five neighborhood restaurants take part and everybody votes on best entree, best dessert, and best beverage. The Fairmount Arts Crawl is coming up April 28th — we pair artists with storefronts. The concept is to get people to go into shops that they wouldn’t normally go into.

We also run a business alliance and that’s The Greater Art Museum Business Alliance. We have about 70 active members. It covers Fairmount, Brewerytown, Francisville, and Spring Garden. We provide business-to-business networking and connect them to resources within the city.

You don’t really have a big staff here, so there must be a lot of leg work for you to pull off.

We are a staff of one-and-a-half people. I have one part-time person that is paid and one or two interns that are either getting full credit or looking to connect with the neighborhood. There is a board of 17 that contribute a lot. They do a lot of sharing information on social media and putting flyers out to make sure that information is known of what we are doing. Day-to-day, it’s myself and my co-worker. But monthly, our board is working with us and figuring out how they can help us from where they are.

Fairmount CDC is one of the smaller CDCs in the city. There’s about one per neighborhood — some are larger, some are smaller — and they all have different focuses. We focus a lot on infrastructure and community events and our business association.

Who do you meet with from the community?

Oh everybody. Through the Business Alliance, the Business Service and Event Specialist Ashley Wagner and I both know the majority of business owners on Girard Avenue and Fairmount Avenue. We’re constantly checking in with them. We are also right next to state representative Donna Bullock’s office. We work with her office a lot. We co-sponsor the Girard Avenue Street Festival with them.

Her office has a lot of residents that are looking for support and a way to be connected to projects and programs. We refer people back and forth to each other.

We also work a lot with the Fairmount Civic Association and the Brewerytown Sharswood Neighborhood Advisory Committee.

These neighborhoods are so small, so all of our projects overlap in some way. We all are communicating monthly.

How do you assist the residents who feel their neighborhood is being gentrified?

There’s a lot to the word gentrification. Nobody should live next to an abandoned house. Nobody deserves to live next to a property that is potentially dangerous or harmful. I think that the real fear when you get down to it is the fear of people being priced out of their homes. Fairmount CDC does not have the capacity to do real estate development. That is one of the ways that other CDCs manage to combat increased housing prices in their neighborhoods. If the CDC that has a social, neighborhood-oriented mission can hold property and keep the rental values at market value, then that’s a way to make sure people can stay in their homes.

What we’re trying to do, since we don’t have the capacity to do that, is connect folks from both sides of the avenue and make sure that new and old residents have these fun neighborhood events to get to know each other. Part of it is also the fear of people that you don’t know and thinking that someone is going to come in and they’re not going to care about the neighborhood as much as you do. In reality that might not be true, but you don’t know unless you talk to each other.

Has getting people from different backgrounds been your biggest obstacle since starting here?

My biggest obstacle coming here was learning all the ins and outs of the politics of a new organization. A lot of these events have been happening for a couple of years, so they kind of can keep going.

I’m always trying to think of productive ways to bring residents together and to bring residents into businesses on the corridor. You can see there are a lot of new businesses coming in and a lot of businesses moving because they are getting priced out. An ongoing challenge is figuring out to support these businesses so long-term business owners can stay.

What have been some of your favorite events that you have gotten to participate in?

The Girard Avenue Street Festival is really wonderful. It closes down the street and there’s music and food and all sorts of fun things like that.

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