Passyunk: Director of Business Improvement District on Helping Local Retailers Weather Pandemic

Small businesses across the country have been shut down to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, and those that have remained open have had to adapt to new guidelines. For instance, a meal out now includes masks, temperature checks, reservations, seating capacities, and social distancing.

East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia has long attracted retail customers to a variety of restaurants, shops, fitness centers, and other services. Many of the businesses along the avenue are independently owned and have seen a significant decline in revenue over the past year. 

But they are not without help. The East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District is a nonprofit organization that has focused on the rejuvenation of the corridor since 2002. The organization coordinates a variety of programs including building and facade improvements, marketing and promotions, event planning, business recruitment and retention, as well as cleanup and greening initiatives.

Adam Leiter is the executive director of the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District. As director, Leiter feels a strong responsibility to see these businesses through this time.

“Everyone is really working their hardest to try and make it through,” he said. “You’re talking about people who are absolutely dedicated to their businesses that they’ve created. They were already working on overdrive to see success happen.”

What is your job as executive director?

I am responsible for helping to promote the business corridor, to keep all of the businesses informed, especially nowadays, about changing guidelines and any updates having to do with the City in relation to the COVID pandemic. We’re focused on cleaning and safety, as well as marketing the area here in East Passyunk.

Do you feel more pressure as executive director because of the pandemic?

Everyday I try to put myself in the shoes of the business owners. The fact is that we are majority independently-owned local businesses. These are not only people’s passion projects and their dreams they are working on, but it is also their livelihood. I’m definitely thinking about that on an hourly basis.

Which businesses along the avenue have been impacted the most by the pandemic?

The ones most greatly impacted are a lot of the restaurants that are in smaller spaces. A lot of them have been able to shift and quickly pivot to doing pop-ups or take out and delivery. But they weren’t necessarily focused on this beforehand, and it was a big change to implement operationally. 

How have businesses been assisted by the EPABID?

At the beginning, we directed our attention to work as an advocate on behalf of the businesses—restaurants in particular—regarding some of the plans that were being put in place by the City. We worked with other business improvement districts across the city, as well as the Commerce Department, to help develop some of the guidelines and opportunities for the outdoor seating and eatery setups that have become a real great lifeline for a lot of places. 

We specifically have put some of our money aside and directed it to reimbursement for grants for the materials and labor that went into setting up streeters. We’re recognizing that these restaurants still have had to invest a lot into in order to keep things running. 

On top of that, continued promotion, working to find ways to package ways together that draw people into the seats. Right now we’re having our Harvest Celebration. It’s a focus on fall themed meals or drinks. For non-restaurant businesses we highlight unique things that they’re doing, whether it’s having custom-made masks or socially distant classes. It’s about maintaining the commerce aspect, but also to keep them top-of-mind with the general public.

Are there any programs business owners can access for COVID-19 assistance or relief?

Facade improvements grants are provided on an annual basis for anyone who is looking to upgrade or update their exteriors. We’re always searching for and sharing information about the local, city, regional, and national grant or loan programs that are available. Grants that are aimed at women-own businesses or people-of-color are opportunities we also search for.

What kind of obstacles have you faced from the city and/or state?

It’s just with an understanding that this is the way it needs to be. The constant changes need to be adhered to and complied with, specifically the CDC guidelines. It definitely creates a challenge to be constantly monitoring and updating both our own knowledge, and conveying that to all of the businesses. 

What will East Passyunk Avenue look like for the holiday season?

Everything for the holidays will have to follow CDC guidelines. Normally, we’d have a lot more group gatherings and events. Obviously we can’t do that to the same degree, but I think that we can find ways, with protocols in place, to celebrate the holidays and have people come out in a safe way. It’s going to be more about individualized events and promotions, doing some things with a virtual aspect to them, and encouraging people to support our local businesses. It is how we’ll be able to see them on the other side through all of this.

How can patrons and visitors help these independently-owned businesses?

Continuing to support them directly. Even if it’s not dining out, there’s takeout, gift certificates. Spreading the word and sharing your favorite Avenue places and shopping purchases with your friends are also ways to support them. Every piece of it counts.

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