Chestnut Hill: Head of Business Association Talks About Support During Pandemic and Moving Forward

(Courtesy Philip Dawson, Chestnut Hill Business Association)

As COVID-19 made its way throughout the city, intermittently shutting down businesses and leaving Philadelphia’s retail districts emptier than store owners would prefer, Phil Dawson, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Business Association, searched for ways he could help the neighborhood’s many smaller businesses. A community business association essentially pulls together resources for its members, Dawson said, helping with business-related needs. 

As the executive director of the business association, Dawson normally has his hands full with providing services for local businesses. A local business is different, but related to, a local business district. Business districts are geographic areas where retail and small businesses are clustered in a community. A business association provides services for member businesses in a particular district. Local businesses often subscribe to a business association’s service. 

Whether those services include help with marketing or information on government grants to help weather a pandemic, business associations are often focused on the economic health of the larger business district. In Chestnut Hill this often meant tapping into community support for local businesses, encouraging people to shop online or buy take out from stores and restaurants along Germantown Avenue, the main retail district in Chestnut Hill, or even donating to a small relief grants program administered by the business association. 

What is the Chestnut Hill business district?

So, under the umbrella of the Chester Hill business district, we have four corporations that work together comprehensively to serve an improved Chestnut Hill business district. We have about 230 businesses in the district, of which 185 are members of the association. We have very high participation in the association and a lot of interest and commitment, generally, from the businesses and property owners who are here in seeing the success of Chestnut Hill.

What is the primary role of the Chestnut Hill Business Association?

The association is a member organization of merchants in Chestnut Hill. So, its goal is to strengthen Chestnut Hills’ business environment and promote its members. 

It does that through marketing and advertising. It does it through special events, through providing resources and information to the businesses so that they can invest in themselves and educate themselves about how to run their businesses. It really provides all those comprehensive services with that same goal of making people more successful as business owners in Chestnut Hill.

What did the association do in light of the pandemic?

When the pandemic started, we kind of focused on three main areas of our response. 

One of them was to bring people frequent informational updates with all the resources that they needed. New information was coming out, sometimes on a daily basis, as information was rapidly changing. New funding sources and educational opportunities were coming out quickly. And as government regulations were changing day by day, we really invested a lot of time and energy and making sure that we got that information out to our members and made sure that they were taking advantage of the resources available to them. 

Another thing that we did was to continue to market Chestnut Hill and its businesses. This looked different than it did in the past. We weren’t doing massive street festivals, of course, during 2020. But we were doing a lot more internet marketing, driving people to the website where they could get information about our businesses as they were changing and adapting. Some of them had an online presence that they developed or they started doing streaming, or a new web store. All kinds of things that they may not have been doing in the past, so we made sure that people had access to that. 

When it came time to reopen, the public knew that Chestnut Hill was a place where they could come with confidence and walk around outdoors and go into smaller shops. 

The third piece was that we took the initiative to develop our own fundraising campaign locally to try to raise funds to assist businesses who were in need or in danger of closing. We were able to raise over $55,000 in donations, both larger philanthropic contributions and also small donations —$25, $50 or $100 — that local residents gave. It all added up, then we were able to make several dozen grants to businesses.

How was setting up fundraising despite current social distancing policies?

We did everything electronically, really. We put the word out on our website, we got the word out on social media, we let the local newspaper and the Chestnut Hill Local know about it. We encouraged people to let their neighbors know too. And the word got out. 

We were able to gradually build up those donations, and I also made some personal appeals, just to people who might be likely to donate. Even to the point that we were receiving donations months after we started it from people who had just heard about it through the grapevine. So, it may have looked a little different, but it was still very effective.

What was the community’s response like to the programs?

People in Chestnut Hill tend to value their business district — the stores and restaurants very much so — and they want to see it succeed. They recognize that it’s one of the really great intangible pieces of living here that they have access to that. People were concerned as they saw businesses struggling and wanting to support them in whatever way they could. We even saw some grassroots campaigns that took root during the pandemic, where people trying to get their neighbors together to support local takeout or to contribute to and buy meals from local restaurants and donate them to first responders and people who are essential workers. 

So, you know, people were looking for what they could do to support it. And that’s one of the reasons we went ahead with the fundraising because we thought, “Well, let’s tap into that and try to focus some of that on businesses who need help directly, who may not be, you know, the recipients of some of those efforts for takeout or what have you.” They may be a little less visible, but still having difficulty. So we were impressed by the community response.

What other programs were available to the community for aid during this pandemic?

Chestnut Hill has its own community association, which is a member organization for neighbors in Chestnut Hill. Our partners there at the community association did a good job throughout the pandemic on their end getting information to residents and Chestnut Hill, keeping them updated on things with the pandemic, the vaccine, and also coming up with positive ways to reinforce community spirit and build. They’ve made good efforts on the neighbor side, just as we were on the business side.

What programs are you working on now for the last remaining part of this pandemic?

We are in the midst right now of organizing a vaccination clinic that we’re going to have set up right here in this building in the Welcome Center. And we’re coordinating that with a pharmacy that’s doing clinics around the region. That’ll give our businesses an easy way to get vaccinated and send their staff over right here in Chestnut Hill. So that’s something that we think will be very well received by the members. We continue to bring them information about different programs and resources as they become available. 

And as we’re getting to this point in the spring as people are starting to get out more and more, infection rates have generally trended down. We’ve picked up with some of the marketing and events again. So, we’ve just started putting out more marketing about Chestnut Hill as an overnight weekend destination — a day trip destination. We’re putting that out not just within the region, but also to travel writers outside of the region, because we know that people are looking for places that they can go and take trips to. 

Chestnut Hill is an asset that has a lot of small shops, a lot of interesting things to see, and could be a destination in that regard. 

And then with events, we’re in the midst now of planning our home and garden stroll, which is a modification of our usual Home and Garden street festival. We’ll be bringing that back with a smaller amount of vendors spread out at different locations across the avenue. And we think it’ll bring a lot of people to Chestnut Hill and do so safely. 

We’re doing some second Saturdays focused on bringing artists in to Chestnut Hill throughout the summer and the remainder of the year. We are planning onward for events after that, again, with modifications for COVID. But trying to get back in the swing of things. 

What challenges has the Chestnut Hill Business Association encountered during the pandemic?

It was a challenging year, in many respects. I mean, for the businesses themselves — the difficulty overall and in losing a significant portion of their income. Having to make, in very short order, significant modifications to their business model in order to stay profitable and survive. Having to apply for and manage grants and loans, things that they may not be used to doing in the normal course of business. So just all of that, all of that adaptation, was a major challenge, and we tried to be their support as much as possible. 

For us as an organization, we had to go through some of the same challenges. I mean, our association, part of the business district, has historically gotten a significant portion of its income from the special events that we do, which generate a profit and which bring in corporate sponsorship. Without being able to do festivals and events, all of that revenue dried up. So we had to make some significant modifications to how we operated as an organization, apply for PPP loans and what have you. 

But we were able to get through it. We’re able to plan going forward and have all of our staff back and begin doing the marketing and events and member services that we’ve been able to sustain throughout the pandemic.

Where can a resident of Chestnut Hill go for assistance?

So for a resident of Chestnut Hill that needed assistance, I would encourage them to reach out to the Chestnut Hill Community Association, to see what resources they have. If they come here to the Business Association, even if they’re not a business, we’ll still try to point them in the right direction. Our office is the Welcome Center, so it’s meant to be a place that people can come in with any sort of inquiry that they have, whether they’re a visitor or resident, and we try to point them in the right direction. We continue to offer that service and be part of the solution.

Is there anything else people should know?

I guess one other thing I will point out is that we would encourage the public to continue now, more than ever, to support their local businesses as we are in this recovery phase of the pandemic. And in Chestnut Hill we’ve been fortunate that, while we did lose businesses in 2020 permanently, we also had almost as many businesses as we lost open up new businesses. 

So it continues to speak to the fact that people see this as an area of opportunity, where they see a future for themselves and potential for a business. And I think that community support of those small local businesses, and the jobs that they create, is especially essential. And hopefully people will prioritize that in their spending in the coming months.

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.

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