When Alex Balloon strolls the Torresdale Avenue business corridor, he sees history. He imagines brick and wooden façades, decorative tile and moldings, nostalgic signage.
Balloon, the Tacony Community Development Corporation corridor manager, is relatively new to the neighborhood. But many of the old-timers share his vision. Problem is, they view it only as a distant memory.
Through a series of new initiatives, the recently re-energized CDC is trying to restore the avenue’s glorious past while bringing its merchants up to date on contemporary marketing strategies.
“Tacony has so many advantages — access to [Interstate] 95, parks, rich historic aspects, the whole [Henry] Disston story,” Balloon said. “It’s about packaging that, promoting that and creating a buzz.
“And I think people who have been here [for] so long maybe have grown accustomed to what Torresdale Avenue looks like.”
Most local folks will tell you it looks like a neighborhood in decline, beset by poor economic conditions and crime. But Balloon, an Ohio native who studied historic preservation at Penn, brings a new set of eyes. The CDC hired him in January as its first and lone paid staff member.
IT GOES FOR THE GOLD
Founded in 2000, the Tacony CDC is a non-profit organization and a vehicle for the community to seek federal, state and local grants and other types of funding. The CDC invests this seed money into projects that will improve the community and, it is hoped, generate revenue for further community investment.
The all-volunteer CDC board includes community leaders and merchants Peter Naccarato, Louis A. Iatarola, the Rev. Arthur Johnson, Mike Scotese, Linda Salandra, Georgeanne Labovitz, Troy Erwine and David Payne.
Until last year, the CDC was focused more on the Delaware River waterfront than Torresdale Avenue, according to Scotese, owner of the Grey Lodge Pub.
Previously, it tried to transform a former industrial property on the waterfront into a large-scale residential development. It got the Army Corps of Engineers to clear the land, Scotese said, but then the project stalled.
The CDC has worked on other single-site projects, including the rehabilitation of a 19th century home and medical office at 4802 Disston St. The 3,500 square-foot building is in the original Disston Estate, the Victorian-style workers’ community designed and built by Henry Disston in support of his nearby saw works.
But until recently, the CDC had neither the money nor time to effect widespread change.
“I think we all wished there had been more activity going on,” Scotese said. “But you really can’t take on big projects being a volunteer.”
Perhaps more importantly, full-scale building rehab projects cost a lot and don’t usually offer a big bang for the buck.
“When you redevelop a property, it’s very capital intensive and very slow,” Balloon said. “And with the money you use, you could [improve] a lot of properties on the avenue.”
LOOKING AT THE BIG PICTURE
That’s what the CDC’s Historic Tacony Revitalization Project is trying to do. The newly launched Façade Grant Program is the visual component of the broader revitalization project.
About 16,000 vehicles a day travel along the 6300 to 7200 blocks of Torresdale Ave. Most of the stores were built in the 1910s and ’20s and are in need of facelifts. The façade program offers to pay merchants up to 85 percent of the costs to upgrade their storefronts. Single stores can receive up to $16,000 in funding, while double stores or corner stores can get up to $24,000.
When the CDC teamed with the city’s Commerce Department to launch the façade program earlier this year, Balloon was expecting interest from maybe a half-dozen stores. But more than twice that many have applied for grants. Applicants must meet strict eligibility requirements and be willing to invest their own money.
Yet, they won’t have to worry about design work. Volunteer architects and designers with the Community Design Collaborative will take care of that, pro bono.
“I’m hoping for something better than what it is,” said Angela DeNofa, owner of DeNofa’s Deli and Catering.
She opened her business 35 years ago. Since then, it has doubled in size. But very little has been done to modify the external appearance. Over the years, she’s replaced some windows and her sign.
Balloon thinks DeNofa may want to go for more of a classic appearance reflective of the kind of products and service she offers inside.
“We do our own butchering, make our own sausage, cook our own meats,” DeNofa said. “It’s home style and old fashioned.”
“They have this beautiful old Italian logo and we’d like to project that,” Balloon said. “It celebrates the history of the business.”
EYE ON UPGRADES
The CDC’s revitalization project also has “economic improvement” components, the corridor manager said. The CDC will seek more attractive merchants for the avenue and work with existing merchants to improve their businesses.
Some shops fit the surroundings better than others.
“I think specialty stores work best,” said Mark Whited, the owner of Bull’s-Eye Dart Shop. “We want to have foot traffic. If you like to play darts, you can come here and try them out before you buy them.”
A couple of dance studios, a mixed martial-arts gym and an archery range also fit into the specialty category. They attract people because they offer unique products and services that cannot be delivered via the Internet, and because they’re close to their consumers.
“We’re going to do ‘cluster marketing,’” Balloon said. “[These businesses] have some things in common. They all appeal to kids. And in our neighborhood, 25 percent of residents are under 20.”
The CDC is working on a cross-promotion involving a bridal shop and dance studio where couples would get dance lessons to prepare for their wedding receptions. And one of the martial arts studios is promoting a “bride and groom special,” too, Balloon said.
Merchants like DeNofa and Whited have other ideas to improve business.
“The meters are another problem,” DeNofa said, referring to the parking meters along the avenue.
She thinks that customers should be able to park for free. Whited agrees. He also wants better police coverage.
“I’d like to see some more security,” he said. “We had a beat cop down here, then they pulled him off.”
The CDC has a “clean and safe” committee working on a program to reimburse businesses that invest in surveillance cameras. It’s still in the development stages, however, and will not be a part of the façade initiative.
“[Safety] issues impact our goals, but we focus on what we can control,” Balloon said. “Public safety is really a partnership. The police have a role. We have a role and the business owners have a role.” ••
Visit historictaconyrevitalization.com for information about the Historic Tacony Revitalization Project.EndFragment