From Black commerce to North Broad Street
Have we mentioned it's been a big week for leadership changes in Philly?
Adding to the list of big executive leadership changes, Shalimar Thomas, executive director of the African American Chamber of Commerce (AACC), has resigned in order to take a position with the North Broad Street Renaissance. It's a daunting move. The new organization will be focused on developing that 21-mile stretch between City Hall and Montgomery County, and Thomas' first task will be to build community stakeholders.
We caught up with Thomas to talk about her years of work with the AACC and how it informs her vision for North Philly's main artery.
First, commissioner Ramsey announced his retirement. And then Varsovia Fernandez stepped down from the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. First question: Did you and Varsovia plan this together in some closed-door meeting?
Everybody is asking that. It was not. [Laughs.] Not at all.
Well now that we’ve got that scandal cleared up, what are you looking forward to in your work with the North Broad Renaissance?
As you know, the focus in the next few years is going to be on developing North Broad Street. There’s a lot of development that has taken place there already, and a lot of energy that will start to focused there soon. So I think I’m coming in at a perfect time. I can really play a party in the community revitalization. I’m excited about being in the community that I grew up in — Broad and Erie — and making sure that it’s representative and inclusive.
Inga Saffron wrote a column for the Inquirer this morning criticizing the $14 million “phalanx of stainless steel” streetlights — the first visible sign of the North Broad renaissance. Beyond her aesthetic concerns, she said that the project seemed to be done on “autopilot.” Is there anything that worries you going into this new organization?
No. I’m going to be new to this organization. Whatever the challenges with the lights are will not be the biggest challenge with revitalizing North Broad. It’s not going to be easy. We’ll make some good decisions and collectively we’ll make some bad decisions. But we’ll work to make it better and make sure that we’re being responsible and accountable to the stakeholders.
One of my first jobs will be identifying stakeholders and making sure that it’s a collective voice — not just my voice. It’s something that I learned at the chamber being an advocate for businesses. When it came to legislation, a lot of times there were things that me or the board might have taken a different position on, but we had to look at the collective voice of our membership.
North Broad is interesting in that it has so many distinct sections that cater to different communities. From the lower reaches with the Convention Center and PAFA to the two Temples to North Broad commercial districts. Do you envision diversifying or coalescing each of those independent parts? How so?
I do. When you look at it right now, the stakeholders are all completely diverse. It’s not one ethnic group over the other. And whatever type of development takes place...we need to make sure that those individuals and communities take part in the economic vitality so that they all benefit from it. And I think it’s only a win-win for the entire region when we figure out how to make that happen.
There’s no concentrated Latino business presence on North Broad. Do you think you’ll use your connections between the different chambers of commerces (African American, Hispanic, Asian, etc.) to create future stakeholders?
Absolutely. That’s a huge benefit of the coalitions that I’ve built at [the Hispanic and Asian] chambers. Even working with Philadelphia Black Pride and the LGBT Chamber, diversity is something that’s...I can’t stress enough how important diversity is in this city. When we oversee such a large stretch of such a main and vital corridor, it has to be representative of everyone.