Could Steinke be a champion for neighborhood business?
Crystal Scott is a cosmetologist who has owned her own hair and beauty salon on the 5th Street Corridor for three years. She’ll tell you that they’re not missing much by way of businesses in the area. There are always some vacant storefronts to fill, but within a few blocks walking, people can find what they need on 5th Street.
Still, she wouldn’t say no to some improvements in the neighborhood.
Paul Steinke, 50, takes mental notes of what’s missing from 5700 block where Scott’s salon, Chameleon Creations, is located. Despite having over 200 small businesses in the area, few trees line the sidewalks of this bustling commercial hub in the heart of Olney. There are scarce public spaces outdoors to keep customers around. The parking meters are a leftover relic from the 1990s. Where are the streetsweepers? Where are the police officers patrolling on foot and bike like you see downtown?
“There’s no nightlife,” Scott says. “All of the businesses close here at 7 p.m. because they worry about crime. My later customers leave and can’t even find an open restaurant to eat at.”
Steinke is one of 18 Democratic candidates for City Council At-Large. He walks up the furthest reaches of 5th Street talking to small business owners in an attempt to understand the struggles facing Philly’s neighborhood business corridors, especially in minority communities.
“You need to reduce the climate of fear,” he suggested, following with a laundry list of proposals from security cameras to a town watch to forming a BID.
Steinke is no stranger to the area, nor to this particular conversation with Scott. The Northeast Philly native’s forte is the Business Improvement District, or BID for short.
In a BID, a coalition of business owners agree to pay a percentage on top of their property tax that will go towards improving their shared commercial area. Clean, safe, vibrant — those are the buzzwords for BIDs.
You may know him as the business director at the Reading Terminal Market for the last 13 years. But prior to the market, Steinke put his fingerprint on three of the city’s most evolved business corridors. He served the Center City District (CCD) for seven years as a finance director, and was then appointed as the executive director of the University City District. He also helped draw up the schematics for the East Passyunk Avenue BID.
Center City in the 1990s was a dead zone after 7 p.m. before the CCD helped rebrand the area. But that’s not to say Steinke sees the 5th Street Corridor as a late night wine-and-cheese destination.
“Every neighborhood is different,” he says. “You need to play to its strengths.”
He cites the "Hoagie trail" along Torresdale Ave. as an example of a commercial district that pooled its attractions — in this case, hoagie and steak shacks. The 5th Street Corridor is already a household name for shopping, hair styling, and more. And while it may not need a Kimmel Center, Steinke feels that every district should have the same chance to grow and expand that places like Center City and University City have. That boils down to resources.
Going back to the BID buzzwords, there are universal things that all business owners want — namely, a clean and safe environment.
My Daughter’s Wedding, a multi-service formal wear shop, has been a family-operated staple on the 5th Street Corridor for almost 30 years. Despite a strong following, owner Ahn Jung struggles with constant littering and crime. Theft is a persistent issue. Sometimes it’s people doing drugs in the back alley behind the shop. But Jung says his experience waiting on the police has left him less than optimistic.
“There used to be foot patrols on the street for a few months in the summer, but they cut back on that,” said one of the shop employees.
Steinke proposed the nickel-tax on plastic bags throughout the city, which could feasibly raise enough money to provide city-wide street sweeping. He followed Jung out back to check out an troubling property that keeps Jung up at night — a crumbling two-storey rowhome that looks as if it might collapse in a strong breeze. Steinke offered to pass along the info to Councilwoman Marian Tasco who is in charge of the district.
A lot of the work promoting small business growth needs to happen on a legislative level, primarily adjusting tax policies on business income and wage. But what Steinke is doing now — and what he proposes to do as councilman — is ground zero for bringing jobs back to neighborhoods across the city.
Does every neighborhood really need a BID?
Studies have looked at the effectiveness of BIDs through the lens of social theory and crime reduction. They’ve also been looked at as ways to compete with suburban shopping malls that take money and jobs out of the city. Philadelphia currently has 10 BIDs in effect, and as a whole, they’ve recieved far more praise than backlash. In short, even those business owners who were against them to begin with have quickly seen their results.
Between councilmembers, businesses, and local CDCs, there’s a lot consensus that needs to be built before legislating a new BID. The questions now are: Do we need someone to lead such an effort on City Council? If yes, who would be willing to do the grunt work necessary to better serve the underserved business community? Whether or not it's through BIDs, do we have someone with neighborhood business growth in mind?
Business in the at-large race...
There are two other at-large Democratic candidates with strong finance and economic backgrounds similar to Steinke's.
Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. is running to stay on for a fifth term. Prior to his election in 1999, Goode worked on numerous economic development boards throughout the city.
Then there’s Allan Domb, the influential real estate broker and developer. He founded Allan Domb Real Estate in 1980, and serves on the several boards downtown (including the CCD).
You can read Steinke's policy proposals here.