Thursday, November 21, 2013

Saving Main Street WITHOUT Council

23rd St, Arlington, VA - 2 city blocks of international restaurants and other businesses 
I have a friend who lives in Wynnewood, and when I visit, I usually stop at a certain bakery and a certain pizzeria, both small businesses. What's special about them is that they offer gluten-free items that I can't get in Norristown, and for both, their food is so good that I look forward to going back.

Two weeks ago I had to go to Wynnewood, so I stopped at the bakery to pick up some of their incredible muffins to bring home with me. As I was paying for my order, I said that I wished we had a bakery like that in Norristown. The guy helping me (who, it turns out, was the manager) asked if there were any small retail spaces available in the borough. I almost shouted "The town's full of them!" but not wanting to scare away his interest, I described the downtown and Logan Square. He was actually familiar with Norristown and we ended up talking architecture (he loves our old jail building).

He gave me the bakery's card and when I came home I emailed the information to my councilwoman, Linda Christian, our Director of Planning, Jayne Musonye and to Ron Story, who mans our Small Business Assistance Center. Ron has helped to bring businesses such as Jus' Java, Almaz and Bahn Mi to town. Last I heard, Ron was following up on my lead.

I don't know if that bakery will end up opening a branch here in Norristown or not, but from the experience, I got to thinking. Several thousand Norristonians commute to work each day. According to the last census, our commuters travel an average of 27 minutes. That means half of us go a pretty good distance away. And many more of us travel a distance to visit friends and family, to bring kids to college, or on business trips. And probably in those locations, we all have a few favorite restaurants, specialty shops or stores that we patronize, especially if they sell items we can't get close to home. Some of them are bound to be the kind of small businesses that would go perfect on Main Street or in Logan Square, or in that little shopping area with the Thriftway on Dekalb, or in a neighborhood corner store like Jus' Java.

So let's say the next time you go into one of these favorite stores, you say something like "I wish we had a place like this in my hometown. You want to open a branch there?" If a thousand of us do that, and even a hundred businesses show interest, maybe we can get a dozen of them to move here. Then of course, we'd have to go out of our way to support them so they never regret their decision.

If you try this and get any leads, email them to Ron Story at , and copy Jayne at To shy to ask on your own? Tell Ron about the business and he'll contact them.

Even if you don't have leads, think about what kinds of businesses you'd patronize if they came to Norristown. How about a sporting goods store? (I think that would be perfect in Logan Square.) Other ethnic restaurants? Greek? French? Thai? Indian? Polynesian? (I'd love to see Main St. become an international foods destination, like Arlington, VA, photo above.) An ice cream shop? A bicycle shop? A cheese shop?

Email all your suggestions to Ron. If you've been to a similar place, describe it to him. For instance, I'd tell him that I'd love to see a little breakfast/lunch place like La Madeleine Country French Cafe in Bethesda, MD, that's sort of like Panera but a hundred times better for the same price. Ron can at least check their website and see what I mean.

Waiting for council to take the lead isn't going to get us anywhere. Their answer in to put drug clinics on Main Street. If all of us put effort into scouting out businesses for Norristown, I'm guessing we could save our shopping districts all on our own. If Ron and the Small Business Assistance Center can't keep up, then maybe we have to bring realtors and businesses together ourselves. We'll see. But nothing's going to happen if we keep waiting for someone else to do it.

Quick note: I'll be teaching again tomorrow morning, so the Diary will be late.

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