Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Norristown's Enemy Within

I used to travel a lot across America. In preparation for those trips, I'd look up the towns I'd visit ahead of time. Some had tourism websites, making it easy to find lodging, restaurants and attractions. If the towns were too small for that, I'd check to see if there was a local Chamber of Commerce, which I usually found.

For instance, the Adirondack Speculator Region Chamber of Commerce, whose businesses mostly cater to winter skiers and summer tourists looking for hiking trials and scenery. It covers 4 villages in New York State--combined population in 2010, about 1700. An area of several thousand square miles. The Chamber of Commerce helped get the word out on why people should come to the area, provided info on the kinds of businesses their visitors needed, and when I was there, seemed to be attracting new businesses to the area. From what I observed, their businesses were nothing fancy, but all seemed to be succeeding.

Norristown, with our population of more than 34,000 on only 4 square miles, can't even seem to keep together a loose association of businesses. When we do have a business association, it falls on one or 2 people to run it, with very little support from the business community they're trying to help. The West End Association helped to make West Marshall a lively, decent business district. Then when the one person who was most responsible for holding the organization together left town for a while, the group folded.

The Norristown Business Association took on the whole town, though this year concentrated their efforts downtown. Fourth Friday was beginning to work, Downtown Norristown was beginning to be noticed by outsiders. Instead of bad-mouthing us, outsiders were starting to say we were "coming back from the brink." The problem was, the majority of downtown businesses refused to support the NBA in any way. Even those who came to NBA meetings and took advantage of NBA programs--most never paid dues. You can't expect a business association to do publicity and host events and support the community when they have no funding.

Most of our businesses have too much of an every-man-for-himself attitude. They all seem to think that they don't need to be a part of the whole community. Their business is all that matters. So, you business owners out there, how many Norristonians do you employ? What do you contribute toward the health of Norristown's overall economy? How many patrons do you bring into town daily, and how many of them do you encourage to stay and spend their money elsewhere in town? Because the healthier the town's economy is as a whole, the more business you're personally going to rake in. Try to go it alone and you'll eventually fail. Then you'll claim it's someone else's fault. Maybe you'll blame Council. Maybe you'll say Norristown's always been doomed to fail. The one thing I know you won't do is blame yourselves and your stubborn refusal to see the big picture.

The last couple weeks, I've read in the Times Herald and on Facebook how certain business owners are claiming that Diva's Kitchen is getting special favors from Council. No one is reporting facts, so I don't know the whole story. In fact, that's another Norristown quirk--we'd rather not have facts. We'd rather come to our own fictional conclusions and feed the rumor mill.

On the issue, I will say that it's my understanding that the initial funds were part of a block grant to improve depressed properties. It's also my understanding that the grants are given to the property owners, not to tenants like Diva's Kitchen (though probably they were lined up as the tenant to help facilitate the grant).

You businesses out there whining that you got no money--did you apply for a block grant? If you didn't, maybe that's why no one's handing you taxpayer dollars.

I know that most of the people sniping about Diva's Kitchen don't know the owner. Here's what I know about her. She gets the big picture. She was a member in good standing of the NBA. When she committed to events, like the lunchtime portion of Fourth Friday, she showed up with her crew and her food, sometimes in adverse weather, when several other vendors who said they'd be there failed to show up at all, with no explanation. She regularly attended NBA meetings and mixers and tried to get to know others from the business community. When I was posting restaurant listings onto NBA's Facebook page, she'd be one of the first to Like or comment for every posting, even some of those businesses whose owners are currently bad-mouthing her business. She understands more than most of the rest of of our business community, that businesses have to band together and support each other if N-town is going to recover economically.

I for one, fervently wish she hadn't been talked into trying to move Diva's Kitchen downtown, and not only because I miss having her food in my neighborhood. Norristown can't afford to have a good business like Diva's Kitchen close its doors. And we need more owners like Temeka Murray, with her vision, and less like the businesses who this past week have been sounding like bratty, immature siblings, whining that somehow "Mom likes her best." I think the worse thing is that they make it sound like Diva's Kitchen is some evil corporate entity with political connections instead of who they are--a family who hasn't had a steady income from their business since this whole mess began. We ought to worry about that family instead of giving them a hard time. Business owners ought to be thinking, "What can I do to help keep more family businesses from failing, because that could so easily be me next time?"

Norristown needs a real business community, without all the petty bickering, with a proper Chamber of Commerce or a real Business Association, run jointly by our businesses instead of one or two people who have no funding. You might say, we've already got a Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, why do we need another? So what has Montco done for us lately? Nothing. Smaller surrounding communities, like King of Prussia and Conshohocken, have their own business organizations, and it's working for them. They know businesses can't survive in a vacuum.

As for you Norristown businesses out there who insist on being divisive, you'll no longer see support for your business here on the Diary. It's not good for Norristown. Frankly, I'm fed up with your whole attitude. Start acting like professionals.

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