timberland reading Allentown downtown merchants adapt to changes with arena project
Retailers who weathered lean years wonder if they’ll be pushed out of downtown. And it embraces building facades that preserve historical features such as stonework and awnings.
“We want to keep it consistent, nice, upscale,” said Megan Hill, Hamilton District Main Street Program manager. “We want them to attract people downtown.”
With Center City’s ongoing transformation, fueled by $500 million in new development, the handful of merchants who weathered decades of failed revitalization efforts on Hamilton Street are wondering how they fit in.
Take Parks Athletic Footwear. For more than 23 years, owner Jong Kim and manager Alejandro Hernandez have catered to residents from the neighborhoods surrounding their two stores, in the 700 and 800 blocks of Hamilton Street, selling sneakers and athletic wear at discounted prices.
But things are changing. The Rite Aid and Family Dollar that once brought local foot traffic are gone, along with several other discount oriented businesses that were displaced by the city’s hockey arena under construction at Seventh and Hamilton streets. Several new office buildings will open next year, bringing hundreds of white collar workers to Center City.
Developer City Center Investment Corp. has purchased nine Hamilton Street properties and plans to renovate their first floors for new retailers. Hill said the city is hoping they will lure a mix of chain stores and locally owned shops such as bakeries, florists and jewelry stores.
The developer is also erecting 200 luxury apartments priced at $1,000 a month and above that will include ground floor space for higher end retail shops.
Kim hopes to cash in. He is closing the store in the 700 block of Hamilton Street and renovating the 800 block location, changing its name to The One. He plans to add products that appeal to employees of Lehigh Valley Health Network and National Penn Bancshares, who will occupy new office buildings downtown, and to spectators heading to events at the arena beginning next year.
“We don’t know for sure whether the city wants us to stay in business downtown at all because it conflicts with what they have in mind,” Hernandez said.
“We want everybody who is there to grow with all of us, with the rest of the city,” Hailstone said. “Some people will probably have to adapt a little bit. I think it will be for the positive.”
The city and Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce have offered the merchants some help. The city has doled out most of a facade improvement fund set up with $100,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant money and a $100,000 donation from Wells Fargo bank.
Six merchants received the grants,
including Gaby Beauty Salon and the A Pawn pawnshop, both in the 900 block.
The Main Street Program, a partnership between the city and the Chamber, offers merchants up to $5,000 to spruce up their storefronts, as well as advice and promotional assistance.
But both facade programs come with strings.
Parks didn’t quality for either facade grant because its plans didn’t comply with historic restoration requirements. And the city’s Planning Commission questioned Kim’s self funded renovation plan, which he says is costing him more than $100,000.
Santo Napoli, owner of The Archive in the 600 block of Hamilton Street, knows the city wants him around. The shop in a 1920s era building that once housed the American Medicine Co. pharmacy sells clothing, footwear and hats to “streetwear, urban and skate” customers.
With the city’s help, Napoli secured more than $50,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant matching funds, allowing him to uncover and restore the old American Medicine sign. He also has installed rainbow hewed LED lighting to set off the store’s brushed silver sign.
“We are really prepping to be first class when this is all finished,” Napoli said. “I joke with the guys at City Center that I am keeping up with the Joneses. I am upgrading the store, and that way I will fit right in.”
He’s also adding brands such as Seven for All Mankind and True Religion, high end designer jeans, to appeal to women working in City Center’s new buildings. They’ll be sold alongside the Nike Air Jordans, Timberland boots and New Era caps he has made his name selling.
“I’m as positive as you can be,” Santos said. “I have been here for 14 years, and I have been here when no one wanted to be here. Now with all this development and some of the projects that are in the pipeline,
the outlook is phenomenal. We are really excited to be here.”