Martha Sharkey is the executive director for the Chestnut Hill Business Association and is one of the primary people leading the way in bringing new businesses, programs and community safety projects to the local community.
Sharkey, who has held her current position for three years, believes that helping bring new people to the neighborhood will ultimately lead to prosperity and bonding for all Chestnut Hill residents. Several of her team’s projects have already resulted in giant success stories, while others are still taking shape.
Could you explain what the Chestnut Hill Business District is and what you do as the executive director of the association?
We have several business organizations that come out of the Chestnut Hill Welcome Center. There is the Chestnut Hill Business Association, which has been around since 1956. We have more than 125 restaurant and retail members who are part of the association, in addition to about 200 professional and supporting members.
We also have the Parking Foundation, which has been around since about 1952, and we have the Business Improvement District, which is basically a footprint within Chestnut Hill where commercial property owners pay an assessment on their property that goes back into the community to help support keeping the community safe, keeping the community clean, beautification projects, holiday lights, marketing initiatives and retail recruitment.
What was your first impression of the Chestnut Hill area?
This area is beautiful. It is a hidden gem and it is a place that we want more people to discover. We have wonderful attractions here, including Morris Arboretum and Woodmere Art Museum. We have ten blocks of great retail and restaurants.
It has a little bit of something for everyone and, with the cobblestone streets and the architecture, it is a wonderful part of the city of Philadelphia.
What surprised you most about working for the Chestnut Hill Business Association when you first got here?
I would say that something that surprised me the most was how much actually came out of this office and my wonderful team. Two of the members of my team have been here for more than 35 years. Some of the other members have been here a long time as well. I think really seeing how much they do on a regular basis – our goal is to create a thriving and successful business district.
So, all of the events that you see like the Harry Potter Festival, Fall for the Arts, Home and Garden, the different programs and events that we host throughout the year – all of that organization comes out of this office, in addition to our different member services that we offer to the members of the Business Association. We act as liaison between our members and the city. We help them navigate the city departments and answer questions about trash and licensing and signage. All of that comes out of this office.
How do you promote businesses to start up in the Chestnut Hill area, and more importantly, encourage people living in Northwest Philadelphia to support these local businesses?
We started a retail recruitment program around 2009-10. We had a retail study completed along the corridor to really highlight the types of businesses that we were missing in Chestnut Hill and what types of businesses that we had to go after, whether it be restaurants, retail or women’s apparel. And after that study was completed, we hired our first retail recruiter.
That person’s position was to actually go out and actively prospect for Chestnut Hill. They would go into other neighborhoods and communities that were similar to Chestnut Hill and talk to business owners about potentially opening another location, or ask them if they have thought about our neighborhood.
We have seen great success from that program, having had more than 31 businesses open in just the past three years.
What are some of the challenges you face in your job and how have you and your team been able to overcome these challenges?
Well, I think one of the biggest challenges right now for brick and mortar retail is the Internet. It is a real challenge.
When we were talking previously about getting the residents here to shop local, we not only look at the residents within Chestnut Hill, but within our neighboring communities of Mount Airy, Lafayette Hill, Roxborough, Germantown and throughout the Northwest. Getting them to understand the importance of supporting our local businesses is key. We partner with the Chestnut Hill Local to have “shop local” features in the weekly publication. The Internet sales, that is a big challenge and it is something that we try to work on on a consistent basis.
Are there any special stories specifically that you are proud of?
I think seeing someone’s face when they come to Chestnut Hill and step foot onto the avenue – it’s just evolving and it’s changing. We’re moving forward together to continue offering the best we can with unique boutiques and shops and restaurants.
I always enjoy when people come here who haven’t been to Chestnut Hill in a long time, or it’s their first time visiting our community. I love introducing them to our business owners who treat them like family as soon as they walk in the door and that is what Chestnut Hill is all about.
It’s a tight knit community. Our business association is tight knit. People are helping one another. If one retailer does not have something, they will take you down the street to someone who can help you.
What are some future projects the association has in the works in order to keep up the growth of Northwest Philadelphia?
Our streetscape plan is really our guideline that we are following. Pedestrian lighting is one of two major priorities that we move further down the process in planning to have those projects ready to go when funding became available or as we are actively looking for funding.
Recently, we received a $500,000 grant through the Multimodal Transportation Fund for new pedestrian lighting which is one of our major priorities through the 2015 streetscape plan. We will also be receiving a match through the city of Philadelphia. So, we will have $2 million to put toward the launch of this new pedestrian lighting project, which is very exciting. The pedestrian lighting project is one that we are moving forward with.
We are also working on pedestrian safety, traffic calming and new painted crosswalks. Our town is very well-known for its walkability. We have nice, wide sidewalks through a majority of our district. Our town is very walkable for the restaurants and shops.
But then we have some other projects going on – enhancing our green space, which through our pocket parks partnership, we have a lot of pocket parks.
This year, Chestnut Hill is celebrating our twentieth anniversary as Philadelphia’s Garden District. We are very proud to share and promote as a community that in 1997, we were designated the Garden District, based upon our green space, our horticultural assets – Morris Arboretum, the Wissahickon and Forbidden Drive.
-Text and images by Ryan Wallen and Bud Knapp.