City to business: Drop dead

Philadelphia's powers that be seemed bent on discouraging a pair of entrepreneurs.

Posted: November 20, 2009

Jennifer Zoga and Liz Bales tried to follow all the right steps when they started their new business in Chestnut Hill. They put together a business plan, found a location on a busy street, and lined up the necessary financing.

But they didn't count on getting kneecapped by petty Philadelphia politics.

Their story is a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to start a small business in this city.

Zoga and Bales, two smart moms who live in Chestnut Hill, spent a couple of years planning Good Food Market, an upscale shop that sells prepared foods and caters to other busy neighborhood families. (Disclosure: I met Zoga and Bales through mutual friends.) They found a vacant building for it on Willow Grove Avenue, just off of Germantown Avenue, the main commercial strip.

The area's zoning allowed for a market, which opened last month. But Zoga and Bales also wanted to sell coffee, gelato, and sandwiches, which required a variance from the city zoning board.

Before going to the board, they had to navigate the local gauntlet known as the Chestnut Hill Community Association. This often persnickety organization has several subcommittees that examine each part of a business' plan, such as parking and signage.

That process began in the spring, and trouble soon followed: 78 residents signed a petition opposing a variance for the market. Some feared the store would create more traffic and parking problems.

To be sure, the area is busy, and parking is limited. But that's been the case for years. It was hard to see how coffee and gelato sales would suddenly create gridlock, make the area less safe, or reduce property values.

In fact, most residents welcomed the market: Nearly 500 signed a petition in support of it. Two food markets and several other retailers had recently left the neighborhood, leaving the business district looking somewhat shabby.

Zoga tried to appease the disgruntled neighbors. She met with them and agreed to a number of concessions. Her efforts seemed to pay off, as the opposition dwindled to a handful of detractors. As such, the community association voted unanimously to recommend that the zoning board approve the variance.

Zoga and Bales thought they were home free at that point, since the zoning board usually follows the recommendations of neighborhood groups. But last month, the board voted 3-1 to deny the variance.

It turns out the remaining disgruntled neighbors had called in some political juice. State Rep. Cherelle L. Parker (D., Phila.) had sent a letter to the zoning board opposing the variance. So had City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, whose district includes Chestnut Hill - though few would know it, since she's often MIA on the neighborhood's bigger issues.

Also weighing in against the market was Councilman Bill Greenlee. Since Greenlee is an at-large councilman, it's curious that he would get involved in such a minor local issue. But Greenlee aide Julie O'Connell lives in Chestnut Hill and helped rouse his interest. O'Connell's husband, John, is the neighborhood's Democratic ward leader.

The opposition amounted to a political mob hit on a couple of moms trying to launch a small business in the middle of a recession - a business that now employs 16 people, provides health benefits, sells local products, and is environmentally focused.

It's the sort of business a city of neighborhoods should want. Instead, a few power brokers tried to undermine it.

That sends absolutely the wrong message in a city struggling to generate jobs and tax revenue. It also shows how politics still influences the zoning board, despite Mayor Nutter's efforts to recruit new blood.

What drove the pols to submarine the variance? O'Connell, Greenlee's aide, says they just responded to the residents' concerns, and that the market hadn't justified a variance.

Perhaps. But others, including some at City Hall, speculate that the opposition was driven in part by members of Weavers Way, a Mount Airy-based co-op that plans to open a market in Chestnut Hill. Perhaps the co-op, which has a strong constituency, didn't want any competition. General manager Glenn Bergman denies that the co-op played any role.

Despite the setback, Zoga and Bales are taking the high road. They decided not to appeal the zoning decision and to focus on expanding their business.

The lack of a variance only forced them to adjust their business plan. Instead of selling coffee by the cup, Good Food Market is giving it away.


Paul Davies is The Inquirer's deputy editorial page editor. He can be reached at pdavies@phillynews.com.

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