Kevin Riordan: He's still up after 'super downgrade'

Magdala Jean-Gilles gets help from her 3-year-old son, Marcus, while changing a display outside her Collingswood boutique, Miami Couture.
Magdala Jean-Gilles gets help from her 3-year-old son, Marcus, while changing a display outside her Collingswood boutique, Miami Couture. (ELIZABETH ROBERSTON / Staff Photographer)

Collingswood creditworthiness took a hit from Moody's, but mayor is Booster No. 1.

Posted: September 18, 2011

The interior of Miami Couture, a stylish little boutique on Haddon Avenue, blooms with tropical hues.

The vivid colors seem bright enough to banish any dreary fears about the fiscal future of Collingswood.

"I love it here," proprietor Magdala Jean-Gilles declares.

But since its grand opening in September 2010, the downtown store has faced what Jean-Gilles calls "a tough, tough road."

The same could be said about the last few years of the borough's celebrated transition, from fraying inner-ring suburb to cosmopolitan hot spot.

The road has been particularly tough for the LumberYard, the handsome but unfinished condo-retail complex on Haddon near Collings Avenue.

A complicated and evolving public-private financing arrangement for the $18 million project is a major reason Moody's Investors Service last week downgraded Collingswood's creditworthiness.

While the borough isn't going broke, much less bankrupt, the unusual "super downgrade" does suggest Collingswood's innovative economic development strategies could be hazardous to its fiscal health.

No such discouraging words can be heard from longtime Mayor Jim Maley, however.

"I'm lucky enough to be mayor of this great town," he says, mic in one hand, pony bottle of H2O in the other.

Maley is working a crowd of 100 at the Scottish Rite Ballroom, a sleek public space next to a revived theater that symbolizes the new, hip Collingswood.

The audience hasn't come for a show - some seem downright alarmed by the "downgrade" headlines - but Maley is on.

Moody's move was expected, he says, but its severity - a six-point drop in the borough's credit rating - was not. The firm's analysis is "faulty"; the borough hopes to get it "fixed."

Maley is an earnest and energetic salesman, fast on his feet, quick with a quip. Every question gets a deft response.

"Ten or 12 years ago, the state put us on the 'distressed cities' list because we lost population," he says, citing a previous bout of bad publicity that was overcome by better news.

Maley is correct that, by the mid-2000s, innovative initiatives had transformed the image of the borough of 14,000.

An infusion of sophisticated new restaurants, funky shops, and special events reenergized Haddon Avenue; a popular farmer's market took off; and media coverage took on a rosy glow.

Then a truly atrocious proposal for a downtown drugstore with a giant parking lot spurred the borough to become a major player in a far more ambitious effort that produced the LumberYard.

This turned out to be singularly ill-timed.

"The world changed," Maley says, noting the economic collapse, which began shortly after construction started in 2006.

Five years later, Haddon Avenue is sprinkled with empty storefronts, and a downsized LumberYard complex is half-finished.

But the ground-floor retail is lively, and recent condo buyers like Pat Kelly love the place.

"It's everything we hoped it would be," says Kelly, 58, who moved to the borough with her husband from their empty nest in Turnersville.

She and other condo owners are concerned about the borough's plan to buy and temporarily rent out unsold LumberYard units.

The borough-as-landlord is just one component in an effort to satisfy the lenders, and now Moody's, amid a housing market that continues to struggle.

Should such a small town get so deeply involved in a private redevelopment effort? A good question, but it's too late to back out of the LumberYard now.

Maley, meanwhile, seems to be everywhere, tirelessly promoting the latest deal to save the signature project of his 14 years in office.

He says, accurately: "We're working very hard."

So are people like Jean-Gilles, whose first-ever business is entering its second year.

"I'm just trying to make it," she says.


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter.

Read the metro columnists'

blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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