When you envision a “vibrant downtown” are tattoo parlors, cash for gold stores and tobacco shops part of the landscape?
For Hatboro Borough Councilman Bill Tompkins, the answer is a firm no.
“I would like to see something different,” Tompkins said. “(But), a business has to survive. If there’s no market for the business, it won’t survive and it won’t stay there.”
Taking in the view of shuttered businesses, for sale signs and recent additions that dot the York Road landscape, Tompkins’ sentiment seems to ring true.
Doing something to tweak that business reality, well, that could be trickier according to Tompkins, who heads up the borough’s zoning, planning and historic preservation committee. As the borough, realtors, landlords and Main Street Manager Stephen Barth, a part-time borough consultant, work to fill vacancies for both small storefronts and large anchor sites including the former CVS and Big Marty’s stores, questions have been raised over the type of businesses moving into Hatboro recently.
“My frustration over the local business landscape degrading into only businesses that serve the low-income members of our community has had me concerned for some time,” April Fox Regan commented on a related Patch article. “While a dollar store here or there never hurt anyone, the lack of town planning in Hatboro is atrocious.”
Some, including Fox Regan, who’s at the forefront of the fledgling Hatboro Residents’ Association, have suggested that ordinances be put in place to designate the types of businesses allowed in the borough’s downtown shopping district.
“I haven’t heard anything proposed that way. Somebody would have to make a case to look at it,” Tompkins said of rezoning areas, or limiting allowable uses in certain areas. “My quick thinking says I don’t see it.”
Doylestown Borough, viewed by some as a benchmark for Hatboro, has encountered obstacles in terms of finding a “good balance” of retail, service and office uses in its downtown district, according to Doylestown Borough Manager John Davis.
“It’s a fairly constant refrain - the desire to attract and retain retail as opposed to office and service-related businesses,” said Davis, who, since the 1990s has been responsible for the Main Street Manager duties. “We are lucky at the moment and it hasn’t always been the case. We have a good balance.”
Maintaining that balance, Davis said, has been possible by virtue of the businesses looking to set up shop in the borough. Like Hatboro, Davis said Doylestown officials have not put specific zoning or allowable uses in place. Instead, he said the entire downtown is zoned central commercial, which allows for office, retail or restaurant uses.
Davis attributes some of the success to having the courthouse in the center of town.
“That kind of creates the demand in terms of business,” Davis said.
The only local government-related change Tompkins is willing to consider are tweaks in designations for what is and isn’t allowed in certain districts under Hatboro’s 10-year-old comprehensive plan.
“You can’t say, ‘We want $40 a meal restaurants in this area,’ ” Tompkins said. “There’s difficulty in trying to legislate reality.”
Finding a vision
By description, a town’s comprehensive plan offers a framework for land use decisions. Tompkins contends that updating the plan and coordinating with the Greater Hatboro Chamber of Commerce, Hatboro’s Main Street, and Elm Street Hatboro will help in realizing that goal.
“You want the best you can get,” Tompkins said, noting that the community also plays a role in the downtown’s success or failure. “If you see a store you like, patronize it and that will hopefully draw some like-minded businesses.”
Barth, oftentimes the go-to guy for connecting would-be business owners with landlords, said when he asks “what type of tenant would you like,” the property owner usually responds with, “whoever will pay the rent.”
And, since the $10 per square foot average lease rate for Hatboro is much less than the $25 to $45 per square foot rate in Newtown and Doylestown, two Bucks County communities with downtown areas, the reality is those towns “get a higher quality tenant,” according to Barth.
“This is not like quantity versus quality,” Barth said, referring to comments made by Patch users. “Our lease rate is very low. Some of the businesses that people complain about, it’s affordable for those businesses to come.”
A Doylestown resident, Barth said he’s not trying to create another Doylestown, where, according to City Data, the median home value in 2009 was $386,864 as compared to the median home value of $254,027 for Hatboro that same year.
“I want Hatboro to be Hatboro,” he said. “I’m trying to enhance more of what it is. It would be trying to develop the assets, trying to create a good mix of stores.”
For starters, Barth said his vision is to encourage borough eateries to stay open for dinner. Only one-third to one-half are open beyond the afternoon, he said. Since the evening hours in the 6 p.m. time frame produce the most traffic on York Road, Barth said it only makes sense for businesses to be open then. Barth said he also hopes to use the various antique shops throughout the community to “create Hatboro as a destination.”
“Hatboro is reinventing itself,” Barth said of its evolution from colonial roots, later becoming a manufacturing hub and now to a town seemingly in limbo. “People like Hatboro because we have a town. We’re the only little downtown in five to seven miles.”
But, some have argued that in order to do any of your regular shopping, you must get in your car and drive out of Hatboro.
“To get your kids clothes, your clothes, high end costume jewelry, even a pair of gloves you need to leave Hatboro,” Chris Gowen, owner of A Dog’s Life (and a Cat’s Too) commented on a related Patch article. “BUT, if you want your nails done, a tattoo, want a bank loan, a piece of pizza, or your car repaired---just come to Hatboro--the East coast haven to all of these.”
If some locals had their way, the Big Marty’s property, which is slated to change hands in about a month, would become a Trader Joe’s. In reality, real estate and business development decisions are out of the council’s hands.
“The borough can’t go to a specific business and say, ‘you will open a store in Hatboro,’ ” Tompkins said. “You can encourage people, you can’t coerce.”
The same bodes true for suggestions residents have made about refusing certain businesses, including an Aaron’s rent-to-own store, which may fill the 10,000-square-foot Big Marty’s.
“You have to allow somebody to take their shot from a business standpoint,” Tompkins said. “If the market’s not there to support it, it’ll go away.”
Despite boasting a 97 percent occupancy rate, close to 500 total borough businesses and “only a handful of open spots,” according to Barth, the empty anchor sites, including the CVS property, the Old Mill Inn, the Big Marty’s and the recently purchased Wachovia Bank building give the feeling that much more needs to be done to revive the town.
“A lot of those properties that have been empty for a long time, they’re in very poor condition,” Barth said. “There’s the cost of the building, whether you buy it or lease it, and the cost of the fit-out of the building.”
The $899,999 asking price for the TD Bank-owned Old Mill Inn and neighboring building which houses Spa Escape, for instance, is “equal to or more” that of the costs required to fix the properties up, Barth said. The Old Mill, which is situated adjacent to the oft-flooded Pennypack Creek, sustained perhaps the worst damage of all borough properties during Hurricane Irene and the back-to-back Tropical Storm Lee.
“There’s a lot of mold issues in there,” Barth said, adding that he’s shown the nearly 300-year-old property to “multiple” restaurants. “How do you put a restaurant in there when you know it’s going to flood out?”
Barth said he’s asked TD Bank to donate the Old Mill Inn to Hatboro as it’s believed to be one of the borough’s oldest buildings. Even if that were to happen, it’s not clear if borough officials would welcome the responsibility, liability and expense with open arms.
“You really need a plan and you need to look at what the cost is,” Tompkins said.
To date, Wawa is the only entity to make an offer for both properties. The convenience store giant said it intends to preserve the Old Mill “as-is.” If Wawa is granted zoning relief from the existing high-density residential designation, two adjacent properties on Horsham Road would be demolished to allow for a 5,102-square-foot store and six-pump gas station. Formal plans have yet to be filed with the borough. Wawa officials are holding a question and answer session on Feb. 28 at Pennypack Elementary School.
Fox Regan and others from the Hatboro Residents’ Association have voiced concern over increased traffic, quality of life issues and a loss of historical structures if Wawa is given the go-ahead. The group has begun a petition drive to keep Wawa from opening a second borough location at this corner.
A former Hatboro resident who asked to remain anonymous, told Patch that while traffic might be “dreadful,” Wawa may be the best option.
“Stores in Hatboro are going out of business left and right. Hatboro residents want more industry and commerce...and jobs...and the Wawa would accomplish that in a big way,” she said. “You can only have so many ‘Lacey Lady’ and gift shops to support a town. Restaurants are great...but people need to have disposable incomes to eat out.”
The future of the Old Mill Inn aside, Barth said other anchors, including the former CVS, pose their own unique challenges. Barth said he’s tried, unsuccessfully, to have the building sub-leased.
“CVS has almost two years left on the lease,” he said. “The folks live in Florida that own the building. It doesn’t impact them if one of our main anchors sits empty.”
And, while the rallying cry tends to be for more retail, Barth said it’s one of the most difficult types of businesses to secure. The average 1,500 to 2,000-square-foot storefront costs about $1,500 a month in rent. Factor in utilities, merchandising costs and employees and the would-be business owner has to have a “pretty significant business” just to scrape by. In comparison, Barth said the average mom and pop store generates $100,000 to $150,000 a year in commerce.
While there may not be a quick fix to filling anchor sites or revamping the downtown, Tompkins is confident that things will turn around.
“As the vacancy rate goes down the value goes up,” he said. “Hatboro’s always been a good place, I think, for people to take a gamble and come in and open a store.”