What's Your Vision for Hatboro?

Following the cancellation of First Friday; Wawa’s plans to demolish historic buildings to construct a new store; and a pending sale of the Big Marty’s property, locals are at odds over the reality of Hatboro’s downtown and what it could or should be.

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.

Zoning fix?

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.”

Development challenges

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.”

borobuzz February 26, 2012 at 04:19 PM
Thank you Denise and Charles! Contrary to what T.K. is spewing this is exactly what Hatboro needs. My, get back to the basics, approach is a common sense plan to a common vision. Now be prepared to get ridiculed!
Kathleen February 26, 2012 at 06:11 PM
There was also The Coffee Salon Coffee Shop that was near Lewis' Paints too.
borobuzz February 26, 2012 at 06:56 PM
I’d say yes to keeping our own police force. It was discussed several years ago and a overwhelming amount of residents opposed any type of merger. I look at it this way, for less then $4.00 a day I can get 24/7 police, fire and ambulance service. Whenever I call the borough office I get a real person that answers the phone, not a press 1 for this person recording. Every morning when I walk my dog I can see the highway department crews picking up the trash. My kids are older but we use to go to the library also. For a little extra money a family can join the pool or little league. Not a bad deal if you think about it.
Charles McElroy Jr February 26, 2012 at 07:23 PM
Kathleen, I knew there was that one, but I thought Days Eze relocated and/or name change.
Charles McElroy Jr February 26, 2012 at 07:28 PM
How about the HRA get a petition started to present to AM extolling how many residents would want and support AM's business in the Boro.
Charles McElroy Jr February 26, 2012 at 07:35 PM
What would be nice is a venue like the Reading Terminal Market, various vendors, reasonably priced, one stop shopping with a mini food court.
Mary Cummings February 27, 2012 at 01:34 AM
Well, I was just saying today how nice it was that people were finally being civil on Patch. The first few dozen comments had nice ideas, civil debate and interesting comments. And then our anonymous friends Al and Boro Buzz joined the lot. Hey guys, you have a lot of brutal comments, but no alternative plan. There's a lot of good, hard working people who want to see Hatboro improved. Why don't you give it a rest for a while and let these people have a crack at making their hometown a nicer place? They realize, (and I think you might do well to learn the same) that we need to stop whining and start working. It's a better use of our time.
Mary Cummings February 27, 2012 at 01:59 AM
I think what has been missing the last decade is an anchor store. A big name store or a small specialty grocery that will bring people into town. Then they can shop the smaller stores. The HRA is working on a shop local initiative to remind people to support the shops in town. Everybody can help right now. Go to Village Hardware and get your light bulbs there. Go to Leroy's for flowers. Go to Queen of Sheba for candy for your holidays. Get donuts at Lochels instead of DD (they're 200000x better anyway). I think people are going to start realizing what a gem they havein Hatboro and start taking care of it......
Mary Cummings February 27, 2012 at 02:24 AM
Al, what would YOU spend your hard earned dollars on in Hatboro? Or do you even shop there?
April Fox Regan February 27, 2012 at 02:34 AM
Charles -- I was a customer at the Daily Grind and loved McCourts -- farm to table was a good idea, but the wrong approach I think. (A little too expensive.) I spoke with the owners when they were getting ready to close as I had referred a lot of friends there. They were good guys without enough capital in reserve to sustain their new restaurant through the lean times at the start. I was sad to see them go. Maybe something similar, but more casual and a little less pricey would do better.
BP February 27, 2012 at 02:53 AM
I agree with you Mary. I'm not sure what exactly has Al and BB all riled up..but BB writes 'bringing back Hatboro to its past grandeur involves everyone taking pride and responsibility not reinventing existing organizations that will fade away when the Wawa issue is resolved.' So I guess he's angry that residents want to have a voice in what happens in their town-because he can only be referring to the residents' association...? The nerve of those meddling residents (and please, BB-explain what "existing organizations" have been reinvented, since most of us have never heard of any)! Also, 'individual pride and responsibilty' and being a member of a residents' organization are not mutually exclusive. BTW-many other towns have organizations that include their residents, so I'm not sure why this idea is so threatening to some people.
Eve February 27, 2012 at 03:01 AM
Support the businesses that you want to stay. Don't support the ones you want to go. Feel free to open a business you would like to see in Hatboro. Shouldn't it be as simple as that?
borobuzz February 27, 2012 at 03:34 AM
BP and Mary. I can’t help but picture you both living with 36 cats in a house that has urine soaked newspapers stacked floor to ceiling. In fact, I think you could be cable TV stars. Nonetheless, your wit and sarcasm is a welcome change from your usual utopian pipe dream. My message is simple, clean up and take responsibility. I bet that will bring a lot of the change you want. Nobody wants to dump a small fortune into a business in a town that looks crappy. Furthermore, if your so hell bent on bringing change run for borough council. Ask all the current members to sign your petition, if they refuse vote them out. If your HRA is for real it can shape an election in a small town.
Jason Gutekunst February 27, 2012 at 01:05 PM
A small business owners guild to fixing Hatboro. Here are my suggestions, criticizes all you want, but I think they will help with revitalizing main street. 1) Marketing: A monthly or quarterly full color magazine, paid for by the town and advertiser’s promoting or spotlighting every business within a few block radius of main street should go to every boro resident. Get real personal, introduce owners by name, promote sales, and shopping weekends. 2) 5 year tax holiday: you want to start a business on main street to fill a store, cut that persons boro tax for 5 years to 0. 3) Streamline starting a business: what happened to McCourt’s from what I read was horrendous, while it’s the business owner’s responsibility to investigate, they should have never been allowed open until the boro provided all regulation needed to start. To let a restaurant to open and all of a sudden tell them they needed a 20K fire suppression system was criminal. 4) Hacksaw OFF THE METERS: any c- economist student will tell you meters hurt the businesses behind them far more than the money that they bring in. 5) Dedicated advisors: some of the local business owners, tax accountants, lawyers, marketing professionals should be put on a volunteer board to spend a little time helping any small business or startup with simple questions
Jason Gutekunst February 27, 2012 at 01:05 PM
6) Clean up the town: The flowers are a great start, but hire some street cleaners to care for the sidewalk/ street. 7) Promote to major brands: I don’t care if you hate starbucks, people love them and it will bring people to town. Get Old Navy on the phone, the Gap, a Trader Joes. A national brand will really be a great anchor for Hatboro. It gives other small business owners confidence that the town will be all right.
Jason Gutekunst February 27, 2012 at 01:08 PM
oh yea, get the cops out of the cars and have them walk the beat, meet the business owners and show a presence. While main street is a very safe area and I am not saying it isnt, people like seeing police walking around.
Chris Gowen February 27, 2012 at 08:28 PM
Jason, these are very good suggestions.....many of them I proposed to the Chamber, but it landed on deaf ears. Glenside has a great "local" magazine-ette that has coupons, local trivia and even a contest for people to win prizes. It has a map on the back showing the locations of all of the participating stores. Excellent marketing tool for the locals (it was left at restaurants, coffee shops, and other high-traffic common areas. Street cleaning is a good idea as well....but shop owners should be held responsible for this as well......we should take pride of the front of our stores! (I sweep out my front every week and clean-up McDonalds trash daily) I also suggested having member-driven consultations and even information seminars on opening and sustaining a retail business in Hatboro.... good suggestions!
Ryan February 27, 2012 at 09:19 PM
I also agree they need to clean up Main Street. The flowers are great how about planting perennials around each tree along Main Street. The signage on a lot (not all) of the stores is unattractive. Wooden signs would not only look better but would make Main Street look more uniform. The parking lots are less desirable - especially the one by Produce Junction.
Suzy Q February 27, 2012 at 09:50 PM
On a side note regarding planting flowers around each tree along Main Street.....I absolutely agree, they make a huge difference for the better. But ya know what I noticed around each tree right now? Cigarette butts......large amounts of cigarette butts at the base of each tree. It's ashame that some people just don't give a hoot......just saying.
Michael Holmes February 27, 2012 at 11:57 PM
maybe a family friendly movie theater, like the hiway in jenkintown or the ambler theater, or a family rec. center, like the brunswick zone in feasterville, or the rec. center in southampton. granted, these places tend to attract kids without the parents, but if the police or a town watch group were present, that might ward off some trouble.
Michael Holmes February 27, 2012 at 11:59 PM
also, i don't know about the other hatboro churches and their building's room, but lehman church has a large gym type space. maybe if they would open to families for games, etc. periodically, that would give families something to do and someplace to go to.
R. Johnson February 28, 2012 at 02:37 PM
BB you are so right, nice point too. You can't beat the great services Hatboro provides for the town's residents & business'..police, fire ,Ems, public works & real people to talk to at Boro Hall. Jason, no tax breaks needed for new business' I'd call the max $700.00 a year business tax, a holiday already. More than enough to make them come.
Denise February 29, 2012 at 02:11 AM
Coming away from tonite's meeting about putting a Wawa in this town & I can only hope that everyone stays this passionate about their vision for Hatboro going into the future. Get involved & make a difference!
Eileen February 29, 2012 at 03:51 AM
My vison for Hatboro (since you asked!) is a gazebo in the meadow, Trader Joe's, a Gap, H&M or Old Navy would be great and I don't mind Starbucks plus some of the antique stores, consignment shops etc. Dont mind the Tatoo store, dont mind any store that keeps the sidewalk clean and behaves like a good neighbor would. On that note here is the link to contact Trader Joes, tell them to check us out! http://www.traderjoes.com/about/general-feedback-form.asp
Toni Kistner February 29, 2012 at 03:51 AM
It was something to see so many people who care so much about this town....standing room only!
Jim March 16, 2012 at 09:12 PM
Thank God for Gamburgs, La Fontana, and Hatboro Federal. They are good anchors that keep very nice looking properties. But..... lets get real, the socio-economics of Hatboro has changed while we were busy working and raising our families, maybe we were too comfortable living in Small Town USA to notice. If we get the money we can fix up the Old Mill Inn, and what does that do for us? We will pass by and say "Wow, it looks great!", then have another flood damage it again. We have to move on people. Maybe Wawa would be a good start. Most of the traffic/congestion in and out of Wawa will be the same traffic/congestion that is already on York Rd. and Horsham Rd. Do you think someones going to jump in their car to go to Wawa during rush hour? I don't think so. And yes, it WILL bring more traffic during the non rush hour and weekends. Do you think its not congested around Produce Junction? Changing the zoning to restrict the types of business that can operate in the Boro is pretty stupid when we are having trouble attracting tenants in the first place. As the people of Hatboro modernize their thinking, the town will rebuild, become more attractive and competition for retail space will increase the rents per square ft. Then the types of businesses some of you disapprove of will leave and be replaced by other businesses. Do you think anyone will complain about that? Change comes with a price. We MUST change or more properties will become eyesores like CVS and The Old Mill.
Ryan May 23, 2012 at 05:18 PM
I don't think anyone on here has any idea what they are talking about. I understand everyone wants antique stores and such, but those businesses are failing as is and adding more isn't going to fix that. Changing the rules of what kind of business you can have in Hatboro will be the death of Hatboro. We already have way too many empty properties lining Main Street...
Carol Inman May 23, 2012 at 07:45 PM
Ryan: That's why dialogue is so important. The people who posted here have a wealth of good ideas about what makes an attractive town to live and work in. What we need is for Main St., the Chamber of Commerce, Council, and the HRA to work together and come to a common understanding and agreement about what to do with Hatboro's assets and its challenges.
J. Luig May 31, 2012 at 02:17 PM
The flooding of the Pennypack needs to be remedied before businesses will come. Look what happened to Quig's.
Suzy Q June 01, 2012 at 12:28 PM
Lighten up, Fester Bestertester......no need to be insulting.


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