Joan Leonard to Run for Borough Commission
The 27-year Collingswood resident says civic leaders 'have to love' the work that they do 'because the things we're doing are not easy.'
A native of Queens, New York, occupational therapist Joan Leonard and her husband Tom moved from Philadelphia to Collingswood in 1986. They have raised three children in the borough, where Leonard has served as an elected official since 1997.
When Joan Leonard and her husband, Tom, decided to trade in their Broad Street brownstone for a New Jersey ZIP code, the one stipulation they made was that they had to find a property along the PATCO Hi-Speedline.
"We wanted to do a historic restoration in a great town and find the worst house on the block so we could afford it," Joan Leonard said.
They settled on a building constructed in 1903 that formerly housed a pharmacy. It was "completely boarded up, with the inside and outside completely deteriorated," she said.
Leonard saw the building that houses her therapy practice as "1100 square feet of everything falling down around it," and said her first thought was "Isn’t this gorgeous?
"From the moment we arrived, we knew we would be happy here," she said. "We loved the historic architecture mixed with the amenities."
Leonard made restoration a focus of her early years in the borough, joining the Collingswood Junior Women's Club and Proud Neighbors of Collingswood. Together, she and her husband devised a plan for restoring building fronts along Haddon Avenue on a mostly volunteer basis, she said.
"We thought it was an inspiring neighborhood," Leonard said. "We probably did two dozen** buildings on the avenue in eight to 10 years. It allowed me to meet people and make friends, and gave me something to do that I thought was worthwhile.
"It just felt like the right thing to do," she said. "Before you know it, other people were investing in town and spending their money on the storefronts."
Leonard describes the early going as "a very humble effort" to attract foot traffic to the borough. She remembers the days when the only restaurants in town were Sushi Lin, Chow’s, and Villa Barone. In comparison, she said, now when passersby ask for directions to a place like Nunzio's or The Pop Shop, "it makes me take a breath."
Leonard said that although there are many new transplants to the borough who don't have the historical context of its renaissance, she only brings it up if people ask.
"I don’t feel the need to tell the story unless somebody says to me, 'When I was a kid, Collingswood wasn’t a place you really went to,'" Leonard said. "When someone asks, I tell them how great the volunteers are and how much it took to turn it around."
Leonard is also quick to point out that she thinks the turnaround in the borough has spread from the main thoroughfare to "the neighborhoods around Haddon Avenue, the West Side, the pocket gardens." She sees the downtown restoration as inspiring bigger community themes like recreation, the arts and environmental stewardship.
"It starts from making your own home here and raising your own family, and there’s a gradual progression to making the full commitment," she said.
"I see Collingswood having a great partnership between businesses, civic groups, volunteers and government," Leonard said. "The way that we’ve moved forward is by constantly adding on small factors that add to big quality-of-life changes.
"Whatever you like, I think we have it," she said. "Each thing is offering the public one more reason to live in Collingswood.
Leonard also realizes that the next group of borough commissioners will be "working with a diminishing budget," and that needed infrastructure improvements—water and sewerage chief among them—must take a place of prominence.
"We have an old infrastructure and we have dedicated a lot of funds toward water and sewer, and we work on it every year and keep making great improvements, but we are over 100 years old," she said.
"We have to just keep moving forward with everything that has to be done. That’s the quiet thing. You can look at stores and public safety but you have to deal with the infrastructure."
To cultivate the charm and architecture of "a real authentic American downtown with schools that you can walk to," Leonard said, "you have to keep paying attention to everything that’s old.
"You have to love it because the things we’re doing are not easy," she said. "They’re really challenging. We’re talking about making changes, making commitment to those changes, and sticking with it year after year.
"You have to keep on moving forward."
**Correction: In an earlier draft of this article, we mistakenly printed "2,000" instead of "two dozen." Your editor has a tin ear from years of rock n' roll.**