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Collingswood Business District 'Doing Everything Right' DVRPC Report Says

A new study from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission named the borough business district one of the best in its survey of the "Classic Towns of Greater Philadelphia."

Collingswood was named one of the premiere business districts in South Jersey, according to a new DVRPC report. Credit: DVRPC.
Collingswood was named one of the premiere business districts in South Jersey, according to a new DVRPC report. Credit: DVRPC.

Fifteen years ago, Collingswood was struggling to keep a dry cleaner, said Karen Cilurso, Senior Regional Planner at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC).

But in 2013, Cilurso said, the borough has become "one of the communities we found that is doing everything right."

A new report from the DVRPC that analyzes the components of successful downtowns in the greater Philadelphia region gave Collingswood high marks for its perseverance in cultivating that reputation through hard work, excellent use of resources, and buy-in from its residents.

Entitled "Revitalizing Suburban Downtown Retail Districts," the DVRPC report is intended to help "local governments to begin to think about their retail districts in the larger context of the community’s economic development goals and quality of life."

"These downtown districts are not just the economic engines of the small towns, but also the primary places for community events and social gatherings," the report notes, providing access to goods and services, employing residents, generating tax revenues, and bringing communities together. 

The 18-month study involved census data and field work collected from December 2012 through April 2013.

'A great story'

With a mix of endemic factors (quick access to public transportation, the above-county-average median income of its residents) and planned efforts (successful retail recruitment and a niche restaurant base), Cilurso said Collingswood "is a great story for how persistence always prevails." 

"I think almost everything Collingswood does can be replicated," she said; "I think what is very difficult to replicate is the demographics that Collingswood has. 

"The mix of people, the types of residents they have, works for them," Cilurso said. "That’s the stuff that cannot be replicated." 

The transition of the borough from an inner-ring suburb of Philadelphia into one of the premiere downtown communities in South Jersey "was a very slow, methodic transformation," she said. 

"That’s one of the messages that this report is trying to put out to local officials: anything good takes time," Cilurso said.

Cilurso said the borough does well minimizing the impact of empty stores thanks to the work of the local business association and the Collingswood Partners nonprofit management group, which help to relieve pressure from local government. 

"Better decisions are made, they’re more knowledgeable, and it’s more strategic," she said.

Cultivating a niche market

Although getting the retail mix just right isn't something that happens overnight, Cilurso said that successful communities like Collingswood work out the formulas that are right for them and continue to improve on what works.

"What I think a lot of these downtowns are missing is they don’t have an idea of what their market can really support," Cilurso said. "That niche market often already exists; they just don’t realize it."

For example, the antiquing districts of Mullica Hill wasn't something that the local government created, she said; "it just evolved."

Cilurso said communities looking to grow quickly "should be focused more on goods and services for their immediate population" before expecting to become a go-to shopping spot.

"Then you can expand to those destination places to fill the retail," she said. 

'Striving to keep a balance'

Although borough workers and leaders appreciate another feather in the cap for Collingswood, Community Development Director Cassandra Duffey said such achievements are the result of hard work and a lot of buy-in

"Everybody says Collingswood is the poster child," Duffey said. "It didn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of planning. It takes a lot of forward thinking. A lot of the people, everyone from borough officials to volunteers, have worked really hard to make that happen.

"It’s an impressive success story," Duffey said, but "you don’t do these kinds of things so that somebody mentions it in a book."

At this point, Duffey said, the retail efforts in town hinge on keeping a good balance of things that will attract residents as well as visitors.

"You want to keep foot traffic really active," she said. "It’s sort of never resting on our laurels, making sure those vacancy rates stay very low."

"You try different things out, you get lots of feedback, and you’re able to use that, apply that to your next efforts and build on that," Duffey said. 

"All those things together have to gel. I think there are strengths to every community and you have to just build on the ones that you have."

Suzanne Cloud December 06, 2013 at 07:53 AM
Bravo and brava to everyone in Collingswood for our success! As for me, I attribute some of the glory to Collingswood's cagey use of its creative class. Case in point, the monthly jazz concerts at the community center have drawn folks from far and wide to the town and its restaurants. The support the mayor and the town council have given for the last 11 years for our First Thursday Jazz in the Wood concerts has been crucial to our success. We are one hip place, people!
sahiraraqs December 06, 2013 at 08:35 AM
I love Collingswood and agree with everything said here but worry that the vitality of the downtown retail district could unravel just as slowly over time as people like myself and many I've interacted with, often choose to go where we don't have to deal with those infuriating parking kiosks
notworthreading December 06, 2013 at 02:28 PM
Nice perspective on the fact that it takes a public-private partnership to make a downtown like Collingswood work. Ultimately, businesses survive or fail on their own merit, but you still need some public intervention to support them. Collingswood Cash is a great example. The BID could easily spend $50,000 for advertising in the Courier Post, Inquirer, Philly Mag, SJ mag, Ritzbill, etc., but the ROI probably isn't great. The idea of giving a 40% return on their money gets people excited as well as willing to commit at least $125,000 of their own money to get the freebie. No one else does a program even half as successful as Collingswood Cash. Good stuff. @Sahraraqs. I hear you about the old kiosk system, but are you referring to the new ones too? I find the new ones finally work. Of course, I won't have to worry about any of this in December since parking is free, free, free!

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