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."
"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.
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."