At nearly 125 years old, the Reading Terminal Market is the oldest continuously operating farmers’ market in the nation. Unique in its ability to attract both locals and tourists alike with its rich cultural experience and wide selection of local-yet-worldly fares, the market is one of the most visited sites in Philadelphia, having reeled in 6.5 million people in 2016.
The nonprofit I ran prior to the Reading Terminal Market was a community development corporation called Mt. Airy USA. Part of this community development corporation’s mission was to revitalize the main commercial corridor along Germantown Avenue, which is a very historical street where the Battle of Germantown was fought in the Revolutionary War. As Philadelphia went through urban decline in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the residential section of that city remained relatively vital, but Germantown Avenue itself fell into a tremendous state of disrepair. There was high vacancy, crime, and so on and so forth. Our organization was created to do something about that.
When I got there, I focused my attention on a four-block stretch of the avenue that still had vacancy rates of close to 40 percent. We owned a large building on that stretch of the avenue that had become vacant in the depths of the recession, and for a period of three or four years, we couldn’t get anyone interested in leasing. But around 2013 or 2014, we were introduced to a businessman who successfully operated a number of McDonald’s franchises in Philadelphia, and he was bringing a new franchise to the city called Wingstop that would serve draft beers and wine. We were really excited about this incoming tenant because we felt it would send a signal to the marketplace that this is a viable area in which to do business. We didn’t need any zoning on the building, so we just moved the project forward without any real consultation with anyone.
In Pennsylvania, when you have a liquor license or are applying for one, you have to hang a big, orange poster on your storefront indicating that you applied for it. The minute the tenant hung the poster, it set off a firestorm in the neighborhood I could never have imagined. People quickly did research on what Wingstop was, and anonymous flyers started popping up throughout the neighborhood about a Texas-based business coming in and selling alcohol to minors, and that fights would be breaking out, and people would be urinating on lawns.
Petitions started circulating to stop it, all of the elected officials were called, and I had to come talk to the community about the business at community meetings. The firestorm became so significant that the tenant ultimately decided to back out. We did eventually get a good tenant in the building after that, but it took us a long time to get there.
Never underestimate the extent to which you need to listen.
Never underestimate the extent to which you need to listen. Had I properly vetted the Wingstop concept with the portion of the community that was concerned about it, they might still have been opposed, but their opposition likely would have been expressed differently.
When I came into the Reading Terminal Market, I certainly had some ideas about what I might do. But I had to consider that, in addition to the well-informed staff that had been here for a while, there were also the merchants, customers, board and all of the other stakeholders that had been thinking about the market and how to improve it for a long time. Who am I to come in and say: “Hey folks, we are going to do X, Y and Z, and just follow me?” I think I needed to demonstrate to them that I knew how to listen, and that I knew how to incorporate ideas and feedback into what I thought some of the priorities were.
The Terminal Market has two nonprofit entities: One is the Reading Terminal Market Corporation, and the other is the association that represents the merchants themselves. And I don’t know if there’s ever been a point in the Terminal’s history where the two organizations have worked so hand-in-hand around a singular plan to improve it. I think the success in getting to that point was developing a plan that folks had read input on — one that clearly demonstrated that I did know how to listen. It wasn’t just lip service.
Follow the Reading Terminal Market on Twitter at @RdgTerminalMkt.
Photo courtesy of the Reading Terminal Market.