Friday, July 28, 2017

Taking Care of Business

Nathan Schadler & David Maris
Surrounded by outdoor patio furniture, grills, fire pits, and umbrellas in the showroom of Salter’s Outdoor Oasis in Eagleville, 30 or so Lower Providence small business owners have begun to meet once a month to hammer out how their newly-formed organization, the Lower Providence Business Association, will operate and to fine-tune their plans to persuade Lower Providence Township officials to create a better environment for new and existing businesses in the Township.

Their outdoor surroundings were appropriate considering the reason this group of business owners have banded together. They feel like they’re on the outside looking in, subject to the mercy of the Township’s Board of Supervisors or the whims of code enforcement personnel, and what they view as conflicting, overly restrictive, and frequently arbitrary ordinances that make it more difficult and expensive to open and operate a business in LP. They’re hoping to find out if those throwaway statements on political campaign literature about wanting to attract, encourage and grow businesses in the Township have any substance to them, and find common ground with Township officials to make LP more business friendly.

Statistics provided by Lower Providence Township indicate that since at least 2010, the number of new businesses opening in the Township (as indicated by the number of business licenses initiated or renewed) has decreased every year since (with the exception of a small uptick of 4 businesses in the 2012-2013 time frame), from a high of 644 as of December 31, 2010 to 578 as of July 2017.

Certainly, there may be other factors at play, such as the state or national economy or conditions in specific industries, but this isn’t a positive trend.  Whether a business stays or goes depends on many things: besides the aforementioned economy or industry, factors such as whether they own their property or do they have a landlord, and if so, does the landlord end a lease or does the tenant find better/cheaper quarters, or if the owners are planning to retire soon. Often, the Township doesn’t even find out if a tenant is considering closing or moving until too late.  For example, a business may not want their landlord to know in case new arrangements fall through.

Part of the problem is local.  Over time, there have been some township supervisors who weren’t exactly business friendly. This manifested in several ways. One’s philosophy was that LP is a ‘bedroom community’ that shouldn’t have much business here at all (similar to Worcester Township). Others have helped run off attractive propositions deemed too close to his or her own residence. In addition, policies and ordinances implemented over the years that, either intentionally or otherwise, impose numerous hurdles and costs to operating here have had the effect of discouraging some potential businesses from coming here at all, or into giving up and moving elsewhere later on.

The LPBA aims to partner with the Township to help improve the climate for business in LP. One of two driving forces behind the LPBA is its president, David Maris, owner of Marco Motors in the Evansburg section of the Township. Dave’s dad retired recently and he and his brother took over the family  business. Maris, who’s been an active member of and ambassador for the Perkiomen Valley Chamber of Commerce since 2013, told me he’s ‘known for years’ the Township needed a group to engage the Township specifically on issues of importance to its local business owners.

Maris, named 2017 Perkiomen Valley Chamber of Commerce Member of the Year for his contributions to the chamber and the community at large, says he got the idea to get the LPBA kick-started after a Facebook discussion early this year about local businesses on the popular “Living in Lower Providence” page, and subsequently put out a feeler for how many would be interested in such an advocacy organization. He reports he got about 40 responses back with contact information almost immediately.  So far about 80 LP business entities have expressed interest in the group, although not all have been able to make each meeting.

Maris' affable, easy-going personality belies his tenacity. He says that he participated in LP’s prior attempts to address the concerns of Township businesses. A few years ago the Township formed a ‘business development committee’ and he was invited to participate. Meeting during the workday was often inconvenient, and when he attended there were 4-5 local banks represented, numerous realtors, 4-5 construction/development entities, and only 5 or 6 ‘brick and mortar’, customer-facing businesses. He recalls telling Bill Roth, Director of Special Projects and Technology for the Township, that representation of Township businesses ‘wasn’t really present’ and nothing really came of that group from an advocacy perspective.

Flash forward to November 2016, when a similar effort seemed to be launched by the Township.  Attended by ‘a few more bankers, and an attorney’, Maris said there seemed to be fewer participants overall.  He discovered that this effort was more focused around the ‘Team Montco’ initiative, an economic development partnership with the County, and their projects to promote the Vo Tech schools and offerings of help from the Temple School of Business and other similar resources. Maris felt it was nice to be connected to possible resources, but it wasn’t really an advocacy group specifically focused on the needs of local, Township–based businesses.

The other driving force is local attorney and former Montgomery County prosecutor Nathan Schadler of the firm Conway Schadler in Eagleville. Schadler, 38, serves as LPBA vice-president and, together with his law partner, Ken Conway, drafted and filed the corporate formation documents for the group.
Schadler, a former assistant Montgomery County district attorney who headed up the narcotics and firearms units in that office, also was cross-sworn and served as an assistant US attorney. Along with being a former D1 competitive swimmer (and now a triathlete), you get the sense from talking with him that he’s formidable and competitive, bristling with energy looking for an outlet. Schadler points in part to that swimming background for teaching him skills like perseverance, and learning to “put his head down, work hard and push through…that every day is not easy and you have to fight through the tough ones…it translates in terms of getting people through lulls, that if something slows down it’s not dead”.

He also credits his prosecutorial career for teaching him the values of collaboration, a high level of detailed planning, focus, and learning how to work with a variety of types of personalities and egos.

Upon his departure from the DA’s office in 2013, District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman praised Schadler for his work.  “Nate’s been a gladiator in the office for nearly a decade,” she said. “While I’m sorry to see him go, I wish him all the best in this next adventure, in his life and in his career and I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.” 

Schadler and his partner decided to open their law practice in Eagleville after considering several options, and opened in early 2016. Subsequently, Schadler set up a meeting with Township supervisor Patrick Duffy to introduce himself and say ‘hey, we’re here, we’ve heard some things, we want to get along and do well in this community”.  He came away very inspired after speaking with Duffy and literally went right back to his office and wrote a letter and sent it to several hundred business owners in the Township, including Dave Maris, about the idea for a business association. Schadler says “Dave called me up, said ‘Can we meet, I’ve been trying to do something with this idea for awhile, and it petered out, how can we get something going?’ And it went from there.”

Both Dave and Nathan are inspirational and motivating speakers who are passionate about the LPBA, and the energy in the room when they speak is palpable. They have a genuine rapport and mutual respect; Schadler likes to joke that he refers to Maris as ‘the grand poobah of Lower Providence’ because he seems to know everybody. But even though the group is growing and they have ambitious ideas, they want to go slowly, preferring to ‘get it right’ rather than rushing just to say they got something accomplished.

Issues discussed at recent meetings included myriad concerns. Many in the group feel the Township, perhaps unintentionally, is more of an impediment than a help. Signs were a big one: 
  • Many members have experienced signage issues. Schadler, who described the township sign ordinances as “nightmarishly convoluted” challenged the Township supervisors to actually read it and make sense of it, noted that they are conflicting and vary wildly depending on where a business is physically located.
The sign ordinances appear to have been done piecemeal over the years and not with an eye to a comprehensive township-wide view, and the group feels that, at a minimum, it needs to be simplified for clarity and consistency. For example, members cited a recent public flap over a sign message posted on the “Adult World” sign in Collegeville that some residents found offensive (and other residents found hilarious – the discussion thread on Facebook was funny but has since been deleted) and yet the Township apparently had no issue with the product advertised for sale. Across town, a tanning business wanted to use an image of a woman on their sign that showed a belly button, and the Township deemed it too offensive and wouldn’t approve it.

After researching the Township’s sign ordinance, Schadler found he could literally make a case for, or against, any sign anywhere in the Township, and that the Township had enough wiggle room that they could approve or deny a sign based on arbitrary preferences using criteria that had nothing to do with the actual ordinances.

  • Along the same vein, members didn’t understand why the small yard signs promoting various nonprofits or upcoming events seem to be OK and are everywhere, but they are prohibited from even posting a sign that reflects a “Best of Montco” designation, which should be sources of pride and contribute to drawing new visitors to the Township.

 Code enforcement and ordinance clarity, as well as the inspection process, were additional concerns:

  • Members say it seems as though they’re never ‘done’ with the process of opening a business or making changes. They cited an initial inspection for a use & occupancy permit or business license where issues are raised and resolved, only to result in additional items to address on subsequent visits (often when a different code inspector from the original one is involved), contributing to unnecessary delays and cost before they can even open their door. They’d like the process to be streamlined so all issues are identified at one time, instead of issues popping up that were never on the radar during prior inspections.

Their observation is that the ordinances/code needs to be simplified because nobody is sure what they are allowed to do. It needs to be more clear and flexible; as written now they believe the Township can prohibit just about everything if they are so inclined, and that it gives the Township too much power to make arbitrary decisions. And, the overcomplication tends to create inequities where some will fare better than others.   

A member wondered out loud if the Township makes money on this process. The answer is yes, to some degree: there is usually an application cost to bring requests for variances or other relief before the Zoning Hearing Board and/or the Board of Supervisors. That cost can be considerable as well as time-consuming. You’ll also incur attorneys’ fees if you hire counsel to represent you.

Another member stated that he has the impression that “the Board of Supervisors doesn’t understand the actual impacts of these ordinances on the business community” and asked what their backgrounds are. He asked “Are any of them business owners?” And back to the signage issue again: “I don’t understand why promoting my business is bad.”

The group wants the Township to understand that ‘short term gains in terms of the money made from seeking relief from overly restrictive ordinances costs them in long-term deficits if businesses close or move out of the Township.’ They want the Township to see that there is no benefit to the Township in antagonizing the business community and sustaining a reputation as being unfriendly to local businesses. As Schadler succinctly put it: “They need to understand that they might get a couple hundred dollars in fees but forego an eternity of goodwill”.

Bottom line, the LPBA wants to partner with the Township in good faith to solve problems, to know what to expect when opening or operating a business, to gain consistency in processes and decisions, and arrive at reasonable solutions. Schadler stressed that they want no special treatment or guarantees for specific results, but at least to get a fair shake and a seat at the table with an opportunity to be heard.

What kind of reception has LPBA gotten from the Township? Roth said that “With respect to LPBA, the supervisors are happy to speak with them and provide whatever help they need. They were initially a little wary, not sure of what their approach was going to be. The Township doesn’t want to be involved with running it in any way. They want it to grow organically. The supervisors know they have issues with signage and other things, but they see them as advocates for the virtues of Lower Providence, that it’s a positive place for businesses.”

Patrick Duffy, the supervisor several have pointed to as one of the catalysts for the creation of the LPBA, in that he initially helped bring Maris and Schadler together, said “It’s sort of strange that we didn’t already have a business association, but it’s paying dividends already. They’re getting involved in giving input into ordinance drafting, especially for sign ordinances that not only fit the aesthetics of the Township but also that meet their needs”.

He looks forward to working with them. “We have a good dynamic with them, the flow of information and ideas can readily be exchanged, they can bring new perspectives to what we’re trying to do. If we do our job and help keep existing businesses here, there won’t be such a need to fill empty buildings. Success begets success and attracts others when they see the businesses that are already here thriving.”

He continued, “Some business operators may not live in the Township so we don’t run into them at the gas or grocery store. It’s helpful to know what the burdens and barriers are to be successful here…so we can make sure code enforcement is business friendly”

Jason Sorgini, Board of Supervisors vice president and candidate for re-election in November, told me “The Board of Supervisors has shown in both word and deed that we are committed to supporting thoughtful business development in Lower Providence. We are excited to partner with the newly created Lower Providence Business Association to promote the businesses that already exist in our community and to show potential business owners that Lower Providence is a wonderful place to locate their commercial business. The leadership of the business association has been in continuous conversation with our Township Business Development Committee and has shared many positive aspects they find abuot doing business in Lower Providence, as well as some constructive feedback on how we as a Board can do more to promote our local businesses. We are looking forward to continuing t this awesome conversation and to doing all we can do as Supervisors to ensure the success of businesses in our Township.”

Board chairman Colleen Eckman stated in March: “We are thrilled at their interest and the things we can accomplish together. The successes of our businesses impact our residents, and that’s our mission here at the Township, to make sure things are running smoothly”.

Other attempts at similar organizations have been tried previously. The Park Pointe At Lower Providence Business Association, to have been made up of businesses in the corporate center between Egypt, Rittenhouse and South Trooper Road, never really took off.  It was originally intended to operate similarly to a Chamber of Commerce and be a business advocacy group. PJM Interconnection made their auditorium available and offered to help with other aspects. Roth said this group was comprised of primarily Monday-Friday, 8-5 type larger corporations rather than mom & pop shops who are more local and embedded in community. In addition, bigger corporations tend to be aligned with other groups that are more attendant to their specific concerns, such as the Greater Valley Forge Transportation Management Association, in order to address relevant issues such as commuter issues for their employees.  

Currently the LPBA is solidifying how the organization will operate, such as who will be eligible to become a member; how elections and terms for their officers and executive board will work; fundraising, promoting and marketing the LPBA itself and its member businesses; designing a logo, and setting up its website and content.  

A steering committee has been established to prioritize issues they want to address with the Township and to facilitate having Township officials speak at future meetings to educate and provide updates.  Chair Carol Foley, owner of, along with committee members Gerry Warner of Security 5 (residential and commercial security systems), Joe Ferarro of FindANerd (computer repair) and Margaret Vechy, a realtor with Keller Williams, spearhead this effort.  

The LPBA introduced themselves to the Board of Supervisors at a March 2017 meeting and has already participated in one staff solicitor meeting with the Township thus far. Schadler reported it was very positive, that “a lot of the meeting appeared to be them feeling out our attitude toward the Township”, and that Township officials were very receptive to coming and speaking to the group. Going forward, their meetings will be the second Wednesday of each month starting at 6 pm; locations will rotate.

After attending several LPBA meetings, I believe they’ve got great energy and ideas, and I’m convinced they’re going to do great things to promote our business community and showcase the fine vendors and businesses located here in Lower Providence. 

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