In the final part of this interview with Rona Fisher, she discusses what she finds special and unique about Jewelers’ Row and why the proposed development could end that.
PART 3: THE DEVELOPMENT PROPOSAL
Kevin Wohlgemuth (KW): Are you interested in talking about the development?
Rona Fisher (RF): Totally, yeah. Absolutely.
KW: You were asking me earlier about what was going on when the barricades came out…
RF: Yeah, what was that about? They came, they were here for a week, then they left.
KW: It is the first of many steps towards the demolition and construction but it wasn’t actually any demolition. Those were [up so that they could take] soil sample cores to test the soil to make sure that they can build a 16-story tower there… That’s what that was. They didn’t need any kind of permit for the work, just a permit to block off the street. [The developer] didn’t tell anybody that it was happening. They didn’t tell any of the shops it was happening.
RF: This is something that is annoying about how they’re functioning already is nothing’s out in the open and everybody’s taken by surprise… Because that way they don’t have to answer to anybody and they can just plow ahead and nobody knew it was coming. At the first meeting, the Councilman said, “Well you’re paying $6500 in rent and you’re month-to-month, didn’t you think something was happening there?” But I think that’s typical of us jewelry people.
Our world is very tiny and we forget to look up and see what’s going on.
KW: What did you think about that meeting?
RF: I thought it was a good first meeting. We all came together and voiced our concerns…you know, if we don’t say the area’s important for us, who’s going to? I think it was pretty clear that this is really going to devastate a lot of businesses. For all the reasons I told you it’s good to have a business here on Jewelers’ Row. When you’re out in the city at large, you’re at risk and a move is ridiculously expensive. A lot of people wouldn’t be able to do it, actually.
KW: How do you think it will affect your business?
RF: Well, as long as the owners here don’t decide to go residential, I’m ok. But they’re not willing to give a long lease either. They’re only willing to give 3 years out. And I was really considering not moving in because of that. To me that’s a red flag. It means they want a flexibility to do whatever. They don’t want to be stuck with a 15 year business lease, which is really what you need if you’re in business. You want that security. I looked at a lot of places around here… Some of the places, the ceilings were falling down and the owners were just using them to squeeze whatever rent they can they had no interest in keeping them up. And that’s a shame.
KW: Are you 100% against the development?
RF: Yeah, I think they should move it. There’s a parking lot adjacent here that’s not used much. And it’s the Philadelphia Parking Authority so as far as I’m concerned it has something to do with the city and the Mayor can talk to the Authority and work something out with the Toll Brothers and make a deal to move them over there. I think the only thing that can possibly have them do that is if the resistance got to a point where they couldn’t make their time commitments and it was getting to them financially where they’re just getting obstacles all the time. From everybody I know that’s been a David with a Goliath that’s how it’s worked…I guess that’s the only way it’ll happen if enough blockades are put in their way that maybe it’s not worth it to them anymore.
KW: Or if they’re offered something else…
RF: If the city can make a deal with them for a lot that isn’t making any money. That lot over there is overpriced. Anybody that parks there once will never park there again. It’s like $27 for an hour to park in Philly? That’s insane. It’s not really a used parking lot. Maybe they can make them a deal. Make it good for them to be there instead.
KW: You’ve been here for 5 years now so what do you think, other than the ease of going out and getting things and the security, what do you think is special about Jewelers’ Row?
RF: Well, you know, it’s mostly pieces made one at a time for most of the shops here. Even the smaller manufacturing casting companies that I work with aren’t pumping out thousands of units. They’re not thinking in units, they’re thinking of an order. Someone might need 10 or 20 of the same thing at the most.
So you’ve got a lot of small businesses. It’s all hands on. They know each other and there’s a trust between us all. That’s a really good thing.
After you set up an account with a company and work with them for years. You have a good relationship. I think there’s a hunger to know where things are made. Because of all these big boxes and all these imports I think people are really getting tired of it and they want to know where their string bean comes from. So I think it’s really important to hang on to that when we can. And if it weren’t for Toll Brothers, even though things are shifting and they’re shifting with every jewelry district, it’s still intact and New York’s is still intact and L.A. and Boston are still intact. Even though they’ve lost a lot, they’re still functioning.
KW: Do you think if the development goes through that would be lost?
RF: It would start. It would start to erode. I’m sure this owner would start to be thinking of residential. They would get more than what I pay for it if they turn it into residential. It’s a corner and has all these nice windows and beautiful views. That would definitely…as the property value goes up because now they’re selling condos and what the Toll Brothers will get for them, the property values in the rest of the neighborhood will start to go up more and these older building owners will be aggressively selling to a developer and it will just eat away at it. It will disappear in maybe 20-30 years and be gone.
KW: The owner of this building is not in the industry?
RF: No, he’s a developer. The previous owner was and he has a space here still…it’s larger estate jewelry.
KW: Who’s that?
RF: Marshall Asnen. He’s still in the building.
KW: Before we conclude this, is there anything else you want to say?
RF: No, just keep putting the word out. We’d like to keep it out there and keep it on everybody’s mind. My customers ask me, “What’s going on?” And I tell them to sign the petition and if you have $5-$10 we need to pay the lawyers. And people have a misconception that comes from a lot of what goes down on the street level. I think somebody wrote, “Oh you’re asking for donations, I think you people can very well take care of yourselves.”
But what they don’t get is it’s a façade of luxury.
Most jewelers, even the people in the stores, are maybe middle to upper-middle class. Very few get super wealthy. Because their inventory is so expensive and you have to have a lot of it. Unfortunately, people think we’re all rolling in dough but most of us are not.
You should go to the Boston [jewelry district] and talk to one or two people and ask them what’s happening there. Because it is happening in every jewelry district, not just here. It’s happening all over. Just as a comparison. This is the oldest…maybe the smallest but it’s the oldest.
KW: Actually, it’s the second largest.
RF: Oh, bigger than L.A.?
KW: Yeah, it’s the second largest and the oldest.
RF: Well, it’s the oldest so I think it would be good to keep it intact as much as possible. That would be really good. I would be sad if I weren’t here. If I were working somewhere else I would think, it shouldn’t happen. It’s just an American thing…you know, use it up and throw it out. That’s part of our mentality. That’s not how it is in Europe. They use it and if they can’t use it anymore, they repurpose it immediately.
KW: Yeah, but these can be used, they are being used. It’s not like they’re defunct buildings or are empty.
RF: Well that’s it. These are ongoing businesses. Basically the city is willing to give tax money away in a tax abatement instead of promoting small business, which they should do. They should be actively promoting small business and getting closer to getting rid of the business privilege tax which is just ridiculous. They should be encouraging small businesses not discouraging them. They need to do that and this is just a move in the wrong direction. What we’re getting is a lot of developers from New York coming to pick up bargain properties in Philly. That’s how they look at Philly. It’s really cheap here by comparison.
KW: Well great, thank you so much.
RF: Thank you, Kevin.