Fresh fruits and vegetables, a Planet Fitness gym and the first inner-city Lowe’s home improvement store exists on 52nd and Parkside in West Philadelphia, thanks to the hard work of the West Philadelphia Financial Services Institution (WFPSI), which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.
Established as a result of the “Empowerment Zone,” created by former President Bill Clinton, to help relieve the concerns of economically distressed areas, West Philadelphia was determined to reap the benefits of the program.
Frances Minnis, who was recently elected chair of WFPSI’s board, describes WFPSI as a non-profit community lending institution, which also addresses the need for development in the West Philadelphia.
“We were fortunate enough in 2007 to play a significant role as a partner to build up the $20–$22 million shopping center in an area that had been claimed by the government to be a depressed area,” she said.
The 341,000 square-foot retail center produced hundreds of jobs and created 27 new housing units.
“The shopping center is fully leased at present, created over 500 jobs and was the keystone in trying to revitalize the community,” Minnis said.
While the shopping center was a significant accomplishment of the WFPSI, it was not the only contribution of the institution to the community it served.
“We looked for opportunities in which we might be able to expand our opportunities in regard to community development — but also opportunities to lend money to people who might otherwise not be served by the financial and economic market,” Minnis said.
Loans to start up businesses and organizations were made available to those in the area who would have no other financial resources available to them.
“The third objective is to make sure that we stayed anchored in the community,” said Minnis, “that is that we engage in community enrichment and in the neighborhoods [where] our shopping center resides.”
Minnis noted it’s done by helping to ensure that these organizations are able to sustain themselves. Helping smaller organizations find ways to finance their projects and reach their goals are other objectives of the institution.
“Our organization was founded to be a ‘bottoms up’ kind of organization — we are founded to serve the needs of the greater community and not necessarily the needs of the West Philadelphia Financial Services Institution,” Minnis said. “In order for us to do that, we need to stay connected to the community.”
WFPSI does this by maintaining consistent interaction with community stakeholders and a by having a board structure that incorporates the representatives of local organizations in order to continuously receive local input on the concerns of the area.
“There is information flowing both ways, in and out, this is one of the ways we stay connected,” Minnis said. “Another way is that we are pretty good at doing community meetings.
Minnis replaces Dennis Lee as chair, who during his term helped bring together the community to make WFPSI’s vision a reality in West Philadelphia.
“It was a long, grueling process,” he said. “We had to have the support of community partners, our business peers and elected officials. It was just an awesome effort on everyone’s part.”
Philadelphia’s electorate greater in 2008
With fewer than 60 days before the November 6 election, the number of registered voters in Philadelphia is lower now than it was just before the 2008 presidential election, and voter registration numbers are lagging far behind those from a similar point in 2008. In addition, there is little evidence that Philadelphia voters who need ID to vote are applying for voter identification.
According to figures from the state Department of State, there were about 1 million registered voters in the city as of September 3. State data showed 811,808 Democrats, 129,369 Republicans, 76,903 with no party affiliation and 21,442 from all other parties combined.
That compares to figures from 2008 when state figures showed a total of 1.1 million registered voters with 880,681 Democrats, 147,068 Republicans and 99,011 from all other parties in early November.
Since March, about 77,000 new voters have registered to vote in Philadelphia, said Dennis Lee, chief of staff for City Commissioner Stephanie Singer. That pales in comparison to 2008 numbers when, in just the month of September, 80,000 people registered to vote.
“It’s not on the same pace as it was in 2008,” he said. “We’re behind.”
Historically, voter registration numbers have been the figure to watch.
But this year, being registered to vote isn’t enough. Registered voters must now also have a photo ID to cast their ballot on November 6.
State estimates released earlier this year suggested 186,830 Philadelphians lacked the identification need to cast a ballot. Across the state, that number ballooned to 758,000 registered voters.
PennDOT does not track the number of applications for voter identification.
However, according to PennDOT spokeswoman Jan McKnight, 6,661 voter IDs have been issued since March when Gov. Tom Corbett signed the new law. The vast majority of them — 2,823 — have been issued to Philadelphia residents. She cautioned that that figure was for voter ID cards only — voters may also use a valid driver’s license to vote.
In addition, the Department of State has issued 299 of its voter IDs, which were first available August 28.
McKnight said the department does not track turnaround times for either identity card.
“We do not have a tracking mechanism in place,” she said.
Turnaround could become a crucial issue as Election Day nears.
Anecdotal evidence suggests times vary widely from a little as an hour to as much as a several months, depending on what kind of ID the applicant is seeking and what documents they have.
“A lot of people are frustrated,” Lee said. “But, they are taking the necessary steps to get their ID.”
He related the story of Philadelphia voter, Lawrence Austin, who started the process of getting his ID in June and just received it this week.
“It took him a while, even though he was registered,” Lee said. “It can be a long process and it can be a frustrating process.”
Lee urged voters to persist.
“We have to really press and pick up the pace,” he said. “In order to get the masses out to the polling place, it’s going to be a massive undertaking.”
He also assured Philadelphia residents that if they get to the polls their votes would count.
“We’re going to do everything possible to make sure their vote is counted,” Lee said. “Even if they don’t have ID they can still go to the polls and use a provisional ballot. Don’t allow the voter ID to intimidate you.”
West Philadelphia residents turned out to attend a community day event hosted by Dynamite Pest Control held at Malcolm X Memorial Park, despite the gloomy weather conditions.
The park has long been a favorite in West Philadelphia for those desiring to host events to unite the community.
This event was no different as the staff of Dynamite and supporting sponsors provided food, entertainment and games for both the children and adults of the neighborhood for no other reason than to give back.
“We’ve been there for 45 years and we’re the longest running family-owned and operated business on 52nd street,” said Rich Foreman of Dynamite.
Foreman said he conducts numerous career fairs at schools where he speak to students about careers, including those who aren’t particularly planning to go to college but would like to be entrepreneurs.
The community event was another way for him to reach such youth as well as to express his appreciation and love for his West Philadelphia neighborhood.
“Having grown up in West Philadelphia, I decided to try to give them a sense of hope and to provide some resources,” Foremen said.
He attended Catholic school in the area and learned to swim at the YMCA in West Philadelphia.
Resources available at the park included: information tables, where youth could learn about college opportunities, and access to free phones.
“This is just my way of giving back and we are going to do this annually...,” Foreman said.
In his planning, Foreman reached out to other local businesses in West Philadelphia, including DJ Active, a local variety store.
While children enjoyed the moon bounces, playground, and music played by DJ Active, Foreman said it was also a networking opportunity for the adults.
To help make the day happen, Foreman invited elected officials such as Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, Sen. Anthony Williams and others to attend.
Chief Deputy Commissioner Dennis Lee, of the City Commissioner’s office, was on hand to talk about the importance of voting.
“We are so excited, because this is part of what brings back the city and we need that to happen,” Lee said. “Civic engagement is what it is all about.”
The 52nd street corridor has made significant improvements in recent years, according to Gregorio Cojulun Jr. president of the Friends of Malcolm X Memorial Park.
It is Cojulun’s responsibility to orchestrate public events at the park and he swung into action when Dynamite Pest Control expressed their desire to hold a community day at the popular park.
“We have to save our future and we have a public place and a safe place for them to come out,” he said.
The park will continue its Jazz in the Park events May 30 from 7 to 9 p.m. Oldies in the Park events will begin on an undetermined date in July.
“We’re just trying to make it fun for everyone to come out here and have a good time,” Cojulun said.