OTF round table

Our Town Foundation Executive Director Deena Kershner, standing, leads the first round-table discussion sponsored by the OTF and held at Hamburg Strand on Feb. 5. Representatives from local government, businesses and organizations discussed challenges facing new and existing businesses in town, as well as possible solutions.

With a goal of intentionally improving small businesses in Hamburg, the Our Town Foundation organized the first of monthly round-table business discussions on Feb. 5.

Using a $5,000 grant from BB&T Economic Growth Fund of Berks County Community Foundation, OTF organized the series of round table discussions to provide opportunity for local businesses to collaborate and to help one another succeed. This and future meetings will determine how the funds can foster economic growth among existing and new businesses in Hamburg.

A dozen representatives from businesses, town government and local organizations attended the February meeting. The conversation addressed issues from attracting customers and providing parking to handling trash and snow removal. Future monthly meetings will address specific points.

Jerry Rotell of the Hamburg Council and OTF’s Economic Restructuring Committee, and Deena Kershner, executive director of OTF, spearheaded the meeting.

“We’re responsible to recruit new businesses that come to town,” Kershner said of the Economic Restructuring Committee, “and we can’t really control who goes into a building, but we try to match up [new businesses] with the community needs.”

In the past, the committee offered promotions, mixers, marketing and training opportunities and have met with some success, including several businesses opening in Hamburg in recent years. They also maintain a database of available properties should potential new ventures want that information.

The February meeting goal was to identify topics and issues that businesses are facing in today’s local economy.

“We want you to discuss your challenges, your successes and your failures with one another,” Kershner said.

Attendees jumped into discussion, and Tracy Howell of Stinkleberry Soap Co. identified the first topic.

“One of our biggest challenges is foot traffic,” she said, noting that Sunday business is especially slow and that it’s hard to justify staying open on slow days.

Charlotte Golden, who operates the Bismarck Bed & Breakfast, said guests staying over weekends are impacted by a lack of activities.

“Our guests would stay longer if more shops were open,” she said, and Thursday night options would also be beneficial.

“Everyone has said how adorable our town is,” Golden said, noting that they’ve had 131 bookings over the past year, “and I’ve had people who have gone to every restaurant, every place in town.”

Mayer George Holmes suggested businesses coordinate additional hours to allow shoppers to visit multiple locations every evening. He said the small size of Hamburg can work in its favor.

“That, to me, is Hamburg’s biggest advantage. It’s a walkable town, and we need to push and promote that.”

Although her coffee shop, Four Twelve, is not open on Sundays as a rule, manager Kristin Stamm saw room to improve communication about hours and events between businesses.

“I think having a complete list, one that says where people could go to do what, would be something we could hand out,” Stamm said.

Safe and ample parking is another challenge. The streets are narrow and trucks driving through often knock off side mirrors. There are some public lots and many spaces have two-hour limits; some suggested spaces with shorter (10-minute) limits for those dashing in and out of a store.

“If they can’t park a space or two in front of your building, then forget about it,” Howell said.

Rotell countered that parking at a walking distance might help all businesses overall.

“If you park in front of the business you’re going to, then you’re not going to the other businesses. But if you park farther away, you’re walking by, right? There’s some logic to that.”

The borough has contracted the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to conduct a comprehensive traffic study this year, Kershner said, and it should consider one-way streets, parking and intersections. Public input will be sought after the study is complete.

April Naftzinger of Maven Travel said that snow removal is a challenge, as not all businesses and residents adequately clear sidewalks.

“You have all these piles of snow and no way to get from the road to the sidewalk,” she said.

Kershner said the town used to offer snow removal for a fee, and Rotell suggested business owners attend council meetings to voice their concerns.

“The more people we get at the council meetings to say this, the better. It’s not only a snow thing, it’s a safety thing. Let’s get more people to the council so they can hear it’s an issue.”

Other challenges facing Hamburg businesses included trash removal and general cleanliness. Attendees discussed adding a seasonal newsletter to municipal bills, creating flyers to share among businesses, setting up phone notifications or having an updated list of hours and activities in a central online site.

“You have to give [information] to people multiple ways and multiple times,” Holmes said.

Dina Madera, an OTF employee who is also a local realtor, suggested offering tax breaks and other incentives to new and existing businesses. Stam and Golden discussed welcome bags for visitors and new residents. And all joined in on a discussion of adding unified, eye-catching signs to draw business up and down the main streets of town.

The next round table meeting is planned for 6 p.m. on March 5, and will focus on improving foot traffic to shops. Those who wish to attend are asked to reserve their seat through Our Town Foundation, 335 State Street, Hamburg, 610-562-31060.

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