The exterior of Rapco Automotive Centers in Nicetown had seen better days. There was the horrible sign, faded awnings, flaking murals covered with graffiti, and a solid — and uninviting — security door.

“It was an eyesore,” said owner Michael Goldstein. In the 30 years the business had been operating at 1620 W. Hunting Park Ave., it had never undergone an exterior face-lift.

Goldstein, of Blue Bell, and his twin brother, Bruce, who lives in Lansdale, inherited the full-service auto-repair company from their father, Roy, who founded the business as a muffler-repair shop in North Philadelphia in 1953 (Michael bought out Bruce in 2016). Michael Goldstein had always planned to make improvements on the building before passing the business on to his own son, Jason. But he kept kicking the can down the road.

“I knew I had to do it,” he said of the needed renovations, but “I wasn’t ready to pull the trigger. I had it penciled in for next summer.”

But then in 2018, Goldstein, 66, attended a local “Coffee and Commerce” event, hosted by the city Commerce Department’s Office of Business Services to acquaint business owners with the city’s neighborhood-support initiatives. That’s where he learned about the Storefront Improvement Program, which provides financial, design, and technical assistance to company owners looking to improve the curb appeal of their businesses. And he was all in.

The exterior of Rapco Automotive in Nicetown before the renovations.
mschaefer@phillynews.com
The exterior of Rapco Automotive in Nicetown before the renovations.

The program is aimed at businesses in designated neighborhood commercial corridors. The goal is to improve the front exterior of buildings in order to attract more customers. Owners are reimbursed a maximum of 50% of the total cost of improvements, up to $10,000 for a single property and $15,000 for multiple addresses or corner stores.

“There are some basic things we won’t allow,” said Denis Murphy, director of corridor development for Philadelphia. Certain features on historic buildings must stay, for example, windows can’t be closed off, and solid security gates are prohibited.

Nonetheless, since 2009, 675 businesses have completed the program, which costs the city about $500,000 a year. And some neighborhoods have been transformed as a result, said NazAarah Sabree,director of the Office of Business Services.

In Mount Airy, for example, 14 business along the 1400 block of Vernon Road have participated in the program. The stores, which include restaurants, hair salons, a corner grocery and a real estate office, replaced their awnings and updated their lighting and windows. Since the makeovers, all of the merchants have reported more foot traffic, which has resulted in increased revenue.

“People find [the businesses] more inviting," said Sabree.

Both Sabree and Kareema Abusaab, manager of the Storefront Improvement Program, guided Goldstein through every step of Rapco’s renovation process, the shop owner said. By the time his application for services was complete, it was an inch thick and filled with photos, estimates, bids from two different vendors, and canceled checks showing that the work had been completed.

“They cared," said Goldstein. “When it was done, they were as happy as I was.”

In many ways, Goldstein was the perfect client, said Murphy, the corridor development director. “He worked closely with us getting the approval," listening to feedback and modifying the exterior design plans in order to help speed up the process.

Once he had the go-ahead, Goldstein also made sure the job was finished as soon as possible. Often, said Murphy, business owners get busy or have problems with contractors and do not complete the project in the allotted six months — and then have to apply for an extension.

Today, Rapco, which spans two buildings on the street, has new signs, open security gates, and a bright-red awning. The bricks have been sand-washed and painted to look like new. The total cost was $70,000 and the city reimbursed Goldstein $15,000.

“Look how pretty that came out,” Goldstein said, standing outside his shop.

“Even at night, the storefront looks clean and inviting,” said Sabree.

Goldstein didn’t stop with the exterior of Rapco. He redid the property’s blacktop, added an LED lighting system, renovated the bathrooms, modernized the waiting room, and created a training/break room for his employees. (Goldstein’s wife, Neda Couzens, an interior designer, brought a sophisticated eye to the redo with coordinated paints, bathroom tiles, and artwork.) He also renovated Rapco’s second location, in Upper Darby (next to the landmark Llanerch Diner at City Line Avenue and West Chester Pike).

The total cost for the two projects was about $230,000. The city Commerce Department is exploring how to help make the program more affordable for business owners in lower-income areas who do not have as much access to funds for renovation, said Murphy.

As third-generation businesspeople, the Goldstein family has developed strong relationships with customers who have been coming to the store for as long as anyone can remember, said Michael Goldstein. That connection was a big part of the reason he wanted to make physical improvements to Rapco, which has become a community anchor over the years

“This neighborhood supports us,” Goldstein said. And working with the city “was a pleasure.”