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A venerable benefactor helps Philly's small businesses moving forward

'I am Santa Claus," Patricia Blakely said, with such a mischievous grin that you couldn't help but smile back at her.

Owner Peter Cohen at Baum's Dancewear on East Passyunk Avenue. He said a Merchants Fund grant "was a huge help" in getting a website redesign.
Owner Peter Cohen at Baum's Dancewear on East Passyunk Avenue. He said a Merchants Fund grant "was a huge help" in getting a website redesign.Read more( JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer)

'I am Santa Claus," Patricia Blakely said, with such a mischievous grin that you couldn't help but smile back at her.

"I give money away for a living. How great is that?"

Blakely, 58, was responding to my question about what she digs most about her job managing the Merchants Fund of Philadelphia.

The Merchants Fund doles out about a half-million dollars a year, or 50 grants, to small businesses in the city. The money can pay for signs, equipment, inventory, even overhauling a website.

If the grants are akin to college admissions, Blakely is the first round. She is the interviewer and profiler, with her board's authority to deem a candidate's enterprise worthy of a grant.

"I am the sales-pitch person," said Blakely, the Merchants Fund's executive director.

Blakely has been doing this since 2007 and has gotten pretty efficient at it, though she doesn't drive. Public transit and two SEPTA maps get her to all points of the city for site visits, which begin in earnest on Monday for the next round.

She said the board will make decisions the final week of next month but won't post the winners until the end of the year when all the projects are completed.

There are two grant cycles, in February and September each year.

On Blakely's desk last week was a large pile of applications from bodegas, or corner grocery stores, all seeking aid. Two more piles from other businesses were laid out on an adjacent bureau.

A Bryn Mawr College graduate who has spent 35 years in the nonprofit sector, Blakely catalogs each applicant, using codes: "anchor business," a traffic generator or one offering essential services; "immigrant," a growing sector of business ownership; "mature," a business at mid-life cycle, established, and a good one to have; "mom & pop," a heritage business, multigenerational and essential; or "MWVDD," for minority, woman, veteran, disabled, or disadvantaged.

In her tiny downtown office on the 10th floor at 1528 Walnut St. are two large portraits: They are of Simon Muhr and William Sowers, 19th-century businessmen who left the Merchants Fund ( gifts when they died.

The fund was founded in 1854 by members of Philadelphia's business elite, among them, Richard D. Wood Jr., whose family founded Wawa Inc; A.J. Drexel; and Isaac Clothier.

"Our wealth comes from men who built their fortunes in the city," Blakely said. "They owned railroads, utilities, banks, insurance companies. They built real estate. They were the up-and-coming of the 19th century."

Then and now, Blakely said, the fund's mission has been to ensure that local commerce thrives.

In her role, she has had to master knowledge of several industries, such as the latest environmental regulations affecting dry cleaners, or the new ranking criteria for child-care centers. New rules can add costs and hardship to a business trying to stay afloat, and can bolster a grant applicant's chances, she said.

"I get to know an industry intimately, as well as the neighborhood dynamics, from Chestnut Hill to Little Cambodia in South Philadelphia," she said. "That's where traveling by public transit and on foot really helps. I get to be the shopper and learn traffic patterns in these areas."

Once Blakely compiles the data on an application, she hits the "send" button to the fund's board for review. The amount available for the current cycle is $170,000, enough for 17 grants.

Since 2007, the Merchants Fund - a 501(c)(3) nonprofit - has awarded close to 400 grants, totaling about $4 million, under Blakely.

Nicole Rae Styer, 34, of N.R.S. Boutique in East Passyunk, received a $10,000 grant last year that she used for an industrial Juki Corp. sewing machine, fabric, and supplies, and to enroll in pattern-making classes.

"All the supplies I have been using daily, from cones of thread to a steamer," Styer, of South Philly, said. "The Juki helps me sew faster and work with the textiles needed."

As is the case with every recipient, after Styer won the grant Blakely became the chief financial officer of her company, and money was deducted directly from the Merchants Fund's account to pay for the new supplies and classes.

The boutique sells one-of-a-kind handmade clothing accessories, both vintage and antique, at 1822 E. Passyunk Ave. It also offers alteration services.

After implementing the changes, Styer said, she has had her busiest year since opening at her current location in 2010. Sales are up 40 percent from 2015, she said.

"I have been doing more custom orders and alterations," Styer said. "The pattern-making classes helped me to brush up on designing. Everything runs more efficiently and has allowed me to take on more customers."

For the first time, she has added bridal orders. "Being a one-woman show, it's smart to use any help you can get to grow your business," Styer said.

Peter Cohen, proprietor of Baum's Dancewear, a fourth-generation family-owned business at 1805 E. Passyunk Ave., received an $8,000 grant he used for a complete redesign of his company's e-commerce site (

"The funding was a huge help in covering part of the cost," said Cohen, 60. "This new website has the latest technology and features that customers need, and is compatible with all handheld devices."

As a result of the site's better speed, he said, online sales and the percentage of visitors who complete sales without leaving the website halfway through are both up.

That is music to Blakely's ears.

"I like to say that we are taking sales away from King of Prussia, and keeping all those tax dollars and economic dollars in the city," she said.

"I love the fact that 'Buy Local' comes through with these small businesses."