LOCAL RESIDENTS say it has been decades since West Parkside had a supermarket to call its own.
"I have been here as a business person for 20 years and there has been no shopping center and no grocery store," said Marjorie Ogilvie, president of the Business Association of West Parkside.
Bringing retail to this corner of West Philly has long been a goal of politicians like Mayor Nutter and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah. But even after an abandoned rail yard near 52nd Street and Lancaster Avenue was cleared and blessed with tax breaks for businesses, it took more than 10 years before the dream was realized.
Finally, on Saturday, West Parkside got a mall.
Not just any mall, but a big, shiny, suburban-scale complex, complete with a Lowe's, a massive ShopRite supermarket, a T-Mobile store, a linens shop, a Wachovia bank - and ample parking.
"It's long overdue," said Cynthia Alston, 56, at the grand opening Saturday. "We won't have to go out of our neighborhood to get things we need."
At 52nd and Jefferson streets, and covering 341,000 square feet, the Park West Town Center was developed by a partnership of the Goldenberg Group and the West Philadelphia Financial Services Institution.
Besides shopping opportunities, stores in the mall have provided hundreds of jobs to local residents.
"I wake up happy every day," said Judy Eberhardt, 51, who lives in West Philadelphia and works at the ShopRite. "I didn't just want a job, I wanted a career. I saw this as an opportunity [to advance]."
Hundreds of people gathered at the grand-opening celebration, rejoicing despite the drizzling rain.
"I spent eight years working to bring this project in," Nutter told the crowd. "It is a very touching moment to finally see this happen.
"It'll lift up the area," he said.
Fattah said that the shopping plaza - with its services and jobs - was a key part of a bigger revitalization effort in the neighborhood.
"It's one of a continuing set of building blocks," he said, noting that economic development goes hand in hand with education improvements and enhanced social services.
"When you do just social services, you're missing the whole picture," he said.
But bringing the mall to West Parkside was a long, hard slog.
James Burnett, executive director of the West Philadelphia Financial Services Institution, said that even after the land was designated a Keystone Opportunity Zone and a city empowerment zone - which together offer tax breaks and low-interest loans - it was hard to draw businesses to the neighborhood.
WPFSI and Goldenberg teamed up about 10 years ago to work on developing a shopping center. First, they looked for a supermarket, and "we could not find anyone to commit," Burnett said.
After years without progress, they decided to find a different store to anchor the mall, Burnett said. That's when they successfully went after Lowe's.
"They liked it," Burnett said of the home-improvement store. "They wanted to build another store. They hadn't built a store in the African-American community."
After Lowe's signed on, they were able to lure the ShopRite supermarket chain.
ShopRite President Jeff Brown admitted that he took some convincing to join in, saying that opening a supermarket in the city can be tough.
"The biggest problem is that people don't make a big income," Brown said. "People don't have the money to buy gourmet stuff. Your normal supermarket model doesn't work."
But he said that with the financial breaks - and a little encouragement from Nutter - he decided to try and make it work.
Brown said that he worked to stock the store for the neighborhood, outfitting it with West African and Jamaican sections, as well as a Halaal butcher.
"You have first-class shopping for people who used to have to go to little corner stores," said the business association's Ogilvie.
The new supermarket also has 316 jobs - union jobs - almost all of which were filled by local residents, Brown said.
Steven Solomon, 46, is one of a number of local ex-offenders that Brown hired.
"I paid my dues to get home," Solomon said. "All I ever asked was to give me a chance. Mr. Brown understands that people make mistakes."
Solomon, who served three-and-a-half years for a drug offense, works making salads in the deli.
"This is somewhere they'll give me a chance to grow," he said.
Burnett said that the important thing about the mall was that it was developed with community input along the way. He said that his group stressed that participation with Goldenberg from the beginning.
"We wanted ownership. We didn't want them to come in and say we'll build you a shopping center," he said.
Councilman Curtis Jones, whose district includes West Parkside, said he hoped that the new shopping center would only spur further development.
"What we're talking about doing is keeping this ball rolling," he said, adding that he's hoping to see improvements to housing and transportation in the area.
In particular, Jones said he hopes that a long-abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad train station at 52nd and Lancaster can be reopened.
"A lot of this is going to take on a life of its own," he said. "People see the investment and want to be a part of it." *