Italian Market property owner John Gargano is opposed to creating a new Business Improvement District

The banner reads “VOTE NO BID,” but it doesn’t have anything to do with the November election.

The big red-white-and-blue sign hanging over John Gargano’s Italian Market produce stands is about something closer to home. It’s a protest against a potential South 9th St. & Washington Ave. Business Improvement District.

The BID was proposed more than two years ago and is nearing implementation, but Garganao — and a cadre of other business owners around Ninth Street — are dead set against it.

Why? Reasons vary, but the general gist is that the Italian Market has been doing fine for over a hundred years, and they don’t feel a new organization is needed in order to try to make it “better.” Especially one that requires an annual payment from anyone who owns property in the area and hires an administrator to coordinate services.

“It’s not as dirty as they make it out to be,” Gargano says, pointing at the sidewalk across from his stand at Ninth and Carpenter.

“What’s there, a couple cigarette butts? What the businesses here need is more parking. If you come down to a good clean street and there’s nowhere to park, you’re just gonna go home anyway.”

Business Improvement Districts are zones where property owners contribute to a fund used to improve the neighborhood — often to notable effect. Philly’s most famous is the Center City District, the creation of which helped spur the transformation of downtown Philadelphia into one of the most vibrant on the East Coast. Another BID with recognizable results is the one that helped turn East Passyunk into a hot restaurant destination.

But “this is a food market, not a restaurant strip like Passyunk,” says Mario Girardo, owner of several curb stands, a warehouse and a storefront property in the market. “This street is spotless compared to 50 years ago. We don’t want (the BID)!”

Wally Giordano, one of three brothers who own the 95-year-old produce market at the corner of Ninth and Washington, is also not in favor. “I heard it would cost a lot,” he says. “We do our own cleaning here, our own fixing.”

Sal Auriemma, reigning patriarch of the family that owns Claudio’s Specialty Foods, says he’s undecided as to whether he supports the BID or not. But he does offer an opinion on why there are so many opponents: “The only reason something doesn’t sell is the price.”

Is that the case here? If approved, the cost to property owners would be 0.2 percent of assessed property value annually — the area’s average $300,000 building would trigger a fee of $600 a year — or $200 a year per curb stand.

“That’s less than a cup of coffee a day,” observes Emilio Mignucci, third-generation co-owner of Di Bruno Bros. and chair of the BID steering committee.

John Gargano holds a mailer sent out by the BID steering committee showing proposed funds allocation
John Gargano holds a mailer sent out by the BID steering committee showing proposed funds allocation Credit: Danya Henninger

In addition to allocating around $60k for an administrator’s salary, the BID annual budget would be used to pay for various services, which were selected after doing a survey. After tallying around 260 submissions from residents, shoppers, merchants and property owners, the top concern was dirty streets. After that came nighttime safety, then parking.

The project is currently in what’s called a “45-day objection period.” Per Gargano, between 40 and 50 property owners have filled out a form letter registering their opposition to the BID and mailed it to City Council. According to Pennsylvania law, if 51 percent of the affected stakeholders come out against it, the BID will be shot down.

“I’m fine with them going through this objection process,” says Mignucci. “We’re a democratic society. It’s their right to feel however they want to feel.”

What dismays Mignucci and the rest of the BID supporters is that this is the first time many of the naysayers are paying attention to the effort at all.

“They put all this energy into opposing it — why not put that energy into making their businesses and the neighborhood better?” Mignucci says.

It’s not easy to create a BID. The Italian Market effort started three summers ago and advanced according to a state-mandated process. After obtaining a $45,000 grant to shepherd two years of planning, multiple surveys, several mailings and 12 public meetings (in five different languages), it’s finally nearing the last steps. Last June, Councilman Mark Squilla introduced a bill to make it official, and the resolution made its way through the Rules Committee. On Sept. 7, Council held a public hearing on the matter. And that’s when opponents of the project showed up to testify in opposition.

Several of the opposers were people whose properties and businesses aren’t on Ninth Street itself, but on the surrounding blocks.

Barry Wilensky of Wilensky’s Hardware is wary that the BID will benefit Ninth Street more than other areas
Barry Wilensky of Wilensky’s Hardware is wary that the BID will benefit Ninth Street more than other areas

Barry Wilensky, owner of Wilensky Hardware & Locks on Washington and Passyunk, worries that even though he would have to pay into the BID, it might not serve him.

“If they get sweeping every day, our block should get sweeping every day,” Wilensky says. “If they get new cameras, then we should get them here.”

Per Mignucci, the proposed district encompasses much of Eighth and 10th Streets because of two reasons. First, legally a BID has to include a certain number of properties. Second, “all the people on the outlying streets will benefit by the betterment of the Italian Market” because the area in general will be more appealing.

Michael Molinari, who with his father owns Authorized Motor Service just off Eighth and Washington, isn’t so sure.

“It seems to me this is catering to Ninth Street,” Molinari says. “I’m a repair shop, not a bar. Visitors aren’t going to come down here because it’s nice and then all of a sudden say, ‘Oh, lemme get an oil change.’”

To the idea that the BID will cause property values to rise, he scoffs. “Property values have been going up anyway.”

The proposed BID
The proposed BID Credit: South 9th St. & Washington Ave. Business Improvement District

David Brown, partner at Talluto’s pasta house and a big BID supporter, disagrees. “It’s short-sighted for people to think they won’t benefit from it,” he says. “Business owners should want to make the area nicer. It’s an investment in the community.”

Some merchants embrace the overall concept of bettering the area, but express skepticism that a new BID would ever actually make an impact.

“I think there’s a 50/50 chance that anything ever comes of it (even if the BID does pass),” says Tuan Hua, part of the family that owns Eighth Street’s Cafe Diem. He is one of the people who sent in an objection letter. “I’ll go with the flow but I don’t know anything will ever happen.”

That sentiment is echoed by Charlie Cannuli Jr., whose family has run a meat market on Ninth since 1927. “I’ve seen so many of these things go by. They last a month or two, and then they peter out and it goes back to the way things were.”

He adds a note about timing, something that’s repeated by several others: “I’d feel better about it if I wasn’t locked in for five years. A two-year thing would be more palatable.”

Charlie Cannuli Jr. isn’t sold on the idea that change will last more than a couple months
Charlie Cannuli Jr. isn’t sold on the idea that change will last more than a couple months

As it happens, the five-year timeframe isn’t a matter of choice; it’s mandated by state law.

“They don’t know that because they didn’t go to the meetings!” says an exasperated Mignucci. “I don’t mind people objecting, but I hate that they’re spreading misinformation. They’ve also said, ‘Why don’t you just join the East Passyunk one?’ Well, that’s not how it works, legally it’s not allowed.”

Stakeholders have until Oct. 23 to register their complaints via mail. If at least a third of them object, the BID steering committee will go back and reassess their plan. Anyone whose property falls within the proposed district who doesn’t officially object is counted as a vote in favor.

If the BID becomes reality, one business owner who asked to remain anonymous because “I promised my wife I wouldn’t get involved” says he’ll close up his longtime Italian Market shop and go elsewhere. “It’s legalized piracy,” he complains. “They’re pricing everyone out. If they get their way, this’ll just be a link between East Passyunk and South Street. It’ll lose all its character.”

But the same emotion is felt on the other side.

“I put so much energy into the Italian Market because I love it. I was born and raised here,” says Mignucci, who also serves as a volunteer on the Ninth Street Business Association board. “But if this BID doesn’t pass, I promise you, I won’t be part of it anymore. I’ll worry about my business, and when the time comes to decide about continuing to operate our shop there, I will make that tough decision.”

He makes a final plea to his neighborhing colleagues. “It’s not about the visitors and tourists — it’s about the people who live in the neighborhood. Where’s your sense of pride? Let’s make this place better.”

Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Billy Penn at WHYY from 2019 to 2023.