When the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia decided to build a $85 million state-of-the-art supply center, it chose Millbourne as the location.
Where? The tiny Delaware County borough nestled between West Philly and Upper Darby holds the distinction of being Pennsylvania’s most densely populated incorporated town. Regular El commuters might know it as that stop you see between 63rd and 69th Street. For about 1,200 people, it’s home.
Millbourne leaders welcomed the new CHOP facility, which opened last October, as a development that could herald an influx of jobs, tax revenue, and additional development.
“We have a couple acres still empty by the creek side and on the other side of the CHOP project,” Millbourne Mayor Mahabubul Alam Tayub, who was elected in 2021, told Billy Penn. “We [may] try to again bring some shopping center. That would be awesome.”
Despite its location along Cobbs Creek and its namesake SEPTA station, Millbourne has been struggling economically for years. The site at 6400 Market St. had sat vacant since the Sears Roebuck shuttered in 1988 and was demolished two decades later.
Erik Wasserstein is hoping the new development will lower taxes for his family’s business, Perzan Auto Radio, which has been down the street from the former Sears since the 1940s.
With CHOP’s arrival, the county reassessed the site’s value at $50.6 million, up from a prior $1.3 million. That “gave a little bit of Millbourne better income for the borough,” he said, “which will give everybody else some relief.”
Millbourne’s residents have varying opinions on the new CHOP supply center, which has 24/7 security and houses supplies, bedding, sterile processing materials, and operating instruments for the hospital system.
“I know that not everybody was thrilled with this, especially the residents that live [close to the building], because they’re facing a loading dock,” Wasserstein said. “I mean, it’s good that it’s not vacant anymore.”
But earlier proposals for the site had included options for a mixed-use building that some people found appealing. “Maybe affordable housing, combined with retail – something that would drive traffic into Millbourne,” Wasserstein said.
Today, the borough is a melting pot for Philadelphians of a variety of backgrounds, with a large Bangladeshi American population. About 64% of residents are of Asian descent, per 2021 census data.
“It’s a tight-knit community,” said Sreekanth Somarajan, who grew up in Millbourne. “We have our own police captains. I feel safe, and I know my neighbors.”
Three centuries of change
For much of its history, Millbourne was populated by colonists from England, beginning in 1682 with textile weaver Samuel Sellers, whose grandson, John, erected the town’s namesake flour mill in 1757.
The mill operated through plenty of upheaval, including the 18th century separation of Darby and Upper Darby, the 1789 creation of Delaware County as a carveout from neighboring Chester, and, significantly, the expansion of SEPTA precursor Philadelphia Rapid Transit Co. which opened a 66th Street station on July 1, 1908.
The borough began coming into its own, gaining a fire and police department within the same year. For the next few decades, Millbourne was a working-class community with primarily Greek heritage.
“It’s such a big change since I was a kid,” said Joe Artmont Sr., former resident, council member, and Millbourne Fire Chief. “I had a lot of fun there. My family grew up there.”
Artmont began working as a volunteer firefighter at 14, eventually rising to lead the department. When he retired after 40 years, he passed the baton to his son, Joe Artmont Jr.
In recent years, however, the Millbourne Fire Company couldn’t sustain operations. Fewer people volunteered to train as firefighters, and the borough ran out of money to make repairs and pay salaries. The fire company closed in 2019, and the frayed relationship between those who remained and the borough council is said to continue to this day.
“They used to be able to talk with us,” Artmont Sr. said. “People live here. It’s not right.”
In 1993, five years after the Sears store closed, the state officially deemed the borough a financially distressed municipality. The designation wasn’t lifted until 2014.
Many residents are still struggling. The median household income is around $51k, per 2021 census data — two-thirds of what it is for Delaware County overall, but about even with Philadelphia. About 28% of Millbournians live below the federal poverty line.
Once stolidly Republican, Millbourne two years ago elected a Democrat: Tayub, who won with 165 votes.
What attracts people to live there? Proximity to a SEPTA station with a small-town vibe is high on the list, said Tayub, who moved from Philadelphia in 2015.
Meeting with former Mayor Thomas Kramer inspired him to get involved in politics.
“I saw our Bangladeshi community, most of the time they’re so far from whatever they need and not making much money,” he said. “If I can do something for the community, I can help these people who need it.”
When Millbourne’s train station was updated in 2008, it welcomed a new public art installation in the form of a large, colorful stainless steel depiction of peacock feathers, crafted by local artists Kate Kaman and Joel Erland. The piece, called “Paradise” is an homage to the town’s Southeast Asian population.
The challenge for local leaders going forward is finding a balance between changing demographics and economic growth, and consideration for the borough’s rich history and longest community members.
“We need our taxes to be affordable for us to be able to stay here,” said Waserstein, the owner of Perzan Auto Radio.
He knows parking enforcement is an alternate revenue stream for the borough, but is frustrated there’s a meter out front of his shop. “I have a variance deed in 2007 with prior Republican leadership,” he said, to keep the spot meter-free “so customers from the city and Main Line can pull up. Well, the borough reneged on that.”
Everyone seems to agree, though, that hope is high for Millbourne to keep growing.
Around the same time as the CHOP supply facility opened, the town center gained a new shopping center called Market Square Village. It houses a grocery store that carries primarily Spanish-label foods, a barbershop and hair salon, and a UPS Store, among others.
Mayor Tayub gives a nod to the efforts of former mayor Kramer to make a tight budget work, and mentions possibly involving the federal government for additional funds to help push Millbourne ahead.
He has dreams of a small park for local children, and rebuilding the centuries old Borough Hall.
“Our resources are limited, and whatever money we get from the taxes, that’s the money we’ve tried to utilize for our police department and our office and everything,” Tayub said.
Waserstein agrees that “Millbourne does a great job of safety, with the police” and quality-of-life issues such as street cleaning.
“This is our place, we love it,” said Waserstein. “But all those different challenges we’ve got to keep an eye on, to make sure that we can sustain here and keep bringing people from the suburbs, the city, the county, and from out of state into Millbourne.”