A few weeks back, representatives of the Bakers Centre retail development, under construction at the former Tastykake site, appeared at an East Falls Community Council committee meeting to give an update on how things are going.

 

Project officials gathered in a small room on the Philadelphia University campus with a few dozen residents and members of the EFCC's zoning committee. The leasing agent described how the retail spaces are nearly full eight months before completion, and asked for the group's support on a signage plan.

It was low-key, conversational, and over in about 10 minutes.

But the 220,000 square-foot shopping center, to be anchored by the latest of Jeff and Sandy Brown's ShopRite stores, won't just serve East Falls. And so, on Thursday night, Brown held another update meeting, this one at Murrell Dobbins CTE high school auditorium and aimed at the those living to the east of the project, in the neighborhoods stretching from Hunting Park Avenue to Broad Street, into North Philadelphia.

This was a 1,200-person pep rally, a combination infomercial-town hall-job fair, for a store not even targeted to open until August. Brown showed interior plans for the store, introduced the store's management team, and talked about planned features such as a halal butcher, a deal with Krispy Kreme donuts, two community rooms, a health clinic, an on-site dietician, an open-hearth chicken roaster and a "benefits bank" to connect area residents to entitlement programs.

Community interest and support 

If there were any questions lingering on whether residents of Allegheny West, Nicetown and Tioga would support the project and the jobs that will come with it, those doubts were lost in the noise of the overflow crowd.

"I'm here to start the Jeff Brown for mayor campaign," Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. announced -- impossible, of course, as Brown lives in South Jersey. But his point was made as Brown bantered easily with the crowd and was cheered like a rock star.

For now, Brown is focused on completing the 71,000 square-foot ShopRite of Fox Street, which will be his 10th store and the fourth within Jones' district. One side of the building, which appears on plans as a blank brick wall along Fox, will be adorned with a Mural Arts Program painting.

Brown offered two potential murals and asked the crowd their preference, and they roared in approval for a photo-realist still life by Jon Laidacker showing a bounty of fruits and vegetables spilling out of a grocery bag.

To be sure, there were enticements to attend the gathering Thursday night beyond just information, like coupons, raffle giveaways, and an after-meeting food tasting. But getting access to jobs at the ShopRite and other retailers who will set up shop at Bakers Centre took center stage.

'We're going to hire from the neighborhood'

One woman took the mic during the public comment session, saying she had multiple felonies in her past and wanting to hear straight from Brown that he is willing to hire people with criminal records.

"I really just need to hear it right from the horse's mouth," she said. Another man stepped to the microphone with his resume in hand, a line of other job-seekers forming behind him.

Brown reiterated his commitment not only to hiring local workers for his stores but to offering jobs to people with past convictions or other criminal trouble. He didn't promise anyone they'd be hired, but he said they'd all be considered.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes has been one of Brown's biggest supporters, steering a $12 million state grant toward the Bakers Centre project.

"We got brothers and sisters coming out of the joint, and they can't get a job," Hughes said. "Jeff and Sandy said, 'Look, we're going to hire from the neighborhood, and we're not going to discriminate.'"

The crowd had plenty of questions, and Brown answered as many as he could:

  • Yes, you can work at the store if you're 16, but only in certain jobs.
  • No, the store won't be open 24 hours a day, as Brown believes a few hours of down time each day are necessary to keep everything clean.
  • Yes, he's working with SEPTA to make sure there is adequate public transit-access to the store, but he said the city should also improve the streets around the Fox-Roberts-Hunting Park intersection. 

Again and again, the project has been talked about as being potentially transformational for an area of the city underserved not just by food stores, but commercial development in general. 

"Restoration isn't just about buildings that you're going to fix," Jones said.

Facts, figures and job information

  • As of Jan. 24, workers had logged 37,847 hours on the Bakers Centre project.
  • Of those hours, 18,215 were performed by city residents, with 13,514 hours worked by minorities and 844 hours by women.
  • The ShopRite will employ about 300 people, including some who will move from other Brown's stores, creating other potential job openings.
  • All ShopRite job applications must be filled out online, and will be accepted starting on April 28 for the Fox Street store. By mid-May, a hiring trailer will be set up on-site where interviews will be scheduled. Every applicant must bring two forms of photo identification.
  • A website has been set up with information listed for most retail tenants.
  • For those without a home computer, St. James School, W. 3217 Clearfield St., will offer access to computers for those who wish to apply.

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