Window of opportunity on the Frankford business strip
By Tom Waring
Times Staff Writer

Curtis Jones knows Frankford isn't going to transform itself into an ideal place to work and live overnight.

But the way Jones sees it, the neighborhood is a much better place than it was a decade ago.

Jones heads the Philadelphia Commercial Development Corporation, a non-profit, quasi-city agency that also receives funding from the federal government.

The group oversees 38 commercial corridors in the city. The Frankford Avenue strip from Girard Avenue to Bridge Street is the only one in the Northeast.

A decade ago, Jones said Frankford Avenue was in bad shape.

Now, the Frankford Group Ministry is renovating and building homes. SEPTA is building a modern transportation center, and the PCDC is helping businesses grow.

"Frankford is slowly coming back around," Jones said.

The PCDC director was in the neighborhood last week to cut the ribbon and present a ceremonial check to Nidia Rivera-Mezalick, owner of Mezalick Design Studio.

Rivera-Mezalick is a stained-glass designer. She designs stained-glass windows for churches, hospitals and even a cafe and zoo.

Rivera-Mezalick owns a three-story building at 4830 Frankford Ave. She's been in business there for a year.

Her motto is, "What we build today is the only reference the future will have about the past."

At one time, stained-glass designing flourished in Philadelphia. Today, there are believed to be fewer than a dozen designers in the city.

The location is in one of the low- and moderate-income areas that are eligible for PCDC loans. The Philadelphia Small Business Micro Loan Fund provides loans from $5,000 to $35,000 to qualifying businesses.

Rivera-Mezalick approached the PCDC in June 2000, saying she wanted to open a stained-glass business in the then-vacant property on Frankford Avenue.

Loan officer Evelyn Montalvo looked over Rivera-Mezalick's application, and the PCDC eventually approved it for an amount that the businesswoman declined to specify. The entrepreneur used the money for working capital and to purchase equipment.

Rivera-Mezalick, who lives on nearby Griscom Street, is happy that she revitalized an abandoned property on Frankford Avenue.

The business is on the first floor, and a family lives on the upper two floors. The brick structure has overhead lighting and is secured with thick, tinted glass.

Other businesses on the avenue have opted for unsightly gates to keep out vandals.

Rivera-Mezalick said a stained-glass design studio is better than some other alternatives.

"This could have been another chicken joint," she said.

The PCDC, which has been bankrolling businesses since 1974, has high hopes for the studio. Rivera-Mezalick better be good to survive. After all, she's in a business that markets something people want, not need.

Lenette DeLoatch, project specialist at the PCDC, has had relatives on Church Street for years and remembers buying her Holy Communion dress on Frankford Avenue.

She also recalls traveling the Market-Frankford El every day on her way from Wynnefield to George Washington High School, stopping occasionally to shop or eat pizza.

Now, in her job with the PCDC, she wants to see the avenue flourish again so the neighborhood can revitalize itself.

"Businesses are the life of the community," she said.

City Councilman Rick Mariano (D-7th dist.) pointed to the new curbs and sidewalks outside the design studio as an example of the city's commitment to attract and maintain businesses.

Mariano said a stained-glass design studio is exactly the kind of company Frankford needs. Frankford Avenue's gain, the councilman said, is another community's loss.

"We could have easily lost her business to the suburbs," he said.

Jones, the PCDC director, said he looks to fund passionate entrepreneurs likes Rivera-Mezalick who can overcome economic conditions and urban issues to succeed in business.

He particularly likes funding unique "hidden treasures" like Mezalick Design Studio.

For business people, you can't beat the price. The repay rate is half that of the prime rate.

"We're a kinder, gentler bank," Jones said.

Ideally, Jones would like business folks to use the PCDC loans in tandem with money from private banks.

The PCDC's clients range from Frankford Avenue staple Krass Brothers to new businesses like Alex's Laundromat, across the street from the design studio.

The Frankford Avenue business corridor also includes companies located on side streets. Officials from Special People In Northeast (SPIN) joined Rivera-Mezalick last week in celebrating another Frankford success story.

SPIN, based in the Far Northeast, bought a vacant property at 1616 Orthodox St. in July 2000 and is in the midst of a $3.4 million renovation.

SPIN, founded in 1971, has always served the Frankford community, but it is building a site in the neighborhood for the first time.

President/CEO/co-founder David Losinno lives in Northwood and is well aware of the contributions made by proactive groups like FGM, Frankford United Neighbors, the Frankford Business Association and the Bridge-Pratt Business and Professional Association.

Losinno is proud to be bringing 75 jobs to the area.

"We have made a commitment to this neighborhood," he said.

Rivera-Mezalick has a slightly smaller staff -- herself. She uses two independent artists, Christine Ruppert and Michiko Tanaka. Her husband, Michael, also does some designing.

As a Frankford resident and businesswoman, Rivera-Mezalick sees prostitutes and drive-by drug sales too often. She's contacted the district attorney's office to address the problem.

At the same time, Rivera-Mezalick sees active community groups fighting for the neighborhood. She sees fellow business people opening along the avenue and side streets. And she sees the PCDC giving a helping hand to those businesses.

That's what gives her high hopes for her business and the future of the neighborhood.

"I think Frankford is up and coming," she said.