On this episode of Grapple, we head to a tiny inner-ring suburb outside of Philadelphia called Millbourne. It’s home to around 1,200 people. You’ll hear about how the closure of a Sears store in 1988 rocked this borough. Today, nearly three decades later, officials are grappling with what to do about the old Sears lot that’s still vacant. At the same time, immigrants primarily from Southeast Asia have increasingly moved into Millbourne over the years because of its affordable housing and convenient public transportation.
The former Sears lot in Millbourne has been vacant for more than 25 years. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
If you’re old enough, you might remember the “There’s more for your life at Sears” slogan. And you might have even gone to Sears with your family to buy a TV, refrigerator or winter coat. Just the way stores like Walmart are popular today, Sears used to be a major household name across America.
In the 1920s, when Sears started opening retail stores, one of the places the company set up shop was Millbourne. It’s a tiny inner-ring suburb, just west of Philadelphia, and next to a township called Upper Darby. It’s only one-tenth of a square mile in size and home to around 1200 people.
Sears built its Millbourne store on a large parcel of land where there had been a flour mill. It was well located near a busy intersection —where commuters still pass by today in their cars, in buses, by foot or on the elevated subway train.
For 60 years, the Sears store brought lots of people into Millbourne; and naturally a steady stream of tax revenue.
And then it all ended in 1988.
“Sears was kind of known for good household supplies and reasonable prices.”
Linda Reilly, a local journalist and longtime reporter for The Delaware County Daily Times, shopped regularly at the Sears store in Millbourne. She grew up and lived in Upper Darby, the township next door.
“You’d come here and get everything you needed. They had clothing. But they also had a great appliance department…They had a great children’s department. It was a regular department store.”
Over the years, Reilly has covered Millbourne as a reporter. She recalls how Willner Realty & Development Company got the department store to move out of the borough, and relocate about a mile away to another site it was redeveloping at the rundown 69th Street shopping district in Upper Darby.
“The Sears building was here. It was the mainstay of the borough as far as taxes were concerned. It was thriving. It was a business that people would go to. Malls were just starting … And then Willner bought 69th Street from the McClatchy Family. I don’t know what he was thinking. But he decided to relocate Sears from here to where all of his other stores were. Cause that was going to be the draw for other businesses to come to 69th Street and rent from him.”
So Willner getting Sears to move was a big win to help revitalize Upper Darby. But for tiny Millbourne, a big loss. The borough had counted on Sears tax revenue for nearly a fifth of its budget.
Without Sears, Millbourne had major budget problems. Revenues dipped and officials worried the borough would go bankrupt.
Millbourne’s current Mayor Tom Kramer moved to the borough in 1989, a year after Sears closed.
“When I moved here, it was rumored that the books were actually kept in shoeboxes in the council president’s closet.”
By 1993, Millbourne had become officially distressed. Pennsylvania state officials intervened and began to oversee the borough’s finances.
Kramer says property taxes went up to help cover the loss.
“I was going back through some property tax records of my own … I noticed there had been — just from the records I had — from 1996 - 2005, a 122 percent increase in the taxes.”
Kramer got involved in local politics in 2003, first serving on the borough council and then later serving as mayor.
“There was a vacancy on council. And some neighbors asked if I’d be willing to participate. And I said sure. I was registered Independent at the time. They said if I wanted to serve on council, I would have to register as a Republican. I was kind of curious about that, and they said that’s the only way the borough would receive funds from the county, which was Republican-controlled at the time. So I didn’t really have any problem with that because I was just looking out for the benefit of the borough.”
During Kramer’s tenure, the borough council switched to being run by Democrats, and Kramer ran for his second mayoral term as a Democrat.
“I never really had any ambition to become involved in politics. I still don’t frankly. I think one of the things that people find in a small municipality like this is that people are generally busy with their jobs, struggling to survive and so on. And so there’s not a lot of time for people to step forward and get involved with things. There’s not much in the way of financial compensation, obviously. It’s really a labor of love, I guess. I look forward to passing the scepter to the next generation.”
Under Kramer, the borough finally got rid of its financially distressed status in 2014 and has cut spending by bidding out insurance, installing LED street lighting, setting up a reserve fund, and creating a land-value tax that’s helped reduce property taxes.
“We’ve definitely got our books in order in comparison to when I moved here,” said Kramer. “We’ve made an awful lot of progress in that regard.”
But Kramer says things are still tenuous for the borough since it doesn’t have the tax base that it once had.
The big issue is that the old Sears property, which takes up almost a third of Millbourne’s land, has never been redeveloped.
The elevated train stop in Millbourne. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
All day long, elevated subway trains pass through Millbourne. And from the train, you can see a colorful mural with the slogan, “Millbourne Says Hello,” with images from the borough including a fire truck and a bowling alley. But if you look the other direction, you see a vast empty space overgrown with weeds, and trash here and there. That’s where Sears used to be.
At the Millbourne station, which was renovated a few years ago, commuters come and go. On the side where riders get off the train from the direction of Philadelphia, Kramer points to a staircase leading down to that Sears lot where no one goes.
“So this is the entrance to nowhere at this point. Where it’s just like this vacant third of Millbourne, which is stretching into the distance. The wasteland.”
Kramer and Justin Skariah — who’s in his late 20s, grew up in the borough and is one of Millbourne’s youngest council presidents ever —look down at the empty lot from the subway platform and talk about options for the site.
“In Japan, in Tokyo, they have all the stores right along the train, says Skariah. “So something similar maybe. I don’t know if we could implement that here. You could even do it right on the platform. Some people’s apartments are right along it as well. So that’d be an interesting concept. But I don’t know if we would implement it here.”
Skariah believes that Millbourne, which is only a 15-minute subway ride from Center City Philadelphia, has the potential to become a transit-oriented development that anchors housing and retail around the borough’s public transportation.
“It’s planned out for mixed-used. There is going to be retail…potentially a school or new borough hall. Also residential, maybe with townhouses as well…the plans were done several years ago, maybe 2012. But as Millbourne, we certainly can’t afford to do everything on our own. So we need other sources of funding.”
The borough is trying to get public funds to invest in developing the site. But at the end of the day, the borough doesn’t even own the property.
The Willner Realty & Development Company does.
This is the same company that relocated Sears from Millbourne in 1988 for its building in Upper Darby. After Sears announced it was leaving Millbourne, Willner’s founder — Morris Willner — told a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter he might purchase the site. And that’s exactly what he did several years later.
“The council was banking on him renting to somebody else to build. At one time it was going to be Home Depot, Lowe’s … a banquet center … He had all of these people coming in expressing interest to rent the property. But for some reason, they fell through — still leaving Millbourne with no money coming in,” said reporter Linda Reilly. “They were trying. And they don’t have a big budget as it is. But they were relying on this. And now you’re talking about the revenue from parking meters and parking tickets stuff like that and the taxes that residents are paying. It’s a blue collar community.”
We called and emailed Willner company to talk about the site. We wanted to find out why the site has been undeveloped for so long, and what the company intends to do with it. But no one returned our requests for comment.
On Willner’s website, the lot is being marketed as a mixed-use development that it calls “a collaborative effort” with Millbourne. It talks about revitalizing the former site and how the redevelopment could “provide surrounding under-served neighborhoods with a variety of fresh food choices, business options and housing built around the Millbourne Train Station located on the site.”
But questions remain. Is Willner waiting for Millbourne to secure public funds to help make the site more valuable? And if so, will Willner turn around and sell the site?
Seema Chauhan (left) and Pushpa Kumari (right) wax a customer at Sonia’s Beauty Palace and Boutique in Millbourne, Pa. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)
While it’s unclear whether the old Sears property will ever be redeveloped, Millbourne does have some businesses bringing in revenue.
Including a brand new urgent care center, a grocery store, gas station, furniture store, bowling alley, and an auto parts and accessory store.
There are also a handful of beauty salons. Like the Mark Anthony’s Revealations owned by Jacquelyn Jackson-Douglas. She grew up nearby in Philadelphia and has been doing business in Millbourne for the last 15 years.
“I wanted to purchase a building I can stay in. I like the area. I’ve always been in this area doing hair, so I wanted to stay here. It was a prime location for me,” says Jackson-Douglas.
“It’s kind of become an area for small businesses. Before when I got here, [there were] not too many businesses. But it’s growing. We got the two smoke shops. Philadelphia taxed their cigarettes. So they come here. And by us being right next to Philadelphia, we get swarms of people. That’s how a lot of people notice my place. Because they’re coming to get cigarettes. So that helps.”
There are several smoke shops in Millbourne. And most of their customers come from Philadelphia where cigarettes are more expensive.
At the HSP 2 Smoke Shop, which is Millbourne’s closest cigarette shop to Philadelphia, customers like Rosalind Oliver either walk or drive over.
“When the price went up in Philadelphia, of course people traveled away to [buy] something more inexpensive. Over the couple years, I’ve tried different places. I wait to come here. Their customer service is impeccable.”
John Kim is the manager and he says with cigarette taxes increasing in Philadelphia, business has been steady.
“A lot of foot traffic as you guys can see,” said Kim. “Cigarettes are the same regardless of where you buy it. There’s not that much of difference in terms of the product. But we focus mainly on the customer service.”
While cheaper smokes could be good for business overall in Millbourne, other growth in the borough has revolved around recent immigrants.
Over the last 25 years, the borough has attracted immigrants primarily from Southeast Asia, drawn to the affordable housing and accessible public transportation. And according to the 2010 Census, 56 percent of the residents in Millbourne were Asian.
Mohammad J. Alam owns the J&J Grocery store that carries mainly Indian food.
Alam is from Bangladesh and he’s part of the borough’s growing Bangladeshi community, which is estimated to include anywhere from 50 to 70 families. He’s one of two Bangladeshis currently on the borough’s council.
“When I move here, I didn’t have a car. When I take a house, I have to look for transportation. Convenience. Bus transportation very good. Millbourne transit station very good and this place is very secure.”
Alam came to the United States in the late 1990s and moved to Millbourne after September 11. He drove a cab in Philadelphia for many years and recently bought the grocery store.
Next door to Alam’s grocery store is Sonia’s Beauty Place, which is owned by another immigrant.
Sonia Singh, who’s originally from India, opened the shop 10 years ago and recently a second salon across the street in Upper Darby. Before getting into the beauty salon business, she worked as a line supervisor for a local clothing company. When she got laid off, she didn’t know what to do until a friend called her.
“One friend she called me and said Sonia, I’m selling my store. If you’re interested, you buy,” said Singh. “I start my business in very small room and then I find this place … This is not just store, this is my gym, my party. Every day we have music. We’re dancing and young girls come. I give them food. Like I’m taking care like my kids. Sometimes I make very good money. And sometimes very low. But I’m happy.”
As Millbourne continues to attract immigrants, there are many communities across the U.S. going through the same thing. And in some communities there’s a growing tension between the longtime residents and the newcomers.
On our next show, we’re going to talk about our country’s changing demographics and how immigration has become central to American politics. We’ll talk with longtime public radio journalist Maria Hinojosa and political scientist Dan Hopkins from the University of Pennsylvania.
Music: Tony Trov and Mike Vivas
Audio Engineers: John Knapp and Charlie Kaier
Reporters: Lindsay Lazarski, Marielle Segarra, and Jessica Kourkounis
Executive Producer: Stephanie Marudas
Host, Editor: Naomi Starobin