The NBA All-Star weekend wraps up tonight, with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons representing the City of Brotherly Love in what will be Simmons’ first All-Star Game appearance. This morning we also chat with reporter Erin McCarthy about another kind of contest: one between Delaware County residents and the church that wants to buy a beloved town bar. She tells us all about how debate over the potential sale is playing out on social media.
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Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with reporter Erin McCarthy, who came across a Delaware County town infuriated by a potential deal that would close their beloved pub and turn the property into a church. For some residents in the town, saving this pub is a matter of money and local pride.
How did you hear about this conflict with the church’s proposed purchase of Barnaby’s?
Since I cover a fairly wide area in the Pennsylvania suburbs, I try to tap into the pulse of the communities by monitoring their town Facebook groups. Not all towns have particularly active ones, but Ridley residents get pretty into theirs, sharing news and rumors and really anything else that’s on their mind. Posts regarding the possible sale of Barnaby’s to a church were getting so many responses, even sparking other posts with new information or town gossip.
Folks were commenting more rapidly than I’d ever seen before on a post in the group. They were starting side debates with one another over their opinions of the bar and the church and the sale, and even seemingly unrelated topics. It was clearly striking a chord.
You mentioned that many rumors were shared on local Facebook groups. Can you walk us through how you verify and fact check claims that people make?
Fact-checking the rumors was fairly easy. I called up the township manager and he told me which were based in fact, which were partly true, and which were totally fabricated. And once the rumor mill got ratcheted up, the township commissioners started posting updates about the sale agreement, including when it was in process and when it was denied.
If there’s an appeal to the zoning officer’s decision, what happens next?
My understanding is that if New Destiny church and Barnaby’s appeal the zoning officer’s initial denial, there would be a hearing in front of the township zoning board some time in March or April. Those who live in the immediate area of Barnaby’s would be notified of the hearing date and time. Knowing how passionate residents are on both sides of the issue, I’m sure many residents in the area would show up for such a hearing. After that, the change of occupancy request could be approved, though the church would have to find some way to accommodate more parking as required by the township code, or it could be denied again. Barnaby’s and the church could then appeal to the county level, according to the township manager.
How did social media play a role in helping you understand the community’s division on this issue? What platforms provided the most useful information?
Social media played a huge role in the development of this story. In fact, I may have never known about the issue had it not been for all those posts on the Ridley Facebook group. We don’t always cover the sale or possible sale of businesses, but the divisiveness of the conversations on social media made it clear right away that this story was unique. Facebook was by far the most useful platform. I’ve found in many communities it’s still the place where residents of all ages engage in the most dialogue about issues affecting them.
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