Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on March 7, 2016
How does a city rise in stature and preeminence as a place where people want to visit, live, work and establish businesses? It takes bold visionary leadership that can rally the diverse constituencies with a stake in that vision toward a common goal, as well as leveraging the city’s location, transportation and legacy assets, and its intellectual, cultural, natural and “livability” assets. This is what is happening in Philadelphia today.
The latest initiative on Philadelphia’s journey toward preeminence occurred on March 2, when John A. Fry, president of Drexel University, announced the University has selected Brandywine Realty Trust, led by CEO Jerry Sweeney as the University’s partner to develop “Schuylkill Yards.” This is an eight million square foot mixed-use real estate development project at the eastern end of Drexel’s campus adjacent to Amtrak’s 30th Street rail station. This station is the third most heavily used rail station in the country, sitting on the 50-yard line of the northeast megalopolis between Washington D.C. and New York City.
Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, within a 76-minute Amtrak Acela train ride to New York and a 100-minute Acela ride to Washington D.C., is a very significant location and transportation asset. It is a major stop on SEPTA’s regional commuter rail system within the Philadelphia region, serving many thousands of rail commuters each day. Schuylkill Yards, which will create the market momentum for the mixed-use real estate development of the air rights above the Amtrak and SEPTA rail approaches to 30th Street Station, will take advantage of this asset.
The plans for Schuylkill Yards are further enhanced by the location of the intellectual assets of University City, home of numerous technology-oriented companies, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania, University City Science Center, The Wister Institute, University of the Sciences and Drexel University.
University City Science Center, a hub for innovation and technology development, is in the process of a decade long major expansion of its University City facilities to accommodate additional technology-based firms. Headquartered at the Navy Yard and with offices within University City, Ben Franklin Technology Partners also plays an important role in the Philadelphia region’s technology-oriented business development eco-system as does Comcast, which is building a second office skyscraper in Center City to house its Innovation and Technology Center.
A few years ago, visionary Phil Rinaldi saw something that others did not see in the two oil refineries in South Philadelphia – irreplaceable legacy oil refining assets, that could be revitalized and serve as an economic engine for the region. Now called Philadelphia Energy Solutions, these refineries provide high-paying jobs to over 1,000 employees. These refineries will play an important role in establishing Philadelphia as an east coast energy hub, based on another of the city’s natural assets – its adjacency to the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, proximity to Marcellus Shale natural gas and a rail network that rivals most cities.
Another initiative to increase the preeminence and attractiveness of Philadelphia includes the one I wrote about recently. On Feb. 26, Mayor Jim Kenney announced his support of the unprecedented broad coalition of bi-partisan political leaders as well as business, labor and civic leaders to move forward with a comprehensive tax restructuring initiative. This initiative, spearheaded by the leadership of Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, and Brandywine Trust’s CEO Jerry Sweeney involves raising the city’s relatively low commercial real estate property tax rate to pay for reductions in the city wage tax rate as well as the business income and receipts tax rates. The initiative will increase employment and business growth in Philadelphia, an area that has underperformed compared with the municipalities in the region and the nation.
Center City has undergone a renaissance, and continues to do so. Today, the residential community within Center City is thriving. Residents and visitors enjoy the performing arts, museums and Philadelphia’s numerous restaurants and other assets. Philadelphia is a very livable and walkable city with many cultural and life-style assets.
The New York Times published an article last year headlined, “52 places to go in 2015,” Philadelphia was listed as third in a list of prestigious world destinations. The article mentioned the recent opening of Dilworth Park with its cafe and winter ice skating rink in Center City, the new boardwalk over the Schuylkill River – an instant favorite of runners and cyclists, and Philly’s bike share program. These are the kinds of quality of life amenities that have reversed the trend of millennials leaving Philadelphia after graduation. A majority are now staying to live and work.
The one major area that has not yet been successfully addressed in Philadelphia’s journey toward preeminence is the state of public education in Philadelphia. The school system is chronically short of funds, and has been eliminating sports, arts and support services, which are taken for granted by schools that are in a much better financial situation. Classes are over-crowded and it is hard to attract teachers to work in the school system. The children within the public school system are being short-changed.
Let’s hope that Philadelphia School District superintendent William Hite, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan and the city’s political leadership can find creative solutions to the problems of public education, with the same type of focus as leaders across the spectrum have in improving so many other aspects of our city.
The residents of Philadelphia have every reason to brag about our city! Philadelphia is fortunate to have business, labor civic and government leaders wanting to make a difference, and to leave their legacy. Our city has a bright future.
Stanley W. Silverman is the founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a writer and speaker, advising C-suite executives about issues and on cultivating a leadership culture within their organizations. Stan is Vice Chairman of the Board of Drexel University and a director of Friends Select School and Faith in the Future. He is the former President and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com. Website: www.SilvermanLeadership.com