Philadelphia's Story Offers Lessons
Philadelphia is a city of firsts. A first-hand examination of what animates Philly and its metro area, hosted by our metropolitan chamber, found that leaders there continue to be driven by that ethic.
The “study mission” program, now in its 15th year, recruited 77 local leaders from business, government, education and nonprofits to spend four days in September in the heart of an economic revival that is downtown Philly today.
It wasn’t always this way. The year 1990 marked the depth of decline in downtown: rampant murders and property crime, half-used high-rises, boarded-up businesses, and the city finances in state receivership. Leaders and their institutions looked inward and worked in their self-interest. The decline seemed unstoppable.
A few feisty business leaders came forward. They created a business improvement district that focused ruthlessly on actions to make their streets and alleys “clean and safe.” A dynamic mayor was elected by a 2-1 margin with a change agenda: Ed Rendell.
Faced with massive financial problems, Rendell engineered an overhaul, cutting a $250 million deficit, reducing business taxes and improving services. New business leaders emerged, and others came for the opportunities. And a whole new entrepreneurial class sprouted.
Today, the nation’s fifth largest metro area is vibrating with energy. It boasts $320 billion in personal income. Total retail sales reached $97 billion in 2012. It has been highly ranked in recent years by Travel + Leisure Magazine for its culture, including historic sites, restaurants, theaters and museums. Reversing a multi-decade decline, the city has gained more than 60,000 new residents. It’s a story of both growth and opportunity.
Like all metros, Philadelphia is a mix of success and challenges. While more than 100 colleges and universities and a hot young-professional scene animate the downtown, K-12 schools are hamstrung by massive debt and subpar student achievement, threatening the renaissance. There’s a palpable sense that the success is isolated — an island not accessible to all. But unlike previous eras, today’s leaders, driven by a new collaboration ethic and cheered by recent success, know what to do next. To reach out, engage others, jointly strategize, and act as one. To be world-class, and act like it.
Philadelphia’s story caught many of us completely off guard. We weren’t expecting the business community’s strong backing of the arts, not just as passionate patrons, but as hard-nosed business people who recognized that art-inspired civic amenities can be an engine for job creation, business attraction and revitalization.
We were dazzled by the University City Science Center, the first and largest urban research park in the U.S., which gathers scientists, entrepreneurs, investors and service providers to help commercialize life-enhancing breakthroughs, worthy of emulation here. And we were struck by the massive scale of land re-use projects such as the Navy Yards, a converted military base on the waterfront that became the world headquarters to Urban Outfitters and a thriving smart-energy campus.
And who wouldn’t be energized by the small, gritty co-working spaces like Indy Hall on North 3rd Street that have become fertile ground for so many new business startups, just like our very own Hacker Lab, Urban Hive, Capsity and the Thinkhouse in midtown Sacramento.
But in the end, it was this realization that resonated strongest: world-class isn’t about size, it’s about attitude.
“None of us want to be Silicon Valley; we want to be the best version of Philly that we can be,” said Bob Moul, the founder and CEO of Philly Start Up Leaders. And Alex Hillman, founder of Indy Hall, one of the world’s most respected co-working communities, noted that as a result of the Great Recession, “the people who were going to take care of us aren’t able to do that, so we have to take care of each other.”
It’s inspiring, and time that we put these lessons to great effect here for a renaissance of our own.
Authors of this essay are Bill Mueller, CEO and managing partner of Valley Vision; Gary Davis, mayor of the city of Elk Grove; and Steve Hansen, Sacramento City Council member for District 4. Davis and Hansen served as honorary co-chairs of the 2013 Study Mission to Philadelphia.