How Do We Improve The Product Called “Philadelphia”


David Thornburgh

As a veteran of more than 20 years of civic leadership in the Philadelphia region, I long ago came to this basic conclusion: that to compete for the future, we had to view our region as a product, and that our job is to improve the product, market the product, and sell the product.

For whom are we improving the product, and to whom are we selling?  Investors in search of deals. College students in search of opportunity. Immigrants in search of opportunity, education, and community. Companies in search of headquarters. Companies in search of talent.

Of course, the mega-splash about Amazon’s search for H2, its second headquarters, brings this imperative front and center, although in the short term response to Amazon’s invitation, all we can do is sell the product we have.

So, if you buy the basic framework of the region as product, how does the Philadelphia region stack up? And where can we improve it?

Start with our product’s basic attributes. This is a big, diverse US region, with a relatively stable, relatively well-educated population. The region’s been growing slowly, spurred only by basic demographics and international immigration. It’s a pretty easy region to get in and out of, whether by plane, train, or automobile. (And aren’t we half way between NY and Washington??  Huh. Who knew?)

We love our quality of life, and with good reason. Stable, affordable housing prices, expanding city neighborhoods, a Center City that sparkles with great food, nightlife, and fun activities, cultural attributes without peer, small suburban towns oozing charm and community, and outdoor recreational opportunities near at hand that most regions only dream about.

When it comes to education, both K-12 and higher ed, the region shines, with some of the nation’s best public and private schools, stellar small colleges and universities, and some of the world’s most recognized and respected research universities. Even Philadelphia public schools have shown progress in recent years, spurred by their embrace of a “mix of fixes” approach and steady leadership at the top. What about costs of doing business?  Well, it depends on who you are and where you live. The City remains burdened by high wage and business taxes, but a business can also find many low-cost options in the suburbs.

OK, so how well are we equipped to market and sell the region? I’d argue that our team stacks up extremely well with any region in the country. Between Visit Philly and our Convention and Visitors Bureaus, we have built top-flight creative approaches to encouraging tourists and conventions to visit and return, and spend money while they’re here. Our business marketing arm, Select Greater Philadelphia, has a solid track record of accomplishment and regional cooperation. In “niche areas,” Campus Philly lays out the nation’s best welcome mat for college students, and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians shines, working with immigrants newly arrived in search of educational and economic opportunity.

How about our public governance and leadership quality (a core question for the group I lead, the Committee of Seventy, founded by private sector leaders insisting on good governance for the city and region)?

Any CEO knows the most important board committee is the nominating and governance committee—the one identifying the organization’s next generation of leadership, and deciding important questions of organizational direction, strategy and focus. So too with a region like ours.

Here there’s good news and less good news. On the one hand, we have a tradition of strong civic institutions (perhaps inspired by Ben Franklin’s legendary career as a civic innovator and organizer).

Center City isn’t Center City without the Center City District, or University City without the University City District or the University City Science Center. Groups like the Reinvestment Fund, the Urban Affairs Coalition, the Public Interest Law Center, Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, the Urban League and, yes, the Committee of Seventy all play significant leadership roles in striving to help citizens of the region attain Dr. Franklin’s ideals of being healthy, wealthy, and wise.

How about our formal institutions of governance?  Less good news. Some 400 local governments make regional cooperation in pursuit of regional aspirations complex, unwieldy, and time-consuming. It’s telling that within the Philadelphia region there are competing plans and sites being proposed to Amazon, despite explicit guidance from Bezos’ crew limiting the process to one bid per customer.

And then there’s the City of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Too often, despite valiant attempts to stem the tide—like campaign contributions limits, ending pay to play, and a tough board of ethics enacted in Philadelphia—the corrosive influence of hyper-partisan, self-dealing politics infects our political culture.

View the recent rogue’s gallery of convictions and guilty pleas: PA Attorney General Kathleen Kane. State Treasurer Rob McCord. Congressman Chaka Fattah. District Attorney Seth Williams. A well-paid City Commissioner, Anthony Clark, who doesn’t show up to work. Single digit turnover among state legislators and local elected officials. One party rule in Philadelphia, and partisan primaries across Pennsylvania that shut out the fastest-growing segment of voters from meaningful participation in the process. Pennsylvania as poster child for partisan gerrymandering. And despite some promising new additions to our legislative lineup, a diminished regional voice in the Harrisburg sausage-making factory.

Given all that, it probably won’t come as a shock that governance reform—opening up the process, bringing transparency and light to dark corners of decision-making, restoring voters’ trust and confidence that government is working for them—tops my to-do list for regional product improvement. It’s the toughest to change, because you’re asking the folks who make and benefit from the rules as they are to change them to what they should be.

But if we can scale that peak—one we’ve scaled before in the past, I might add—this region can stand toe to toe (Rocky-style!) with any region in the world.

David Thornburgh is the President and CEO of the Committee of Seventy.