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Economy League: Philadelphia can learn from L.A.

October 13, 2016

Kenneth Hilario, Reporter, Philadelphia Business Journal


Philadelphians may want Los Angeles sunny skies, sun-kissed skin and Hollywood starlets’ figures, but local business leaders instead brought home ideas the City of Brotherly Love could learn from La La Land.


The Economy League of Greater Philadelphia recently returned from its 2016 Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange learning visit, where the organization brought over 130 cross-sector leaders to Los Angeles.


The Economy League has done similar trips for the past 10 years, with the goal of taking other cities' ideas back to the Philadelphia region, connecting local leaders together, and getting a new perspective on Philadelphia and how it compares with other areas. Previous visits include trips to Chicago and Boston.


"Each one of [the cities] has challenges and opportunities. You want to say they're all unique, but they're not," said Hank Bullitt, senior vice president at Bank of America, and Economy League vice chair. "Every one of them provides an opportunity for our region to learn from."


"A lot of people say there's no comparison," Bullitt said. "I think there's a lot of comparisons. L.A. doesn't necessarily do things better than the Philadelphia region, but every thing is important for us to observe and learn from."


Among other similarities, both Los Angeles and Philadelphia have undergone, and continue to experience, urban sprawl, as the cities extend beyond the core areas.


"The lessons you can learn from a city that's probably going to look like we will in 25 years in terms of diversity and demographics ... forces a way of thinking that's just different," said Steve Wray, Economy League executive director. "It ties back to coalition building, but it also recognizes that your leadership coalitions have to look like your population and have to feel like your population in a different way."


Bringing lessons learned from Los Angeles can bring value to Philadelphia because it, too, is moving outward as a region.


"We consider Wilmington part of our region, and there's not a lot of difference between Philadelphia and Wilmington and all the parts in between," Bullitt said. "We're starting to learn that, and we can take value back from what we learned in the time we spent in the city of L.A., traveling around."


There were a number of takeaways from the trip, primarily around collaboration, education and innovation (see below), but leaders emphasized that any lessons that could be implemented will be done with Philadelphia in mind.


"We do it from a context of Philadelphia," Wray said. "Taking these ideas and bringing them back into the context of Philadelphia and what would work here and what won't."


"I'm a firm believer in benchmarking and understanding how other have done things so we don't make the same mistakes that they made, and that we can appropriate a good idea that could really work here," Wray added.




Collaboration among organizations stuck out like a sore thumb when Philadelphia leaders went to Los Angeles. The most notable of the collaboration was a philanthropic model called LA n Sync, which brings multiple sectors together to win major federal grants for the Los Angeles area.


"You're talking big money, you're talking very competitive," said Josh Sevin, Economy League managing director of regional engagement.


"Los Angeles, with leadership from their philanthropic community, have pulled together around applying, and their results are amazing," Sevin said. "Our philanthropic leaders, many of which were on the trip, saw that."

The partnership has resulted in 13 grants totaling $156 million and four federal designations results in more than $114 million for the Los Angeles region, according to the Economy League.




One of things that wowed the Philadelphia leaders during the Los Angeles trip was the area's Partnership for L.A. Schools, a so-called "third-way" approach that aims to turn around low-performing schools to find a middle group between the traditional public and charter school systems.


"They have some of the same tensions between strengthening the traditional public school system but also give resources to innovative charter schools that are delivering real results," Sevin said.


The Partnership, which launched in 2008, sets up an independent organization within the school district, but it has some of the "broader latitude" charters may have in terms of their operations.


"They've done two things," Sevin said. "Not only have they had great turnaround and improvements within these schools, but they found a way to actually change district-wide policies," including the issuance of report cards for schools, an online credit recovery policy and more.


Since its launch, graduation rates at the Partnership's schools jumped from 36 percent to 77 percent in 2015, and one high school had a 100 percent graduation rate, according to the Economy League.




Philadelphia and Los Angeles are emerging as technology and innovation hubs in their respective regions, and they're both facing the same issues.


"We are both working very hard to make sure that talent stays in our region, especially in our region" said Erik Evjen, director of research at the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau.


The public and private partnerships in Philadelphia are good, but what Los Angeles has is "impressive," Evjen said, particularly noting the 3.2-acre La Kretz Innovation Campus.


The $46 million, 60,000-square-foot campus offers office space and amenities for 30 so-called cleantech startups, including a collaborative workspace, an Advanced Prototyping Center, a training center, amphitheater and event space.


It's also home to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's customer service and engineering staff; and LACI, a nonprofit that helps cleantech companies deliver market-ready solutions and spur economic development in Los Angeles. (Read more at L.A. Biz.)


"It identifies local talent, nurtures it and gets it to market," Evjen said. "It's more than an accelerator. An incubator holds your hand and gives you input and offers guidance for much longer."


"I think they've already seen a good return in investments from companies that have been able to come out of that, do well and be a factor in their economy," Evjen said.


Philadelphia also has its share of accelerators but they're not as robust as those found in Los Angeles, Evjen said, but Philadelphia is home to some of the biggest players in technology in the world, including Comcast Corp.


Philadelphia is also home to the Microsoft Innovation Center, located on the ground floor of the University Science Center, which earlier this year announced it formed a “digital alliance” with Microsoft Corp.


The University City Science Center also has a new Phase 1 Ventures incubator that recently landed $50,000 as part of a Small Business Administration accelerator competition.


"A lot of people in Philadelphia say, 'When are some of these major tech players going to come our region?,'" said Chad Stender, director of operations at early stage investment group SeventySix Capital. "We're starting to see some of the seeds that have been planted, and it's possible to have some of that action in Philadelphia."

All it takes is one major player to plant the seed, just like what happened in Los Angeles.


"One major tech company decided to plant themselves, and now they have eight to 10 major players in the tech world all in the same space," Stender said of Los Angeles.


What can Philadelphia gain from a more robust model like that of Los Angeles?


"It's keeping the talent local," Evjen said, "and getting more headquarters and startups to come to Philadelphia and stay in Philadelphia. It ties back to jobs, and they can bring new companies here that wouldn't necessarily think of us."


It would also lend itself to the PHLCVB's sales efforts when it comes to attracting tech-related meetings and conventions.


What others can learn from Philadelphia


Philadelphia's strengths as a region were amplified during the trip, giving leaders a deeper appreciation of its assets.


"We should have great pride in the infrastructure in Philadelphia," said James P. Markham, associate vice president of engineering firm Pennoni. "To build it now would be hundreds of billions [of dollars.] L.A. has decided to tax themselves to start building it to the tune of $40 billion."


Los Angeles voters in 2008 approved a half-cent sales increase to fund $40 billion in regional transportational infrastructure investments.


"Can we do better? Yes," Markham said. "Is there something we as a region can do better? Yes. Outside of just depending on Harrisburg and the feds? I think there is, and that's an important lesson to take away from L.A. because they're doing it."


They've learned how to leverage their federal money by investing on a local level as well, Wray said, which Pennsylvania does, too. But can Philadelphia as a region do it?


The answer lies in being able to come together to have that support to continue to grow and build. More than 67 percent of L.A. voters backed the half-cent tax at the polls.


PHLCVB's Evjen commented on Philadelphia supporting green initiatives, including putting more parks in the area.


"The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society keeps the city green and clean," Evjen said. "That's something we sometimes take for granted."


Philadelphia's walkability — which has been noted nationwide — is also a benefit of the city, as opposed to Los Angeles.


"It is really important, having everything so close by, whether it's restaurants, culture, the Convention Center, sports arenas or whatever it might be," Evjen said.


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