State of the City discussed by its political, cultural and economic leaders
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State of the City discussed by its political, cultural and economic leaders

May 7, 2008

Nicole Contosta, Weekly Press


Civic engagement and fiscal responsibility were key words at the Center City Proprietors Association’s (CCPA) 6th Annual State of the City Panel discussion last Wednesday, April 30th.

With a panel discussion that included Andrew Altman, Commerce Director, City of Philadelphia, Peggy Amsterdam, President of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Camille Cates Barnett, Ph.D., Managing Director, City of Philadelphia, Tom Muldoon, President, Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Steven Wray, Executive Director, Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, those in attendance received a well-rounded overview of the state of Philadelphia from political, cultural, business as well as economic perspectives.

Moderated by Mike Dunn, the City Hall Bureau Chief for KYW, Dunn, a former UN correspondent from 1985-1990, set the discussion’s tone for how much the city’s political environment was in need of renovation when he joked, "covering the UN was a piece of cake compared to covering city council."

Dunn’s comment encapsulated the intense debates he witnessed between former Mayor John Street and city council regarding the conflict over how to improve city services while also cutting taxes. "Rendell’s administration began the wage-tax reduction process," explained Dunn. And although the Street Administration continued this process, Street, said Dunn, argued that the city couldn’t both improve its services while also reducing taxes simultaneously.

Continued, Dunn, when city services were cut, such as the laying-off of librarians and the closing of community pools in the summer, there was no one more vehemently opposed to those cuts than the then 4th District City Councilman Michael Nutter.

"When I would ask Nutter how should the mayor restore this funding while also reducing taxes," said Dunn, "Nutter would respond, ‘That’s the mayor’s job.’"

Now that Nutter has assumed that job and in "the face of a growing national recession, the task for the new mayor will prove even more challenging," added Dunn.

When addressing how the new mayor will improve the state of the city from a political point of view, Altman and Barnett, both recent appointees to the Nutter Administration, seemed optimistic.

Altman, the city’s Commerce Director and a Philadelphia native, who ran the waterfront development project in DC said that he had had no plans to return to the public sector or Philadelphia for that matter until he heard Mayor Nutter’s speech at the Great Expectation’s forum the previous November. "With Nutter as Mayor," said Altman, "Philadelphia is at a place in the city’s history that could lead to great reform."

According to Altman, "there are many parallels between D.C. and Philadelphia." In previous years, D.C. was cursed with a high crime rate and other political setbacks, but since then, the city has had a "renaissance."

Philadelphia, said Altman could experience a similar renaissance. Nutter, said Altman, is already on the right path towards achieving this by implementing six deputy mayors as well as "fixing some of the city’s basic operations that are in desperate need of repair: how you get a permit, the length of time it takes, the role of zoning, and historic preservation."

In terms of the city’s economic development, Altman explained that he "applauds the wave of economic development that has been occurring with the expansion, of the Art Museum, the expansion of the Convention Center, the Barnes, the Avenue of the Arts and the Jewish History Museum, there has been a wave of cultural development."

Barnett, the city’s Managing Director, addressed the goal of improving Philadelphia’s services while also reducing taxes by calling it a "Paradox," that could nonetheless be accomplished. "The private sector," said Barnett for example "has for the past 20 years learned how to be competitive in the global economy by lowering costs while also not reducing the quality of its products."

Besides lacking financial resources, the city has failed, in part to improve some of its services, said Barnett due to disorganization. According to Barnett, the city needs to "use its data to map out where these problems are." Often, said Barnett, neighborhoods with high incidents of trash dumping, housing deterioration and health problems are "overlapping."

City services, added Barnett would also improve dramatically with the implementation of 311, the emergency system that would operate like 911 except it would be for reporting potholes and trash dumping instead of life threatening issues.

Concerning her role as the Managing Director, Barnett explained that Nutter wants this position to be more of a leadership role when it comes to augmenting communications between the city’s executive (Mayor) and legislative (City Council) branches. In the past, said Barnett, the city’s agencies were "working as separate kingdoms unto themselves and that the idea that city departments were working together were mere platitudes."

As the Managing Director, Barnett said that she expected to be held accountable for improving the city’s "public safety, education, jobs, health, ethics and customer service."

When addressing the state of the city from a cultural perspective, Peggy Amsterdam, President of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance said that she was encouraged by Altman’s remarks on the city’s wave of cultural development. "Any great Commerce Director would have to know the importance of arts & culture," said Amsterdam going on to add that’s she also pleased that Nutter has placed greater emphasis on funding this city department than previous administrations.

With regard to the state of the city from a business perspective, Muldoon, President of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau and Steven Wray, Executive Director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, also seemed confident about the city’s future.

"The convention center’s expansion," explained Muldoon, "will lead to a minimum of 2,500 more rooms with the creation of 750 more jobs." According to Muldoon, the Convention Center is in part responsible for the resurgence of Philadelphia’s development as a first-class city. "Before the Convention Center’s construction in 1994, there were 4,400 hotel rooms in Philadelphia," said Muldoon. "Today there are 10,000."

In terms of the city’s economic future, Muldoon, who explained that because "40% of all conventions in the city are healthcare related, the future of high paying jobs in the city falls into the life sciences."

For Wray, who cited the Apartments.Com and Careerbuilder’’s findings that Philadelphia was named the most "affordable city in the US for young college grads," he focused more on how to get more people to live and visit the city during his presentation.

"We need a staying commitment with Amtrak," suggested Wray, referring to how because Philadelphia’s a significantly more affordable city than either NYC or D.C. "People who work there could live here and commute on Amtrak."