Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Philadelphia's open for business but only under lots of conditions

Three organizations that have wanted to expand in the city have been prevented from doing so by a variety of opponents. Sure, two are casinos, but one's a hospital.

Philadelphia's open for business but only under lots of conditions

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Hope is a good thing to have at the start of a new year.

At this time last year, the city was positively giddy about the transition to the Nutter administration. This year, that feeling is shared by much of the nation about the pending Obama presidency.

Both ascended to power following leaders who earned their low approval ratings. The difference is that Mayor Nutter took office at a time many were hoping a recession could be averted, while Barack Obama has no such luck.

Still it’s better to approach what is likely to be a difficult year for many Americans as a new opportunity, rather than another misfortune. Businesses, nonprofit organizations, governmental entities, families can still make good things happen even during a bad recession.

The downer for me is that some organizations that have been trying to make things happen in a job-starved city have been blocked from doing so for a few years. They would be the two casinos planned for the Philadelphia waterfront, and the expansion of Fox Chase Cancer Center.

What these three projects have in common is that all of them looked at Philadelphia as a place that they wanted to do business, picked locations where they wanted to build, and then were told by some local authority, “We don’t want you to do that there.”

Opposition to the SugarHouse Casino has been so successful over the last two years that last week several local legislators actually asked the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to revoke its gambling license. They said the developers had failed to build the casino within one year of getting the license, as the law requires.

Talk about enforcing the letter rather than the spirit of the law. It’s not for lack of commitment or ability by the SugarHouse team that it has been unable to move forward.

As for Foxwoods, the mayor has supported a shift from its planned waterfront site to the Gallery at Market East, but it’s an open question whether state regulators will allow that move.

At this point in the business cycle, I’m beginning to wonder if there will be any lender left to finance construction of either SugarHouse or Foxwoods, much less disposable income to waste in their slot machines.

As for Fox Chase, the hospital said in 2004 it wanted to spend $800 million on an expansion over two decades. Many in the neighborhood where it’s been for years have fought it. At issue is the hospital’s desire to use some parkland for the expansion.

Having seen a suburban court break a will to enable backers of the Barnes Foundation to move the famous art collection into the city, I was floored when a city court in December refused to break a will covering the Burholme Park that could lead to Fox Chase moving to the suburbs.

Parkland is a precious resource, but in this case it may cost the city not only 2,400 jobs at Fox Chase but the 4,300 it promised to create. Many of those jobs are held by highly skilled workers, some of whom attract millions of dollars in research grants.

Over the years, we’ve transformed “not in my backyard” into “not in the city limits.” The taxes and bureaucracy too often stifle rather than encourage business growth.

Now the nation is in a recession and the city’s finances have deteriorated very quickly. Had construction started on either of the casinos or the Fox Chase expansion last year, at the very least we’d have the promise of new tax revenue in the near future.

Everytime we have a recession jobs bleed out of Philadelphia. We’re in one now, folks, and we continue to turn up our noses to some of the few employers who actually consider the city a desirable place to do business.

Nutter has promised to change the interaction between business and government. I hope he can, but I worry nothing will change.

Inquirer Columnist
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Mike Armstrong Inquirer Columnist
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