Sunday, December 28, 2014

Can Democratic Philly and Republican Pa. get along?

Sen. Mike Brubaker raps "antiquated" fear of the city

Can Democratic Philly and Republican Pa. get along?

State Sen. Mike Brubaker, R-Lancaster, hit town today, talking cooperation between the Republican-run state and the Democratic-led city.

"I'm extremely excited to be here," said Brubaker, who heads the key Senate Finance Committee and co-chairs the International Commerce Caucus. He was headed to the first in a string of City Council hearings "on the Competitiveness of Philadelphia," at which bankers and factory and warehouse owners, finance professors and city, state and federal officials and the city's ubiquitous nonprofit and promotional groups were to testify about how to lure employers back to town.

The senator said he came because he's "interested in trade and investments for both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania companies." Farms and firms in his district ship to foreign markets through the Port of Philadelphia and serve Philadelphia customers. "We're here to make sure there are city, state and (national) policies that facilitate that global expansion," he said.

Don't Brubaker's constituents see Philadelphia as a decadent, dangerous place? "It's still an issue in some people's minds. But the more time I spend in Philadelphia, the more I realize it's an antiquated perspective," Brubaker told me. "When I visit Reading Terminal Market, many people know me," and not just the straw-hatted-and-bonneted owners of the bakery and produce stands. "It's incredible, the connectedness between the city of Philadelphia and Lancaster County."

Of course, Philadelphia officials have a long history of seeing the state as a bank that can be convinced to fund public projects -- an act that became harder to pull off as the city's population shrank in the late 1900s, and especially since ex-Mayor Rendell left the governor's mansion. But "as far as I'm concerned, everything's on the table," Brubaker said. Depending on how the hearings go, he'll "make a list" of potential projects and reforms that could benefit business and boost hiring in and beyond the city.

Brubaker visited his host, freshman City Councilman David Oh (R-At Large), before the afternoon's testimony. The two met at a Drexel event promoting trade with Africa. Brubaker "knows Philadelphia is an important economic engine for our state, and that sometimes we need enabling legislation in Harrisburg" to change tax and debt rules and other key legal provisions, Oh said. "It was a very easy sell" to get Brubaker to attend this week's Council hearings so he can go back to the state capital (and back home) to say in good faith that there are Philadelphians who want to change.

I reminded Oh that even business's self-declared friends in the Democratic Council majority repeatedly vote for business employment and licensing mandates and say things about businesses that potential employers could easily see as unfriendly.

That's been changing with the past two elections' turnover to more employment-friendly council members, Oh insisted. He cited bipartisan support for the investment tax break that helped lure Josh Kopelman, Chris Fralic and their busy venture fund, First Round Capital, and its new-businss incubator offices to the edge of Penn's campus earlier this year as a first step.

Oh's special project is to raise Philadelphia's profile in other U.S. cities and abroad, to lure more business here, for example by enticing Asian airlines to fly to Philly International nonstop. The region is as populous and as rich as the Washington, Boston or San Francisco areas, but isn't typically short-listed with those cities. Philadelphia's relatively cheap real estate prices and rents confirms the market judgement that it's somehow off the main road.

Neil Boyden Tanner, Philadelphia-based chief counsel for Cigna Global Benefits, is studying that problem: He was named Oct. 2 as one of eight new Eisenhower Fellows, for his proposal to travel to Singapore and China to study how to raise Philadelpha's profile abroad. "Singapore has a very similar population and geography to Philadelphia, but it has vastly exceeded Philadelphia in attracting direct foreign investment, he told me.

For example, on last Spring's Economist review of 120 "global" cities, Philadelphia ranked 30th for the strength of its global economic ties and quality of life, but only 50th for "global perception." In short, "Philadelphia is underperforming," even though many of its fastest-growing companies-- Shire Pharmaceuticals, Aberdeen investments -- are foreign-based companies that have thrived here. He's going to see what we can learn from the Asian city-state -- and from some of its China rivals -- as a world business center.

Joseph N. DiStefano
About this blog

PhillyDeals posts raw drafts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area finance, investment, commercial real estate, tech, hiring and public spending, which he's been writing since 1989, mostly for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn, taught writing at St. Joe's, and has written the book Comcasted, more than a thousand columns, and thousands of articles, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

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