Controller Must Know What Keeps People Coming Back
In four weeks, voters in Philadelphia will have the opportunity to vote in the municipal mid-term election.
I refer to November 5th as a mid-term election because at the halfway point of each mayoral administration, Philadelphians have the opportunity to elect two independent, executive officials — City Controller and District Attorney — as a referendum on the status quo.
These offices have the power to steer policy in a new direction and practice effective governance independent of business as usual in City Hall. Like many Philadelphians, I have grown wary of hearing about our city’s potential and am more interested in expediting its comeback.
As a candidate for City Controller, the issues are clear:
Our children deserve to have equal access to education worthy of their individual potential. Today, an entire generation is in jeopardy.
We have a pension system that has an unfunded liability that is fifty percent larger than Detroit’s, threatening the safety net so many of our retired neighbors depend on.
And, arguably most importantly, we must redouble our efforts to attract investment and inspire entrepreneurs.
The key to solving our city’s seemingly intractable problems relies almost entirely on our ability to make businesses in Philadelphia successful and providing the disenfranchised with the promise of a career. There is no doubt that a thriving and bustling Philadelphia is in the entire region’s best interest.
Improving education, stabilizing our pension system, combating the ceaseless cycle of poverty and despair — these are both worthy and achievable goals. What is often overlooked is the fact that the City Charter provides the City Controller with the resources and authority to shape the debate and move the needle.
After attending Temple and Penn, I’ve spent much of my professional career in retail, working in various senior management roles with international brands, with an emphasis on urban settings. I am a student of public policy and a merchant by trade.
An effective retailer capitalizes on the latest trends, understands who buys what and when, determines cost efficient methods of service delivery and then puts it all into a cohesive strategy that excites customers and drives financial results.
If you think about it, that’s exactly what the next Controller of Philadelphia needs to do.
In my professional experience, I typically ask, what separates one city from another?
What separates a customer’s experience in Toronto from Philadelphia?
Why are retailers more attracted to places like Newbury Street in Boston or Union Square in San Francisco, cities that are a fraction of the size of Philadelphia?
Why is it that on average, stores in those cities tend to be bigger, carry more inventory, and have more employees working their sales floors than comparable stores in Philadelphia?
Each of the aforementioned cities faces many of the same inherent challenges as Philadelphia such as traffic congestion, aging infrastructure, and weather-sensitive shopping patterns. Yet they have still managed to capture the imagination of the industry and create the kind of unique experience that Walnut and Chestnut Streets have yet to offer.
Closer to home, why is it that a commercial district such as Center City, with a daytime population 8.5 times that of King of Prussia, boasts a fraction of its retail offerings?
Why is it that King of Prussia, home to the largest mall in the nation, has embarked on a mega million dollar expansion while Philadelphians watch the old Borders’ Bookstore space at Broad and Chestnut Streets become yet another discount drug store?
These anecdotes offer important, accessible lessons about the effectiveness of our City’s economic policies. Here we have companies, in a very overt fashion, voting with their pocketbooks, stating that they are not afraid to make major investments in urban settings and that they want to be in our region, but they are unable to justify the investment within city limits. We all know about the high tax rates, but high taxes compounded with the incoherent mix of taxes and the never ending revenue grabs give too many businesses legitimate pause.
Ultimately, who suffers?
And, really, where does all that money go?
This cuts right to the heart of why we often feel boxed in by our problems.
I have sat in too many meetings where more than a nominal investment in our city was possible, but ultimately set aside. I have taken that train ride to New York City, where you ride through so many of our neighborhoods left to devolve into graveyards of the Industrial Revolution, one too many times.
Our government’s financial decisions have profound moral implications for our local neighborhoods. Fundamentally, a government’s budget is a demonstration of our understanding of the problems we face and how we as a society prioritize and combat those problems.
That’s why it is so important that we have a Controller who is able to objectively, independently and comprehensively review public investments and their subsequent return.
Throughout my career, I’ve learned what keeps customers coming back. You have to make people feel welcome, encourage them to be partners in your success and let them know that they are part of something bigger.
Municipal governments and their direct influence on our quality of life have the capacity to do the same.
Ultimately, this campaign is about a commitment to developing and articulating a new and forward looking vision for the city that begins with a commitment to getting our fiscal house in order — but it certainly doesn’t end there.