Something has been bothering me for a while: why hasn’t Philadelphia fulfilled its potential? Why isn’t our economy thriving? I just started reading the biography, “Steve Jobs” which, among other things, describes the birth of the Silicon Valley in the 1960s and 1970s and something hit me: we lack dreamers in Philadelphia.
Over 230 years ago, the biggest dreamers in the world converged on Philadelphia because they had a great idea. They wanted to create a different kind of nation based on liberty and self determination (at least for most people initially). Philadelphia was not just the center of the fledgling colonies; it had the attention of the world. The brightest, most enlightened minds in North America were walking our streets, thinking thoughts previously unheard of or unimagined. What has happened to us?
Unlike our forefathers, we have learned to settle for less and accept the status quo. We have come to believe that who and what we are is fixed and that we can’t be more than what we are now. We’ve become cynics. We have no identity of our own, drawing our significance from the “greater” cities around us. We’re not New York and we’re not Washington, D.C.; sadly, our claim to fame is that we’re conveniently located between the two and just a few hours from skiing and the beach. We’re selling ourselves short. It’s time to start dreaming again.
The Silicon Valley became the Mecca for creative minds and entrepreneurs in the 1960s and 70s due to the confluence of many factors. Surely, the migration of the defense industry and all of its engineers to the region helped fuel the tech boom, and having Stanford and Cal Tech nearby didn’t hurt either. It also helped that millionaires were being created overnight as startups went public, thereby enabling everyone and their brothers to dabble in venture capital and foster even more tech companies. The exciting thing is Philadelphia has many of these ingredients (absent, perhaps, the legion of overnight millionaires). I’m convinced that we are poised for greatness if we just focus, think bigger, and gather the leadership needed to seize this moment.
We are blessed with more college and university students than almost any other region in the country: Penn, Drexel, Temple, and many others are gaining national prominence and making huge investments in the region. For anyone who has not walked through West Philadelphia or North Broad Street in the past five years, they are unrecognizable from what they once were. There is a vibe there and a huge pool of young talent just waiting for an opportunity to call Philadelphia their home after graduation. The success in breeding exciting new businesses at the University Science Center provides just a hint of what we could do on a much larger scale in Philadelphia.
We have some of the best health care systems and hospitals in the country. Many pharmaceutical companies have operations here, as well, to leverage the health care talent. Given our aging U.S. demographics, I can’t imagine a better industry for a region to dominate going forward. It may not be as sexy as microprocessors and software but then again older people aren’t going to disappear any time soon. The health care systems, hospitals, and universities all bring exceptional people to our region. That’s a good starting point in attracting and cultivating new, world-class businesses.
As Comcast digests what remains of NBC, we are now home to one of the world’s largest and most successful media companies. Comcast holds the potential to attract a large number of companies who want to do business with it. Just as Microsoft, Dell, and Turner Broadcasting helped develop their home cities into thriving economies, Comcast could do the same for us – if it wants to. After all, no one ever said that everything has to happen in NYC. Once upon a time they moved the U.S. capital out of Philadelphia so perhaps the payback 230 years later is taking some of the media business.
Yes, we have our problems like high taxes and underperforming public schools, but those are things that can be fixed. Plans appear to be taking shape to at least address them. Our taxes aren’t outrageous and we’re actually doing things to fix the system like lowering the wage tax and changing how the city and state allocate income to corporations operating here. Even if the tax issues weren’t fixed, we’re still a relatively inexpensive place to conduct business. Offsetting the tax burden, we have some of the lowest commercial office rents of any major city in the U.S. Our cost of living is cheaper than New York or D.C. and homes are certainly more affordable here than in the Silicon Valley. The problem isn’t really the taxes; that’s just a convenient excuse for not thinking bigger.
I am not a native Philadelphian; I adopted this city 35 years ago. To me she has always had an unwarranted inferiority complex that has prevented her from realizing her true potential. Young people, stopping through our city for four years of college, sense that insecurity and self deprecating humor and decide to move on to places with brighter lights and higher aspirations. Let’s start our renaissance by changing how we talk about our beloved city. Let’s start focusing on our strengths and not our weaknesses. Let’s go back to our roots and retrace the steps of George, Thomas and Ben on Elfreyth’s Alley. There are dreams left unfulfilled for this city; I sense them everywhere I look. We can change things like our forefathers did 230 years ago. And believe me, they were up against much worse odds than we are. It’s time to start dreaming big again.
For more information contact Glenn Blumenfeld