10 Ways Philly Can Get a World-Class Rep

From combatting poverty and celebrating the creative class to making opera cool and history hip

World Class. The words just roll off your tongue. Beautiful words. Aspirational. Inspirational. Probably perspirational. When I hear about Philadelphia’s potential, I’ve always thought, world class. That would be something.

[SIGNUP]Under the watchful eye of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, the movement to remake the region into a world-class place is getting a major boost of intellectual, corporate and leadership firepower. Steve Altschuler (who runs what might be the world-class standard bearer in the market, Children’s Hospital), Jane Pepper (former head of the Horticultural Society, another extraordinary Philadelphia player), Wendell Pritchett (the chancellor of Rutgers-Camden) and Gerry Sweeney (Brandywine Realty Trust) have teamed up to give the movement a boost. They’ve not shied away from facing a daunting reality, which is stated in one of the publications: “We’re in the mix … but we do not measure up as a place that is thought of as a world-class region.”

So self-delusions have been parked at the curb. What can we do if we are serious about being recognized globally as one of the really great go-to places? Here are 10 ideas on my list:

Poverty. Forget about getting anywhere when poverty is our number one growth industry. We must develop the capacity to educate our citizens to live and thrive in the modern economy and to be self-supporting. We’ve tested and failed with the public welfare model. Could a place that once led the nation in modernizing social services and human capital development be a leader? Yes, but only if we are willing to invest in a new set of institutions to provide that leadership.

Higher Ed. It’s nice to talk about Eds and Meds and they do drive a lot of business, but we have a very limited capacity to apply the world-class moniker. Temple and Drexel need to be the engines to change this. Both have to become great universities, together with Penn, so that our troika matches Harvard, MIT and Boston U—or at least gets close. Many miles yet to travel here.

The Fine Arts Mile. From the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to the Barnes Museum to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the combined collections are unarguably world-class. Branding them and promoting them will advance the region’s cause. It’s not Paris or New York, but it certainly competes well and will undoubtedly get better.

The Orchestra. The words “Philadelphia Orchestra” have long been identified as a world-class brand. Things have changed and not entirely for the better but with a young dynamic new maestro, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, they need to change even more and in dramatic ways. Financial survival, while first up, should be followed by audience building (younger, cooler) and lots of new creative tricks. In my mind, this is one of the keys to the program and it is something that can be done.

Cultural Entrepreneurship. This is a new term but it speaks to everything happening in the communities largely invisible to most of us, in the small neighborhood restaurants, in the garages converted to studios, on the Macs and sound equipment. The cultural revolution happening here is a powerful source of hope. We need to celebrate it, spread it around and promote it. The creative class can do the rest.

Heritage. And do we have a lot of it. The great cities of Europe have preserved their history, architecture and collections of things past in hugely admirable ways. You know what? So has Philadelphia. We need to capitalize on that to a much greater degree. We have to stop starving the heritage-based institutions and be a little more cautious about creating so many new ones.

Energy. Philadelphia is downstream from the Marcellus Shale. We are well positioned to oppose it and hate it. But here’s a little dirty secret: It’s already here and more is coming in a big way. Can we get out of our way as one of the largest markets for the use of cleaner natural gas and make it a driver of our economy and become, in effect, a model for conversion? An enlightened PGW and City Council could lead on this, demanding controls for water and environment but not losing sight that there are upsides as well.

Great Beauty. Another asset on which to build toward a world-class title requires that we showcase the places we have that are—or can be—magnificent. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway will get a major makeover, under the leadership of a partnership of resident institutions and will continue to sparkle as one of our beauties. Fairmount Park and the Centennial District need a great deal of help. The Delaware and Schuylkill waterfronts have huge hurdles. They have to be confronted and overwhelmed.

Infrastructure. All the major players—the state, the city, SEPTA and the airport—need to get on the same page. Huge investment issues will challenge us, but we need to build consensus around a clear infrastructure investment plan that connects maintenance, upgrade and new facilities. If we want visitors to talk about us as world-class, navigating our roads, bridges, buses, subways and airport need to be happy, impressive experiences. For them and for us.

The Big Event. FYI: The 1876 Centennial Exposition (celebrating the 100th year of America in Fairmount Park) took about 15 years to plan. Our 250th year will be in 2026; we’re at T minus 15 years and counting. There is going to be a party. Why not here? If not here, where? No city is better at this than we are. Kick-starting the planning will require that we get over the biggest hurdle of all … our own cynicism.

So kudos to the Economy League and its world-class leaders. Ignore those in town who dismiss what you are doing as impossible. Only the biggest dreamers and thinkers can be world-class.

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  • http://www.EconomyLeague.org/worldclass Allison Kelsey

    Sam, we’re delighted that you’re with us and have reached out through this column to the many Greater Philadelphians we know are similarly bullish on this region. And, as of this morning, so does the US Economic Development Agency: World Class Greater Philadelphia was awarded a $150K matching grant! More info at http://www.EconomyLeague.org/worldclass. These funds will help us reach more of the region’s residents and leaders.

  • jeanius

    This is a bit pie in the sky, but that’s a good thing. Philadelphia needs things to reach for, else how would we know where we are and where to go. How serendipitous that the League was awarded this wonderful grant. I, for one, would love to participate in this endeavor. What can I and other citizens of this region do?