Can Manufacturing Make a Comeback in Philadelphia?

Yes. And here's how Mayor Nutter can make it happen.

Just last week, Mayor Nutter created a 25-person task force for the purpose of finding ways to bring manufacturers (back) to the Philadelphia region. I’m sure that the idea came from his recent trip to Tianjin, China, where he enviously observed the impact that government investment can have on a major industrial city. “Seeing what goes on here is a reminder of the things we can do and must do to maintain our presence on the world stage,” Nutter said. It also underscores “what our federal government can do if we would have, at times, a little less debate and a whole lot more work and understand that investment brings job and activity and furthers American interests.”

Strangely, I’m not even sure if I want manufacturers to come back to the area. Take a look at some of the grimy, depressing photos of Philadelphia from the mid-20th century when we had a strong manufacturing presence and you’ll see what I mean. But of course there are many benefits to a large manufacturing base too. And I want our city to do well. So in that light I’d like to offer a few suggestions to the task force for bringing more manufacturers to the city.

Mayor Nutter Needs to Hire a Leader

For starters, find (and highly compensate) a leader. The city doesn’t have much money to spend on this I’m sure, but a few hundred thousand a year has to be found to hire the right person. And this person will represent the city’s face, ideas, energy and commitment to would-be manufacturers who want to consider this area home. Any business executive will tell you that great organizations come down to great people. Think Sharon Pinkenson.

Improve Philadelphia’s Transportation Infrastructure

It’s transport, transport, transport. The mayor witnessed the beautiful, giant port that Tianjin has that can accommodate ships from around the world, regardless of their size or military weaponry contained within. Meanwhile, we argue over the environmental and economic effects of deepening the Delaware River a few feet. Our rail system is ancient. Our airport needs a new runway. Our main roads are clogged at critical points during the day. Instead of a manufacturing task force, consider changing the name (and mission) to the transportation task force. At the very least, can we better time the lights along City Avenue?

Jump-start Development on the Delaware River Waterfront

Encourage—I mean really encourage—development along the river. There are large swaths of urban decay and no-man’s land in Southwest Philadelphia and portions along the Delaware River from the Navy Yard to Holmesburg. Offer low-interest-rate loans, tax abatements, grants and public assistance to those courageous companies who’d like to build and set up manufacturing here. Relax regulations for companies who want to rent unused land. Turn a blind eye to toxic waste. Just kidding about that one.

DON’T Launch Another Cheesy Philadelphia Marketing Campaign

Don’t waste your money on hokey advertising or PR. Don’t insult prospective manufacturers with some stupid slogan or campaign like “Yo! Make it in Philly!” or “Philly and You … Making Widgets Together.” Please. Instead, subsidize a few of the many manufacturing associations to hold their annual meetings here. Ever hear of the Composite Can Institute? Or the American Boiler Association? They’re only a few of the hundreds of manufacturing groups that should get a better look at what the region can offer.

Partner With Philadelphia Labor Unions

Yes, our unions. When businesses hear that a city is a “union town” it makes them nervous. Sure, some of that reputation is deserved, but this is not an episode of the Sopranos. Our manufacturing task force should highlight the benefits of running a business in a union town—like the quality, experience and reliability that a union workforce can provide. Emphasizing our unions can be a unique and interesting way to highlight the area’s attractiveness. They should be a significant partner with the task force.

Wine and Dine Big Businesses

Make sure there are good salespeople on your task force. Because a good salesperson will tell you to create a target list of prospects and work that list tenaciously. Ignore the startups; they have no money. Instead, pick 50 or 100 established manufacturers and create a customized plan to entice each one to move operations to the region. Make them feel special. Wine and dine them.

Don’t worry about “investing in education or skills.” This region already has a strong base of universities, high schools and technical colleges, and training people now for non-existent jobs is a shot in the dark. Wait until a company has real interest in moving here. Getting the workforce up to speed isn’t that tough. People who need to put food on the table will learn the skills they need faster than you think.

Task force, your mission is this: If I’m running a manufacturing company, I have enough headaches during the day. How will moving to Philadelphia reduce them? Let’s make some stuff.