Philadelphia Will Never Be A World-Class City (and That’s OK With Me)

Who wants the Olympics? Or worse traffic?

Last week, the Federal Reserve of Philadelphia announced a three-day conference on “Building Resilient Cities” planned for May, where academics and the like will come up with ways to make our cities better in the future. Also last week, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia issued a new report as part of its multi-year effort to Philadelphia into a “World-Class City” by 2026. The organization spent about a half a million dollars so far on the project and has enlisted some big names to help move everything forward.

Why the Economy League’s focus on becoming “world-class”? According to one report: “ … the germ for it all emerged from the region’s short-lived effort in 2006 to bid on the 2016 Olympic Games. If you remember, the knock wasn’t that the city had a negative image—it had no image at all in the international Olympic community, an American city indistinguishable from so many others. That got board members of the Economy League thinking about why Philadelphia isn’t the type of region the spotlight seeks out on the world stage.”

(In a related story, that Flyers fan who mercilessly beat up the New York Rangers fan (and retired Iraqi War veteran) outside of Geno’s after the nationally televised Winter Classic will go on trial in March.)

I’ve lived in Philadelphia all my life, and I’ve seen plenty of attempts to turn our city into a “world-class” destination. Remember the lame bicentennial events back in 1976? (Who can forget those “tall ships,” right?) The rebuilding debacle on Penn’s Landing and “New Market”? The zillions of federal dollars sunk into historical buildings around the Liberty Bell that are still in full view of the traffic jams on I-95? I’ve watched our City Council brawl, our mayor blow up an entire neighborhood, and fans in a section near me at the Vet throw batteries at J.D. Drew.

So let’s save a little time. And money. The Economy League is a nice organization trying very hard to do the right thing, but here’s the cold, hard fact: Philadelphia will never be a world-class city.  In Philadelphia, when someone asks you what school you went to they mean what high school. That is not world class. In Philadelphia we elected John Street (John Street!) to be mayor … twice (psst … he was one of the guys in the middle of that City Council brawl). That is not world class. You know Charlie, Dennis and Mac from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia? Yup … that’s us!

Philadelphia will never be a world-class city, but that’s OK with me.

Because as a business owner, I don’t want to live in a world-class city. My wife’s family is from London. My grandparents were from New York. These are world-class cities. How many Londoners are staying in town for this summer’s Olympics? How many New Yorkers enjoy the threat of terrorism, high taxes and two-hour commutes to work? I don’t want a bunch of soccer idiots invading this town for the World Cup. I don’t want to be stuck in traffic every time some new dignitary is coming here to do business. I don’t want Jay-Z or J.Lo moving here and creating chaos. I just want to live and profit in a low-key, nice town.

The Economy League’s “Focus 2026” efforts focus on three main areas: education/talent development, business growth, and infrastructure. I can save them a lot of effort. If you want to turn Philadelphia into a great place to live and do business then all you have to do is focus on one area: education.

I grew up in Germantown. My closest school was Pickett Middle School. Trust me, if I attended that school as a skinny, white kid in 1975 I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this piece today. Or if I had, I’d be sitting in a wheelchair. I was fortunate that my parents could send me to the private Chestnut Hill Academy, where I worked hard to get grades good enough so I could go to both Masterman and Central. Those schools don’t discriminate on color or background, only performance. Ninety-nine percent of the kids who go to those schools land in college.

When I graduated college and (of course) moved back to Philadelphia, I lived in the city for a while. Then I got married and (of course) moved to the suburbs. Ultimately we moved to Lower Merion. My wife was determined to do that. The main reason: Lower Merion has one of the best public school systems in the country.

The secret to drawing business into the city? It’s the schools, stupid. The schools!

Everyone … everyone … wants what’s best for their kids. They want to send their kids to the best schools possible. They want their kids to do better than them, to go on to college, to be educated. Educated people succeed more in life than non-educated people.

If Philadelphia were to have a world-class school system, what would happen? People would move into the city because they’d want their kids to go to those schools. Big companies would be drawn into town because their employees could live in a place where they could send their kids to a great school system. Small businesses, like restaurants, dry cleaners and clothing shops would pop up all around to serve this growing population. Real estate prices would go up. Construction would increase. Balloons and confetti would rain down from the sky! And tax revenues would increase too. So the city could then pay for its infrastructure and its “business growth” initiatives, whatever they may be. No need for the Economy League to be doing all that.

It’s the schools, stupid.

My wife teaches at a middle school in West Philadelphia. I’m an assistant coach for their baseball team. It’s a great school in a not-so-great area. This is where the Economy League should be doing its work. This is where the Philadelphia Fed should be holding its meetings. The academics and leaders who make up these organizations can solve this problem by admitting what’s really wrong in Philadelphia: We have incompetent managers running these systems.

We have bureaucrats and unions and waste and people who don’t care and superintendents who grab a million dollars away from a bankrupt system without regard to the consequences to its kids. School systems, like any business organization, can be fixed with the right people. But who in their right mind would want to be superintendent of the Philadelphia School District?

The Economy League can fix that problem. It can champion a new Philadelphia school system. One where top managers can be paid like top managers at any corporation, with money raised from both public and private sources. One where a board of both public and private CEOs oversee management. One where union contracts are torn up and re-negotiated so the managers have the ability to hire the right teachers and fire the bad ones. One that has the ability to raise private funds to reduce deficits and invest in the right tools and technologies for its students. One where a new system of magnet schools (like Central and Masterman) is formed to incentivise those students who study hard and get good grades wherever they live.

As a business owner, what do I get? A better skilled workforce coming right out of high school. A city that attracts higher-qualified professionals into the area. A place where more companies and people re-locate, which creates more opportunities for my services and products. A town where its two main universities can spend more of their resources reaching out to the community, rather than building fortresses to protect students from the blight of their surrounding neighborhoods.  Holding the World Cup in Philadelphia is about as effective as when we held the All-Star Game in 1976. Being a world-class city is meaningless to me. I don’t want more visitors to this city. I want more residents who become my customers.

Let New York host the Olympics and be world class. I can always visit there for a day. But create a world-class school system in this city, and I’ll have customers (and employees) for life. That’s what my small business needs.