Last week, the Federal Reserve of Philadelphia announced a three day conference on "Building Resilient Cities" planned for May, where many academics and other like minds will come up with ways to make our cities better in the future. Also last week, a local non-profit organization called the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia issued a new report and launched a multi-year effort to turn the City of Brotherly Love 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 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 "brotherly love" story, that Flyers fan who mercilessly beat up the New York Rangers fan (and retired Iraqi War Veteran) outside of a cheesesteak shop after the nationally televised Winter Classic will go on trial in March.
So many cities in America want to become "world class." But that's not what small businesses need from their cities.
I've lived in Philadelphia all my life. I've seen plenty of attempts to turn our city into a "world class" destination. Like 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 which 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 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: most cities will never be "world class." 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. In Philadelphia our famous restaurateurs, like Stephen Starr and Masaharu Morimoto, test out their food here before eventually moving to New York. You know Charlie, Dennis and Mac from "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia?" Yup...that's us!
But that's fine. Because most cities don't need to be "world class." Most people are fine with that. Most small business owners are fine with that.
Why? My wife's family is from London. My grandparents were from New York. These are world class cities. But how many Londoners are staying in town for this summer's Olympics? And how many small businesses in England are looking forward to potential internet outages caused by the Olympics? And how many New Yorkers enjoy the threat of terrorism, high taxes and two hour commutes to their jobs? I don't want a bunch of soccer idiots invading my hometown 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 Jay-Lo moving here and creating chaos. I just want to live and profit in a low key, nice town.
City planners, take it from this small business owner: If you want to turn any city into a great city to live and do business then all you have to do is focus on one area: Education.
I grew up in an urban Philadelphia neighborhood. My closest elementary school was a pretty tough public 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 were, I'd be sitting in a wheelchair. I was fortunate that my parents could send me to a private school. And then I worked hard to get good enough grades so I could go to two public "magnet" schools in the city. Those schools don't discriminate on color or background. Only performance. 99% 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. And then when I got married we (of course) moved to the suburbs. The suburb that we ultimately chose was selected because it had one of the best public school systems in the country.
The secret to drawing business into any 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 any city 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 a city could then pay for its infrastructure and its "business growth" initiatives, whatever they may be.
It's the schools, stupid.
My wife teaches at a middle school in West Philadelphia. I also assistant coach their baseball team. It's a great school. In a not-so-great area. This is where an organization like 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 our cities: we have incompetent managers running these systems.
In Philadelphia 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 on 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 System? Or any urban public school system?
Organizations like the Economy League can fix that problem. It can champion a new inner city public 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 CEO's oversee their management. One where union contracts are torn up and re-negotiated so these 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 their deficits and invest in the right tools and technologies for their students. Where a new system of 'magnet' schools (like the ones I attended) is formed to incentivise those students who study hard and get good grades wherever they live.
Is this easy? Of course not. Will this take an enormous effort? Of course it will. But anything worth getting is worth the effort to get it.
And 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 universities can spend more of its resources reaching out to the community rather (like in Philadelphia) than building fortresses around itself to protect its 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 the big names like New York and Chicago host the Olympics and be "world class". I can always visit those places for a day. But create a "world class" school system in my city and I'll have customers (and employees) for life. That's what my small business needs.
Another version of this post appears on The Philly Post.