Monday, March 5, 2007

Philadelphia: A city's state

posted by Andy Leff
Last week, Team IncPlace went native.

That is, we attended Philadelphia’s Fifth Annual State of the City, hosted by the Center City Proprietors Association (CCPA). This event brings together local business and civic leaders to discuss achievements and failures of the past year, and set goals for the coming one.

This year, it also brought me and Seun, who live and work in Philadelphia, putting us in the unique position to comment as citizens and businessmen. Here are our observations.

Philly's Top Challenges

Some of the speakers talked about making the city friendlier to venture capitalists and financial institutions to attract new business, and help the city incubate strong business ideas. Easier said than done in our fair city, thanks to several significant roadblocks.

One, nobody wants to pay Philly’s high business privilege tax. Apparently, no one on the panel wanted to discuss it either, and never explained why the business tax hasn't been lowered yet, or removed entirely.

One panelist even went so far as to defend the tax structure, saying Europeans find us a bargain, thanks to the exchange rate. This is more than a non-sequitur, it’s total crap. How many mega European conglomerate companies do you see investing in downtown Philadelphia?

Point is, favorable tax structures encourage business development. You can’t have one without the other. Philly has neither.

Two, Philly is not generally viewed as a progressive city. Other cities have boasted skyscraper-rich skylines and strong business communities for years. But the new office towers in Philly's skyline are recent, and old ones are mostly vacant.

Moreover, only two of those new towers are successful right now: the Cira Centre and the Comcast Center, which is under construction. And the reason for their leasing success? The offer of 10-year tax abatements. (See point number one.)

Finally, Philadelphia lacks the Internet infrastructure to tap into the global economy. To its credit, the city has several WiFi programs in the works. When completed, these will help local business access new opportunities online, reach new audiences, and participate fully in the global exchange.

Until then, however, businesses are under economic house arrest, confined to the national marketplace.

Philly's Best Opportunities

Lest readers outside the area think Philly is a business development backwater, here are a few ways Philly is poised to fully earn the title ‘next great city.’

I was intrigued by the use of new media at Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation. President and CEO Meryl Levitz spoke about her organization’s efforts to embrace new social media as a way to spread their messages. They’ve even hired a social media director to spearhead the changes.

No time like the present! The current Web 2.0 landscape is the perfect breeding ground for such expansion. Communities and businesses have tremendous opportunity to promote themselves over many different channels, and reach a large, diverse audience quickly and inexpensively.

Social media can also support Thomas Morr’s call at Select Greater Philadelphia for outreach programs that educate organizations about doing business in Philadelphia. The right promotional materials, applied appropriately, can be a great complement to the city’s revamped image, and help reinforce positive positioning.

The most telling moment of the evening came at its very end. Krista Bard, CCPA’s president, directly expressed her concerns to me about how businesses must get online in order to succeed.

She’s heard countless stories of business owners frustrated with getting online these days. Yet why is this even an issue, she asked, considering all the new Web 2.0 community building tools available, and the supposed ease of e-commerce?

Sad, but true, Krista. There’s a business side to the digital divide that few discuss, but many experience. And it’s preventing small businesses from capturing e-commerce profits, and large and mid-sized business from capturing new customers and vendors.

Herein lies Philly’s biggest opportunity. The city can deliver a one-two punch to the competition by attracting new businesses, and then helping them all get online, too. This will put the City of Brotherly Love on the map, online and offline, and turn the Sixth Annual State of the City into a celebration.

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