Last Monday, a group of Philadelphians gathered to hear the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia
present their plan to make our city a "world class" destination, both for talent and for business.
The Economy League has been working for a couple years on this plan. The "2013 World Class Summit
" involved the unveiling of "global positioning strategies" (or GPSs -- so named because a "roadmap" is static while a GPS is agile and can change course depending on the circumstances). They have identified three specific focus areas -- education and talent development, business growth, and infrastructure -- that are imperative to address.
All of this raises the question: what does it mean to be a world class city? And can we achieve it while still being us? After all, in a competitive world flattened by technology and easy mobility, it is the places with specific, tangible charms that become attractive. You go to Berlin for the beautiful bleakness and unnerving art; Paris for the cheese and ennui; and New York for the bustle, strange subway sightings and, of course, the bagels.
Why should people come here
? What is that essential thing -- call it a brand, call it a soul -- that makes Philadelphia a place worth loving?
Yes, as acknowledged by the Economy League, we have historic architecture, walkability, affordability, great museums, wonderful restaurants, top universities and a growing startup community.
But, maybe more importantly, we have our rowhome window displays, beer bars and strange suburban-style Vietnamese shopping plazas plunked down right in the center of town. We have narrow alleyways and strange, under-appreciated rivers. We have warehouse dance parties and vegan bahn mi. We have trolleys and far too many Phillies t-shirts per capita. We have the legendary DiBruno Brothers (which just happens to sit across the street from a phenomenal tortilleria; times they are a-changin') and unexpected cobblestones. We have impromptu block parties thrown together with just a six pack and a pair of folding chairs. We have the Headhouse Square Farmers' Market on Sundays. We have the Philly Phanatic.
Of course there are problems -- a financially-troubled public school system, an outdated public transit network, a huge swath of the population living in poverty. That's why we need to put all those smart people in a room together (and we need to keep working to have more women and more minorities in that room).
That said, taking a broad view of the city of Philadelphia in 2013 -- good and bad -- it is hard not to be hopeful. As Mayor Nutter pointed out at the Summit, the city just experienced its third straight year of population growth, a first in 50 years. Philadelphia is now home to dozens of innovative organizations rethinking how we work, how we travel, how we learn and how we feed our citizens.
As the evening continued and presenters -- including Danielle Cohn from the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau
, and startup entrepreneur Robert Moul -- discussed more conceptual ideas about rebranding (expect to see our airport code, PHL, in more and more places) and clustering entrepreneurs and resources, it became clear that the key to this mission is actually pretty simple: Get the world to see Philadelphia the way Philadelphians see it.
People who live here love this city, and we need to be better ambassadors of why that's true. We can't try to be New York or San Francisco or Seattle -- their soft pretzels stink.
LEE STABERT is managing editor of Flying Kite.