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Opinion: Budget cuts would make us a city with no front door

May 8, 2020 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose
The new budget proposed by Mayor Kenney demonstrates that the city will function and provide basic services to residents despite dramatic revenue declines due to COVID-19.

But it’s a budget that provides no front door to anyone from outside Philadelphia looking in. What do I mean and why does it matter?

The most dramatic cuts — and I don’t mean in amounts because the amounts are relatively small; I mean in completely eliminating city functions — are in the Commerce Department (gutted by 85% and down to 4 people), the Office of the City Representative (completely eliminated), and the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (completely eliminated). These cuts total $12 million out of the $4.9 billion proposed budget.

It is possible that in the coming year most residents in the city of Philadelphia won’t feel the elimination of these departments. But for those on the outside, looking in, they make Philadelphia disappear. These offices are our city’s front door: they are the point of contact for international businesses exploring a U.S. headquarters; they represent Philadelphia on the national and international stage; they create the city-wide spectacles and celebrations that are televised nationally and are what the world knows us for.  And, they also represent the elimination of our City’s welcome to tens of thousands of college students from across the world, because Campus Philly’s funding is contained in those cuts.

I use the “front door” metaphor all the time when talking about Campus Philly. When a new business is thinking of locating in Philadelphia; when an arts organization has a world premiere; when a get-out-the-vote initiative is activated they all seek a way of engaging college students and they come to Campus Philly, grateful that there is a single point of contact to reach 100,000+ college students on more than 50 campuses.

Why does a city having a front door matter and why does it matter in Philadelphia’s case in particular? We’re a World Heritage city with no global image. We’re a college town with a reputation for brain drain (it’s not true). We’re an arts mecca known mostly for sports. The Commerce Department, the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy and the Office of the City Representative are our city’s rebuttal. And, they’ve been remarkably successful. The growth that Philadelphia has experienced in population, in jobs, in reputation (the NFL Draft; the Pope’s visit; the DNC; top placement in the Amazon HQ2 bid) are all a result of these offices.

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In fact, the reason that day to day life in Philadelphia is not going to change too much next year for most Philadelphians — your trash will get picked up; your library will stay open; you’ll take your kids to the local rec center  — is because these offices that open Philadelphia up to the outside world and bring that outside world in have done such a good job growing our economy. When you lock that front door, who’s going to come in? Where will growth come from?

The economic case for these offices is paramount now. But as a third-generation Philadelphian who has also lived in other large US cities and abroad, these offices represent something more significant. They represent the difference between a provincial, inward looking, narrow city and a cosmopolitan, world-renowned, outward looking city.

So this is my plea: don’t cut basic services, but find $12 million to open Philadelphia to the world again.

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