Opinion Columns & Blogs

Viewpoints: What can Philadelphia teach us in revitalizing the Sacramento region?

In the 1980s and well into the 1990s, Philadelphia was a city in decline – unsafe, dirty, with little to do at night and no reason to stay beyond office hours when workers made long commutes home.

That’s what panelists told us during a Sacramento Metro Chamber study mission to the Liberty City last month.

Fast-forward to now. Vibrant downtown. Significant investment in residential, retail, and redevelopment. A diverse and colorful performing arts scene that took off with the opening of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, home to diverse performing arts groups and host to traveling groups. A redeveloped Navy Yard that houses corporate headquarters, manufacturing, and residences. Thriving universities working together. An educational, medical, and biotech sector (“eds and meds”) that creates new products and incubates new companies. A tech sector that is developing its own culture in the Old City area’s historic buildings, exploring new ways of working, and proudly owning the “nerd” moniker that comes with a location on North 3rd street, or N3RD street.

A variety of change agents helped Philadelphia rebound.

One developer identified “scene leaders” who had influence in their own areas; he offered them enticements to live or start a business in his developments. They acted as urban frontiersmen whose followers reignited downtown.

Young professionals cited affordable housing, transportation options, and a social scene that retains college graduates who have gotten so plugged in to Philly that they don’t want to leave.

A big player in that college scene was Philly-based Drexel University, which has a Sacramento campus. Drexel shone brightly as an innovative, bold community partner and national leader. The hallmark of its undergrad program are several six-month internships incorporated into the curriculum. It’s a connection that benefits companies, students and the community in general by sharing new ideas and integrating the young workforce that feels welcomed and committed to the region.

And that piece is key – the old rules of economic development have changed. It used to be that students went to where the jobs were. Now companies bring jobs to where the workers are. Those workers choose to live in regions where they feel integrated, can have a better quality of life, social connections and affordability.

The community rallied around a common identifier: PHL, the airport code that was ubiquitous to the region no matter where anyone lived. It was “embraced by all and owned by none,” as a panelist told us. No one owned the rights, so individuals and organizations began using it and organically began promoting the region as a whole in the process.

Panelists told us that, for this journey to be successful, leaders in Philly needed to question each other and challenge old assumptions. They had to confront naysayers and critics, people who told them that what they were planning will never work. Their advice? Continue collaborating, unleashing innovation and forging ahead.

Our regional group of leaders in business, education, government, and nonprofits saw the parallels and felt the inspiration we came for. Conversations sparked around “What if?” and “How do we do this here?” The study mission wasn’t meant to answer every question. Rather, it prompted asking the right questions and developing relationships so were could work together on the answers.

Our regions are similar in population size and age demographics (median age between 33 and 37 years). Both are in driving distance of larger, major cities (New York and Washington, D.C. vs. San Francisco and Los Angeles).

The bigger contrasts? Philadelphia is known as a hub for higher education, with 100 degree-granting institutions enrolling nearly 400,000 full- and part-time students in the fall of 2010. Philadelphia has an extensive, convenient mass transit system in the Northeast corridor. The city has a larger workforce than our region, with 1.1million employees in the Sacramento area versus 3.1million in Philadelphia (which encompasses 11 counties across four states vs. the six counties in our region). And because Philadelphia started on initiatives in redevelopment and regional economic development sooner than our region did, we got a preview of what’s possible when collaboration occurs across jurisdictional lines and real-and-perceived boundaries.

As we compared and contrasted, we gained insights we can apply in our own region. One was the recognition that what’s good for one city or industry can be good for all. It’s not a zero-sum game within the region.

We’re all working on initiatives that advance our own cities or businesses or nonprofits while benefiting the region. In the past few years, Roseville has developed public-private partnerships to attract new businesses and universities, to develop our downtown, and to build a hotel-conference center. We recognize that we share an economic ecosystem where success in one area benefits all. We need to continue working together through efforts such as NextEconomy and the study mission to keep the health of our ecosystem in check. We all own a piece of this.