Business owners ‘cautiously optimistic’ about how Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker will lead Philly

Philadelphia is an old city with a “strong foundation,” and some business owners say Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker’s opportunity to change the economy is now.

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Maat Kareema and her friend

Left, Philly native Maat Kareema is a small business owner who ran The Covert Haven, a private foot, beverage and service retreat in Atlanta and runs a fashion brand Social Programming. Kareema recently moved back to Philadelphia and stands next to her friend outside of The Reading Terminal Market in Center City. (Kristen Mosbrucker-Garza /WHYY)

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Walking in the bitter winter cold along Filbert Street on a recent weekday, small business owner Maat Kareema admits she didn’t vote for Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker, who will be inaugurated as the 100th mayor of Philadelphia in January 2024.

Kareema stood outside of the 130-year-old Reading Terminal Market wrapped in a hoodie, baseball cap, peacoat, jeans, and boots. She explained that she didn’t support the Democrat whose transition team is building a new mayoral administration right now.

“It’s giving, like, the era of [Ronald] Reagan and [Frank] Rizzo,” she said, using a popular queer-community-inspired slang term to describe the general vibe of Parker. “I feel like they’re bringing that type of energy back to the city as far as being tough on crime with the over policing and things. I don’t really feel like she’s changing any policies that really supports the people.”

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But the private food and beverage retreat owner who also runs a fashion brand said that she didn’t vote for Republican challenger David Oh either — she simply didn’t cast a ballot at all — because she doesn’t trust politicians.

“I’m more of an independent person,” said the Philly native who returned to the city after living for the past decade in Georgia running a club, The Covert Haven, and fashion brand Social Programming. “I like to build more with the community.”

Despite that, Parker’s policies will affect Kareema’s business and her community.

Before any other policies, the entrepreneur said she wants to see the next mayor create more jobs and alleviate poverty to improve public health and safety.

“Decrease the poverty levels, you know, the crime will probably go down. And then we can probably talk about stimulating the economy,” she said. “We can definitely start thinking about more job opportunities for people even before we get to the business aspect because there’s people literally eating out of the trash cans here. I think to maybe consider definitely bringing more jobs into the city. Maybe new industries.”

Lifting the most vulnerable people out of poverty was the topic of the outgoing Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney administration’s event series this week, held just after the city began implementing its “Code Blue” public health status for individuals living outdoors.

The “mini conference” was coincidently held on Giving Tuesday — a popular day for charitable donations — and was developed for business owners to better understand how they can participate in reducing homelessness in the city, whether with money or expertise.

Inside that conference meeting space along Market Street in the Loews Hotel, small business owner Brooke Smith said that job creation was on her mind for the next mayor.

“Create jobs that are open to everyone,” said Smith, who runs Baby B Soothed, a newborn infant and massage therapy business that also trains new parents on CPR and first aid techniques.

“We always focus on the same things [to tackle with city policy],” said Smith, who voted in November.

Instead, she’d like to see the Parker administration support young people and families — especially those without stable housing.

“We need a change, this might be the change that we actually need,” Smith said.

As a Black woman herself, Smith said she wasn’t interested in Parker as a symbol as the first Black woman as Philly’s mayor, but more concerned about future policies in action.

“It doesn’t matter if you look like me if you’re not supporting the things that will help our kids,” she said, especially for first jobs beyond fast food. “These kids are smart. They can do a lot of these [entry-level] jobs, like social media.”

Still, there’s likely going to be some pressure for a Parker administration not to publicly falter, said some advocates.

Cherelle Parker surrounded by people
Now Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker spoke to members of the media before she cast her ballot on Election Day.(Kristen Mosbrucker-Garza /WHYY)

And that concerns people like Meghan Pierce, CEO and president of the Forum of Executive Women in Philadelphia, who represents about 600 members.

“I hope that [policy wonks, businesses, and advocates] will give our mayor the time she needs to build a more equitable and diverse city and to build a city that’s more reflective of who we are overall. I can’t believe it took us this long to get our first woman there,” Pierce said. “I’m just thrilled for her and excited for the city. Are we gonna offer her the same grace to make mistakes like a human being like anyone else? Just something to keep in mind.”

Pierce said she’s hopeful that the administration will build a government “that is built by and champions women.”

“Philadelphia still has a very long way to go to ensure that women are promoted to leadership positions and [are] being paid what they’re worth,” Pierce said, nodding to one city policy that attempts to address the gender pay gap by prohibiting employers from asking job candidates about their salary history. “I would love to see us make even more progress on trying to address pay inequities but I think Cherelle [Parker] coming in is going to have an extremely high standard set on her as mayor as the first woman and as the first Black woman to hold this position.”

Jeff Hornstein remembers what it feels like to lose an election — he lost a political bid for City Council running against incumbent Councilmember Mark Squilla more than a decade ago.

Hornstein is the executive director for the Economy League of Philadelphia and a careful watcher of the political scene as a labor union advocate turned business professional.

He said that Parker’s political opponents “fundamentally misunderstood the job they were vying for.”

“The mayor is to be the city strategist-in-chief,” Hornstein said the morning after Election Day on a Zoom call. “Mayor-elect [Parker] has proven over and over again that she knows how to build coalitions across lines of difference and get hard things done. And that’s what we really need right now. Philly’s in a good place in a lot of ways right now despite what voters think, the fundamentals here are pretty strong but we do have to break out of this tyranny of low expectations. We need someone who is going to push us hard. That’s exactly why I’m so excited about her.”

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His biggest wish? That the Parker administration continues to support and even expands a city supplier diversity program to spread out institutional spending to more Black- and brown-owned businesses.

“We don’t need to go in a very new direction, the public safety stuff is going to resolve itself as we focus more on equity and inclusion. I’m optimistic that she is going to work with organizations like mine, like The Enterprise Center, like the diverse chambers [of commerce], to work hard to make sure that city contracting is fair and inclusive and equitable,” he said. “To make sure that all the infrastructure dollars that come in from Washington [D.C.] are used responsibly. I know she’s gonna have a great relationship with Governor Shapiro who’s definitely indicating a lot of the same tendencies to make state-level procurement more equitable and inclusive.”

That inclusivity mindset for the next city government leader is key, especially for Latino communities, said Jennifer Rodríguez, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. (Disclosure: Rodriguez is a member of WHYY’s board.)

“She has been very vocal about the role of commercial corridors and small businesses and how she intends to really focus a lot of her energy in ensuring businesses are celebrated,” Rodríguez said about Parker.

Her top priority is making sure the next city’s leader addresses “safety concerns of small business owners. Striking the right balance of accountability on both sides, the citizens and law enforcement.”

Beyond that, Latino business owners want business taxes reduced and city services streamlined.

Rodríguez said she’s hopeful that the new administration will take up the Business Owners’ Bill of Rights, which was published in October 2019 but was largely shelved during the Kenney administration because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to see that taken to the next level. It should not take over 12 months and over 40 steps for a small business to establish a restaurant. Or more than five visits to City Hall to deal with a simple approval of a kitchen,” she said.

Sometimes small business owners bear the brunt of a community in chaos because of poverty, Rodríguez said, citing the example of a local grocer that got a city-issued fine for having a shopping cart outside of its store.

“Somebody probably stole something, put it in the car, and left the shopping cart. Not only did the business owner lose the merchandise and the shopping cart, but now they get fined for that,” she said. “Any measure of disorder, whether it’s cars parked on the wrong side of the street, on sidewalks, graffiti, trash — those are signals that really work on humans in a very subliminal way. It just says something is off here. Not safe. It doesn’t matter whether crime is happening or not.”

Downtown city street
Center City Philadelphia’s Market East commercial corridor in late November 2023. (Kristen Mosbrucker-Garza /WHYY)

Just as the city of Philadelphia’s architecture is more than 100 years old, its policies can often be dated, business owners have argued; to adapt to the modern economy, they say the city should eliminate a business tax on sales.

Inside the Bellevue, a historic hotel on South Broad Street in Center City, hundreds of business professionals affiliated with the Urban Land Institute gathered on a recent November afternoon after Election Day, some perched on the ballroom balcony with views of grandeur built a century ago.

There was no remote option for attendees interested in networking and real estate insights. The prevalence of in-person events has been a mainstay for business relationships which rely on spontaneous networking instead of endless Zoom calls.

On stage, surrounded by architectural glitz reminiscent of the building’s 1904 roots, one business leader answered a question from his fellow real estate magnate about what’s possible for the city’s 100th mayor.

Parker is in a strong position right now, said Sam Katz, a documentary filmmaker in his 70s with a long professional history in finance.

Katz tried to run for mayor himself, albeit unsuccessfully, years ago. He answered a question from regional real estate developer Carl Dranoff and said that the mayor has “leverage right now to maybe restore or redo things.”

“No one has mentioned taxation and Philadelphia is at a competitive disadvantage there,” Dranoff queried.

Katz responded that the opportunity to meet with business leaders is right now, “because no one’s angry at her yet.”

“How do you create the image of being competitive let alone the math of being competitive especially at the moment in time when city services are in such high demand for people who have the greatest need. It’s really tough,” Katz said about the “doom loop” driving the economy to the suburbs because of the business income receipts tax and the city wage tax rate. “It’s not just Philadelphia. It’s every city. As more people get elected whose view about balancing the budget is different from the city charter’s view, that becomes a serious problem. In the next 90 days, Mayor Parker could convene the business community and the labor community and the other interests to put together a four-year plan.”

Just like the city that has been forced to reinvent itself over its long history, the Bellevue is under renovation yet again — its most recent owners have plans for a retrofitted “urban oasis concept” expected to cost $100 million.

In a similar way, business owners say Parker is tasked with building a team capable of retrofitting a historic city with lots of entrenched issues.

“Her administration needs to make as the No. 1 priority finding employment opportunities for people who do not now have them and sustaining the ones that we have in the city so we can collect wage taxes,” Katz said. “If you’re home [in the suburbs] three days a week and you work for a law firm for three days your wage taxes are not going to be city-collected. They are going to be non-resident collected and this is a huge problem that really is going to require everyone in the boat. And that is her opportunity now.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Jennifer Rodríguez is a member of WHYY’s board.

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