DNC + Philly: What’s in it for the city?

Philly greeted about two dozen members of the Democratic National Committee with every cliché possible this week: cheesesteaks at Pat’s with “Rocky,” strumming Mummers, Eagles cheerleaders, historically costumed interpreters. The fountain in LOVE Park ran blue. Dems are in town to consider what Philadelphia would have to offer as host of the 2016 Democratic convention. We’re evidently a top contender for 2016, and Brooklyn is seen as our prime competition.

Should we score the convention, what’s in it for us? An updated and better national image.

The convention is estimated to cost at least $60 million – a tab picked up by donors, not taxpayers – and could return at least three or four times that cost to the local economy, with delegates packing hotels and crowding bars. But that’s a one-time shot in the arm.

Temporary economic impact is swell, but it’s a limp justification for playing host. The short-term benefits of hosting are often exaggerated, and conventions of this scale cause a lot of disruption for locals, from street protests to crowded commutes. Will there be any broad benefit from all of that spending? After the balloons drop, what will Philadelphians be left with besides a hangover?

Best case scenario this is an opportunity to showcase Philly in its best light: as an attractive, historic, smart city on the rise.

Political conventions draw the most media attention of any event except the Olympics. All eyes will be on Philly and it’s our chance to give delegates from every state a positive impression of our city. They should leave with a smile on their faces and the memory that Philly does conventions right. That’s what happened when we hosted the Republican convention in 2000 and just think of how much the city has improved since then. A good impression could be a boon for convention business down the road.

First impressions of a city are often defined by trash. Philly should pilot a major street sweeping program – maybe one that could become permanent – to tidy up. That could also make Philadelphians feel good.

Philly could edge Brooklyn for the 2016 convention for practical reasons, like the number of hotel rooms with easy convention site access, as much as for messaging reasons. Philly may be the birthplace of America but we’re also a city building itself up after a period of decline. Let’s highlight that narrative. 

I can see CNN set up on Independence Mall now, but our story is more than a stars-and-stripes backdrop. Let’s show conventioneers more by presenting tours that showcase Philly’s spectacular blend of history and innovation and let neighborhoods outside of Center City benefit from all of this convention hoopla. Let’s show off how Philly is becoming a brighter and better city by building on our legacy assets like the Navy Yard. We’re a whole lot more than Betsy Ross impersonators and cheesesteaks.

If Philly aims to be the “greenest city in America,” let’s see how we can make the convention have a lighter environmental impact too. We need to make like Denver in 2008 when it aimed to put on the greenest political convention in history. That was a way to showcase Denver’s laudable granola values and it actually helped build public support for the convention. Let’s learn from Denver and go green to make this bloated event look good and be more affordable.

We should borrow ideas from the way our sports teams do waste diversion – recycling and donating surplus food. How about a convention without plastic water bottles? The 2013 Greenbuild Conference at our convention center proved that a less wasteful convention is possible. During Greenbuild the Pennsylvania Convention Center increased its rate of trash diverted from landfills from 10% to 67%.

Like Denver, I hope we use this opportunity to host the most pro-transit, pro-bike convention possible. Security for superstar pols will make that impossible for some, but we should make alternative transportation enticing for regular conventioneers.

That means SEPTA has to be spotless – a huge boon for regular Philadelphians – and our fledgling bike share program has to be flawless. Let’s go through a million gallons of bleach and paint to spit-polish SEPTA subway stations and concourses. Let’s also make it easy for conventioneers to take bike share by giving conventioneers maps and discount codes.

When Denver hosted the DNC in 2008 it set up a temporary bike share program during the convention and it was very well used. Thanks to a budget surplus after the convention, that temporary bike share program became the convention’s enduring legacy: Denver’s permanent bike share program. That, incidentally, was started by the same company Philly’s using for its bike share program. Should we be so lucky, maybe a surplus could help expand our bike share system.

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