'Negadelphia' no more: In bid for Amazon's HQ2, city turns the page on an old narrative

Philadelphia is putting the final touches on its bid to convince Amazon to build its second headquarters here ahead of Thursday’s deadline.

Philadelphia skyline

Philadelphia skyline (PlanPhilly/File)

Like nearly every other city in North America, Philadelphia is putting the final touches on its bid to convince Amazon to build its second headquarters here ahead of Thursday’s deadline. The tech giant is making big promises to the winner: a $5 billion dollar investment and 50,000 high-paying jobs. In a series this week, PlanPhilly is using Amazon’s request for proposals (RFP) as a lens to examine the costs and benefits of doing business in our region.

So, let’s just get this out of the way: Philadelphia has a seriously legit shot at convincing Amazon to build their second headquarters here.

If — and this is the $5 billion “if” — this is not just a clever way of eliciting larger subsidies from the company’s secretly favored location, Philadelphia’s business and civic leaders think the city has a real, honest-to-goodness chance. They have something their predecessors haven’t always had: real confidence. Since World War II, Philadelphia didn’t have confidence, so much as an underdog’s bravado — a sense that the city could prevail despite the odds.

Philadelphia has long seen itself as a gritty, blue-collar kind of town, a city beaten down by a half century of lost jobs and faded hopes that left the remaining residents with a chip on their shoulder where unbridled civic pride once was.

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But that began to change about a decade ago. For the first time in a half century, the city’s population started growing again in 2006. Jobs started to return, too, slowly at first, but by ever-larger margins. Philadelphia’s story — it’s self image — is changing.

As Philadelphia tries to rewrite its upbeat economic narrative over the slowly fading story of decades-long decline, the pallid imagery of a down-on-its-luck kind of place lingers, blurring outsiders’ perceptions of the city.

“One of the things that all cities struggle with are old narratives,” said Alan Greenberger, an architecture professor at Drexel and former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. “Our old narrative was that this was a very tough place to do business and that didn’t come from nowhere.”

That’s a view widely shared.

“I don’t think anybody would be surprised to hear that at times we have a little bit of a ‘Negadelphia’ thing about us,” said Bob Moul, a successful serial entrepreneur and pillar of Philly’s nascent startup community. “I’ve always said if a city can have an inferiority complex, we’ve got one. But I honestly think that narrative is changing and changing in a good way.”

Josh Sevin, acting executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, agrees things are changing.

“It’s about a narrative of a place that takes hold,” Sevin said. “Like, we need to no longer have a narrative that somehow this city is about Rocky. What’s the new economic story, right?”

Philadelphia’s new story is about a town on the rebound, with the nation’s fastest-growing millennial population; a welcoming, diverse city full of immigrants; a dense, walkable city with a booming downtown and the room to grow; a well-educated city anchored by some of the nation’s biggest and brightest academic and medical institutions and buoyed by the second-fastest growing tech sector in the nation; a city with all the nightlife, culture, bars, restaurants, parks, hidden gems and big attractions as any other in the nation, but at the fraction of the cost.

“I think Philadelphia is the best city on Earth,” said Mindy Isser, a labor organizer and lifelong Philadelphian. Isser doesn’t think the city should offer Amazon tax breaks or other incentives to come here, partly out a a fundamental opposition to that strategy, but mainly because she doesn’t think Philly should feel the need to bribe any company to come here.

“If Amazon wants to come here, great. But we’re not Jabip, we’re Philadelphia! I don’t want us on our knees begging Amazon to come here,” Isser said.

No one doubts the city still faces challenges: an egregiously high poverty rate, all-too-common incidents of violent crime and a struggling school district. Almost everyone PlanPhilly spoke with for this series mentioned those problems without prodding. But there is a sense that these challenges no longer define the city. Optimism is replacing pessimism.

Philadelphia’s story is starting to change just in time for Amazon’s request for proposals. Winning would complete the comeback story. It reminds Greg Krykewycz, a transportation planner at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, of his experience as a Philly sports fan.

“I think it’s kinda baked into our culture,” he said “You kind of expect to lose, right? The bad break always happens to Philly.”

“But with like 2008 [Philadelphia Phillies World Series] run there was that funny phrase: ‘Why can’t us?’ People rallied around like, why not? Finally it’s our shot,” said Krykewycz. “So, maybe why can’t us, for Amazon.”

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