Center City district calls for more businesses in Philadelphia to return to office

The Philadelphia skyline is pictured at night

The Philadelphia skyline is pictured at night during the fall of 2021. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

A new report by Philadelphia’s Center City District calls for more workers to return in order to bolster the downtown economy.

“If office workers don’t return, those are building engineers, cleaning staff and security staff that are losing their jobs,” said Paul Levy, who heads up the CCD. He told business leaders at a breakfast event unveiling the report “it’s the hair and nail salons and shoemakers where we see job loss.”

According to the report, Philadelphia lost 126,500 jobs in the initial two months of the pandemic, but then steadily rebounded during 2020 and 2021, restoring 88,100 jobs or 70% by February 2022. But with 714,700 jobs, 95% of pre-pandemic levels, Philadelphia is still below regional and national rates of recovery.

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Levy added that even before the pandemic, Philadelphia was a slow-grow city. The district has worked to bring more residents into town thanks to the pandemic-created opportunity to snatch workers from other nearby metropolitan areas who could work at home from Philly.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to capitalize on this walkable setting to get those workers who want to work remote from other cities or those firms to come here,” he said. “We need a sustained business, outreach, and attraction effort.”

CCD vice president Prema Katari Gupta offered an optimistic outlook.

“We’re seeing positive signs of a return,” Gupta said. “Folks are coming back. But I think, we can’t neglect the issue of the downtown office workers who have not come back, who’ve been working from home during the pandemic and the purchasing power that they’ve taken away from Center City, the consequences that’s had for the urban service economy.”

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Those consequences include the loss of jobs in building maintenance, cleaning, and security that provide a living wage for many in the city. Levy said only about half of the pre-pandemic office workforce has returned downtown, which means fewer restaurant jobs are needed to feed the workforce among other things.

Some have had concerns about how safe the city is since the pandemic.  Police Captain Colleen Billups of the 9th District, which includes Center City, said a visible police presence downtown is working to allay those fears, and people are complimenting officers.

“Just in this last week I’ve gotten two or three letters and they seem to being coming in greater numbers of thankfulness for my cops of what they have done, and it’s the simple things, helping me find my car, find out it was towed, or how to file a report, and they are taking time to actually write these letters, which is amazing.”

Billups believes the downtown is safe and will only be better in the future.

The report and accompanying survey said that fear of COVID is the major reason people aren’t coming back into town.

Levy pointed out new partnerships with the Philadelphia Police and the addition of CCD bike patrols to help make the downtown area safer.  He said hybrid workers are still going to be the future, but flexibility and expanding equity and inclusion will help improve the downtown.

The full report is available on the Center City District website.

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