Reinventing Philadelphia for the Future

  • August 01, 2013
  • by Tom Infield

With help from Pew and its partners, the city is building on its rich historical and cultural attractions to fulfill its potential for the 21st century.

About a decade ago, two out-of-town visitors arrived at the Philadelphia offices of The Pew Charitable Trusts for a business meeting on a Monday morning. They had planned their trip to spend the weekend touring the city’s better known attractions and rich historical sites. They mentioned to Donald Kimelman, then managing director of Pew’s Philadelphia program, that one of their stops had been the Benjamin Franklin Museum. Noting that it had been years since his last trip to Franklin Court, the Market Street site of the Founding Father’s 18th-century house, Kimelman cheerfully offered: “Isn’t that a great museum!” The visitors sat silent for a moment. No, one of them said, “it’s falling apart.” In another city, the Franklin museum might have been a major tourist attraction. But in the nation’s birthplace, with so many historical attractions, it had been allowed to fall into disrepair. Kimelman made a mental note: Could Pew play a role in restoring it?

But that would have to wait. Pew was committed to several other prominent projects in the city then—projects, it turns out, that would complement nicely what needed to be done at the Franklin museum.

Pew was then in the early stage of what has become a nearly 20-year effort to enhance Philadelphia’s extraordinarily rich historical and cultural attractions, helping reinvent the city as the draw for tourists and new residents that it always had the potential to be.

From the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River, Philadelphia in recent years sought, with support from Pew and strong partners in government and philanthropy, to capitalize on its most distinctive assets: A remake of Independence Mall, home to the new National Constitution Center. The new Liberty Bell pavilion and the Independence Visitor Center. A renovation of the Fairmount Water Works on the banks of the Schuylkill. Major improvements to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, including a refurbished Logan Square, a renewed Rodin Museum, and, most recently, the arrival of the Barnes Foundation and its famed art collection.

Pew’s support for Philadelphia, its hometown, goes back 65 years to the establishment of the first Pew charitable trust in 1948. One need only walk this most walkable of cities to see the impact. Larry Eichel, director of Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative, noted in “Philadelphia 2013: The State of the City” that “Philadelphia is becoming a test case for a new theory on how cities develop in 21st-Century America.” It used to be thought that cities needed to first build jobs to thrive, he wrote in the initiative’s biennial report. Incomes would go up, and good things would follow.

“Now an alternative idea has come along. … It holds that quality of life has become the key element for a city’s prospects, because young adults demand it and many jobs no longer have to be in any one particular place,” Eichel wrote. “Establish an attractive setting, talented people will come, and, sooner or later, the jobs will, too.”

The strategy appears to be working in the country’s sixth-largest city, which could be an object lesson for other older industrial cities looking for revival. Philadelphia still certainly has its share of deeply rooted problems. Its school system is in dire financial straits. Violent crime remains high in decaying neighborhoods. Total employment has yet to recover to prerecession levels, as it has in some other big cities. But Center City and its near-environs are brighter, more alive. Apartment towers are rising. New hotels have opened. A good restaurant city has become a great restaurant city. The arts are flourishing. And overall museum attendance is up.

Thanks to an influx of young adults, plus many empty nesters, Philadelphia’s population is rising for the first time in a half-century. It grew by 58,897, or almost 4 percent, from 2006 through 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At the same time, tourism has increased dramatically, local statistics show. The five-county Philadelphia region hosted a record 38.8 million domestic visitors in 2012. Tourism has become a $9.75 billion industry employing almost 89,000 people.

"Establish an attractive setting, talented people will come, and, sooner or later, the jobs will, too."

Pew had long supported the arts and cultural institutions. But in the mid-1990s, it was starting to look for ways in which it could have an immediate, transformative impact at the civic level.

The opportunities came along one by one and looking back, it can appear to have been one big plan. It wasn’t. But there was an overarching goal: to build up Philadelphia’s historical and cultural treasures and its civic spaces, as Kimelman recalls, and make the city “more attractive to visitors and residents alike.”

The Benjamin Franklin Museum is under a steel skeleton outlining where the Founding Father's home once stood.

One early, key factor was the emergence of two government leaders, then-Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell and then-Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, who were committed to reviving Philadelphia by building up the leisure and entertainment economy. In May 1996, Pew President Rebecca W. Rimel joined Mayor Rendell and Gov. Ridge in authoring an op-ed article in The Philadelphia Inquirer that said the five-county Philadelphia region was “sitting on gold. … The gold is the travel and tourism potential.”

That year, Pew joined with the city and state to fund a new agency, Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., to start doing what the region had needed for decades—to promote itself with advertising. Too many out-of-towners didn’t know what the city had to offer beyond Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

“People would do Philadelphia in three hours and then move on to Washington,” says Tom Muldoon, who for 26 years was president of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau.

In 1997, the tourism marketing corporation began its first ad campaign touting Philadelphia as “the place that loves you back,” a slogan that still resonates years later. Tourism picked up and has continued to rise with help from other memorable campaigns, including “Philly’s more fun when you sleep over.”

Besides attracting visitors, the ads helped a naysaying Philadelphia feel good about itself, according to Meryl Levitz, president of the tourism marketing corporation. A study had pinpointed a local inferiority complex so profound that Levitz calls it “this deeply felt psychosis.” The buoyant advertising helped build “a new confidence and an expressed pride,” she says.

To establish the marketing agency, Pew put up $3 million in the first year of operation, $2 million in the second, and $1 million in the third. The city and state matched the $6 million in reverse order: first $1 million, then $2 million, then $3 million, a method that made government budgeting easier.

“The whole thing was contingent upon getting an increase in the hotel tax sometime between Year 2 and Year 3,” Kimelman says. By then, it was hoped, the ad campaigns would have proved their worth and hotel owners would have endorsed the higher tax. That’s what happened. Pew ended up funding the tourism corporation for six years, but the nonprofit agency now stands on its own.

The city’s other big, immediate need in the late 1990s was a redo of Independence Mall, a three-block swath of the historic district leveled in the 1950s to create a grand, green vista in front of Independence Hall,  the city’s most treasured attraction. The space was underused and poorly maintained.

On top of that, Philadelphia offered no single place where a visitor could get information about all of its attractions. Tourists who wanted to hear about Independence National Historical Park had to walk two blocks off the mall to Third Street. The city kept a dated visitor center near City Hall, a dozen blocks from Independence Hall. If travelers wanted to visit Valley Forge or Bucks County, or other sites beyond the municipal boundaries, they were on their own.

Pew invested broadly in the mall, including the new Liberty Bell pavilion and National Constitution Center. But it paid particular attention to the design and construction of the Independence Visitor Center, a 50,000-square-foot building at Sixth and Market streets.

The $40 million project opened in 2001 with support from Pew and additional help from the city, state, Delaware River Port Authority, Annenberg Foundation, Connelly Foundation, and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. For tourists today, the ability to gather brochures, look at maps, see films, and get personalized information about the entire region, all in one place, makes a trip to Philadelphia “a seamless experience,” Muldoon says.

And visitors agree. Three friends from the Central Valley of California who stopped by Independence Mall on a bird-chattering day this spring praised the broad expanse and its landscaped greenery, its outdoor cafe, and, not least, the attention they had received.

“It’s very inviting; it just feels welcoming, just beautiful,” says Kim Rumbaugh, who with the others was attending a trade show at the Marriott Downtown. “This is my first time here. I am impressed.”

Says Michael Dahl, who now directs Pew’s work in Philadelphia: “If you look at the whole area, it’s a sea change. We’ve made that core historic district more appealing to tourists.”

The Independence Visitor Center provides tourists in Philadelphia with a "seamless experience."

The work on the mall fit into Pew’s philosophy of zeroing in on projects that can make a real impact, identifying government and private partners, and seeking ways to make the projects self-sustaining over the long haul.

From its beginning, Pew has been deeply committed to Philadelphia. Besides taking leadership in major civic initiatives, Pew spends about $30 million each year locally for support of arts and cultural programs, for care of the needy and the elderly, and for its Philadelphia research initiative, which prepares nonpartisan, fact-based analyses of city issues. The major civic efforts of the past two decades arose as part strategy and part “serendipity,” Kimelman says. Two prime examples of the latter are Pew’s partnering with other donors to save two art masterpieces that had been sold to out-of-towners and were literally headed out the door.

Pew contributed $3.5 million to help retain “Dream Garden,” a wall-length mosaic by Maxfield Parrish at the Curtis Center at Seventh and Walnut streets, when it was sold to a Las Vegas casino owner in 1998. It also contributed $3 million of the $68 million that was raised in 45 days in 2006 to halt the departure of Thomas Eakins’ painting “The Gross Clinic,” which is now shared by the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Buoyant advertising attracted visitors and helped build "a new confidence and an expressed pride.

Both strategy and opportunity played a role in the biggest civic initiative of recent years: relocation of the Barnes Foundation’s art collection from suburban Merion to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. By the time the Independence Visitor Center was being completed, Pew was already thinking about revival of the Parkway. The tree-studded, flag-draped boulevard with its 12 lanes of traffic represents to Philadelphia, on a smaller scale, what the Champs-Élysées represents to Paris. By early in the past decade, it had grown tired, a bit worn around the edges.

In 2001, Pew committed $3 million to replace the 1960s-era lighting along the Parkway as part of a $5.5 million spruce-up led by the Center City District. Pew also helped finance new landscaping of Logan Square and a complete remaking of Sister Cities Park, and underwrote landscaping at the Rodin Museum and restoration of its Meudon Gate.

Within months of the initial Parkway lighting decision, Pew was approached by the Barnes Foundation with a plea for help. As Dahl, then Pew’s general counsel, recalled in a 2009 letter to a newspaper, the Barnes “faced serious financial issues that threatened its very existence.” Pew, he says, felt strongly at the time “that to let the foundation’s one-of-a-kind art collection be broken up and sold off to pay the foundation’s debts would be a travesty.”

Pew led in organizing a $200 million campaign to bring the Barnes to the Parkway. The move, controversial in the art world, would save the Barnes and open its hundreds of masterpieces to many more visitors as well as complete civic leaders’ vision for the Parkway. Since its opening in May 2012, the new Barnes has been a great success with virtually all major art critics and the public.

Set near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Sister Cities Park is a magnet for families.

Remaining on Pew’s agenda was the Benjamin Franklin Museum. Once all the funding had been secured for Independence Mall and the redevelopment was in its final stages, Pew turned its attention to this other attraction, located two blocks away but also within Independence National Historical Park.

Franklin’s house itself was long gone, torn down in 1820, but archeologists had uncovered the foundation. For the U.S. bicentennial in 1976, the National Park Service had commissioned a steel skeleton by architect Robert Venturi depicting what the three-story structure might have looked like. Underneath it lay a Franklin museum that featured Princess telephones on which visitors could “call” a Founding Father and listen to recordings. It was considered high-tech at the time, and the museum was a popular draw in its best days.

But the years had taken a toll. The out-of-towners who had stopped by Kimelman’s office and who had pronounced the site falling apart were dead on, as Pew officials found when they took a detailed tour. Rain seeped through the overhead light fixtures in a heavy storm, and the museum had to close when buckets weren’t enough. The audio and visual presentations were as outdated as the building itself; half of the Princess phones were dead.

The museum and the surrounding Franklin Court, with a period post office and printing shop, had potential to attract visitors. Levitz, the president of the tourism marketing corporation, remembers thinking, “Nobody doesn’t like Benjamin Franklin.”

Working closely with the leadership of Independence National Historical Park, Pew hired a leading arts consultant to develop a new vision and business plan for the underground museum.  The goal was not only to redesign and rebuild the museum, but to ensure that it would produce enough revenue—through a modest admission fee and a Franklin-themed shop—to keep it from again falling into disrepair.

Swan Fountain anchors a revitalized Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which has become an arts corridor.

Based on that plan, which was embraced by the National Park Service, Pew announced in early 2007 it would donate $6 million toward an $18 million renovation if government and private partners would contribute the remaining two-thirds. Philanthropist H.F. Lenfest donated $2 million; the William Penn Foundation, $1 million; the Knight Foundation, $500,000. The state came through with $2 million, and the city chipped in $250,000.

In the final days of the George W. Bush administration, the federal government committed $6 million, making the project a go. (The cost later grew to $23 million, with federal support reaching slightly more than $11 million). Construction of the underground museum began in June 2011. The house site is scheduled to reopen this summer as one more step in making leisure and entertainment an important part of Philadelphia’s economy.

Travel and entertainment now rank as the fourth-largest sector of the city’s economy after education, health care, and retail, according to Mayor Michael A. Nutter, who says, “It’s a job generator, a job creator.”

A city that in the 1970s famously put up a billboard proclaiming “Philadelphia is not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” ranked first among American cities for “arts and culture” in a 2012 Travel + Leisure magazine poll.

Pew deserves a good deal of credit, Nutter says. “I cannot imagine what Philadelphia would be like if not for the leadership of Pew.”

None of the positive changes could have happened if Philadelphia hadn’t had much to offer in the first place, Kimelman says. The key here, as for any city, is to identify assets and magnify them. Philadelphia has the advantage not only of its history and culture but also its location in the heavily populated Northeast, with its easy access to the Jersey Shore and Pennsylvania Dutch country. It all adds up.

Kimelman, in a recent report to the Pew board of directors, wrote that “in the early ’90s, when the city was bankrupt and the crack epidemic raged, I found it hard to envision a hopeful future.” But he says he has come to understand that, while major problems persist, the repopulation of the central city and its growing appeal to residents and visitors represent real progress. If the city is smart and lucky, that, too, can persist.

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