Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Is Center City our Region's Corporate Hub?

Center City Philadelphia is the architectural and transportation hub of a metropolitan region of more than six million people. Looking at West Market Street, University City, and our rapidly changing skyline, it's easy to assume that - like many cities with a thriving downtown - Center City is also the region's business hub. 

But scattered throughout the suburbs, in King of Prussia, Plymouth Meeting, and along Swedesford Road, are hundreds of unassuming office parks that dominate the region's corporate business market. 

Comcast was smart to take advantage of Center City's centralized location, and with any hope, other tech companies will follow suit. It enables corporations a true cross section of the entire metropolitan area's talent pool. While many in South Jersey may be reluctant to search for jobs in suburbs west of the Delaware River and vice versa, all trains and highways point downtown. 

With construction on a second downtown skyscraper, Comcast has perhaps been thriving from the benefits of a Center City headquarters. Benefitting more than just its local employees, its location also allows business partners from D.C., New York, and Boston easy access to 30th Street Station, and a lively city to embrace when they arrive.

But Comcast may also be banking on the hope that Philadelphia will recognize what companies as successful as Comcast already know: that job candidates take a location under serious consideration.

The "other" Philadelphia
Center City may offer easy access, better restaurants, and a broader range of talent, but it also comes with financial constraints. Job candidates don't just consider commute time and where they'll lunch, they also consider the wage tax. And in Philadelphia, the wage tax is a big consideration. Not only does the city charge commuters an additional 3.7% tax on their income, it charges those who choose to live here almost 4%. 

Companies are in the business of making and saving money. Better employees equal higher profits. While many businesses would spend more money for a location that could easily cater to savvy resources, and more of them, Philadelphia is essentially telling our region's corporate powerhouses to keep their suburban office parks.

At best, the city seems to assume that location is enough. Like a worn billboard from 1999 that reads "if you lived here you'd be home by now," City Hall doesn't seem to understand that business needs are far more dynamic than a catchphrase. 

It's shortsighted and simplistically indicative of the city's decision makers. And with the city's residential base growing and becoming more affluent, Center City runs the risk of becoming a bedroom community for our sprawling suburbs, one synonymous with pricy condos, tax exempt hospitals and universities, and a few token companies asking for tax breaks to stay put.

Of course that isn't unique to Philadelphia. From Seattle to San Francisco to Washington, D.C., American cities are no stranger to suburban islands of e-commerce and technology companies that offer their central cities little more than high rent and new restaurants. 

What is unique to Philadelphia is that it hasn't happened yet. We don't have a Silicone Valley, a Reston or a Redmond, a quasi-independent city born from aging bureaucracy, corruption, and tax burdens. Our largest technology company has embraced Center City, and if the city is willing to embrace what that actually means, Philadelphia could be in a position to offer corporations a rare opportunity that few cities have: a level playing field financially on par with the suburbs, but logistically and geographically unmatched. 

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