The business leaders and politicians charged with marking the nation’s 250th birthday say they’re looking for party and project ideas. From all over, including Vice President Mike Pence.
“All 50 states, cities, the territories, the Native reservations, foreign countries,” says Dan DiLella, the Newtown Square-based developer (he heads Equus Capital Partners) who chairs the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission board, appointed by the president to get plans moving for “America 250” events.
The city where the Declaration of Independence was signed has played a lead role in past anniversaries, and each left a mark. Fairmount Park was formed around the Centennial fairgrounds from 1876. The South Philly stadium complex site was first developed for the Sesquicentennial in 1926. Independence Mall was cleared in advance of the Bicentennial in 1976, making way for today’s Liberty Bell Center, National Constitution Center, Independence Visitor Center, and President’s House-and-slave quarters attractions.
And Philadelphians were prominent in the commission’s nine-member delegation that called on Pence at the White House on Wednesday. One goal was to follow up on its new, congressionally mandated, 276-page framework for projects and parties, to culminate on July 4, 2026. The report was sent to the White House last Dec. 31.
Still, “this is not just about Philadelphia,” commission member U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) noted after the visit. While Philadelphians hoped for a big commemoration in 1976, Toomey recalled how New York with its “tall ships” and fireworks ended up with the most memorable party. This time, “Philadelphia has a unique role. But it is a national event.”
“This is not going to be a Philly-centric celebration, though obviously we think Philadelphia will play a role," added another commission member, David L. Cohen, the Comcast executive and University of Pennsylvania trustees chair.
The commission is collecting cash to inspire proposals that “educate, engage and unite” groups of Americans around common themes of “liberty, diversity, inclusion and innovation,” as DiLella put it — from brick-and-mortar infrastructure to parades and parties.
According to its report, members hope to raise up to $225 million in federal appropriations and at least $250 million in corporate and private grants as sweeteners to attract funding for local projects and pay its own $100 million operating budget.
The commission is still working on its systems for collecting proposals.
An initial $3 million was appropriated in this year’s federal budget. There were also donations from Comcast, Citizens Bank, Essential Utilities (the newly renamed Aqua America) and others; personal grants from DuPont boss Ed Breen, Phillies owner John Middleton, and others; and aid from Pepper Hamilton, Reed Smith, Deloitte, Edelman, and other professional firms. A new America 250 Foundation — Cohen is on the executive committee — will help raise more money.
The commission’s top staffer is another Philadelphian, Frank Giordano -- he built his father’s garage into a large truck-leasing business, and is, like DiLella, is a former president of the Union League, a connection they worked at the White House visit: The pair reminded Pence that the Union League’s portrait of his favorite president, Calvin Coolidge, is on loan to Pence’s working office, across the street from the White House. So that’s where the vice president took the delegation to pose for pictures.
Pence “was very gracious, enthusiastic, took a lot of pictures,” said Toomey.
The vice president, a former Indiana governor, also offered to make some calls: “He said, ‘I know a lot of governors,’" and added some lessons learned when his state planned its own bicentennial, according to Cohen.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among a handful of states that have already created their own “America 250” commissions to seek federal funds and private funding, and draw up plans. Pennsylvania’s is headed by Delaware County supermarket owner and developer Pat Burns.
The national commission’s initial report, “Inspiring the American Spirit,” is a guideline to forming such groups, and contains few specific proposals, only examples: refurbishing the Smithsonian Institution’s historic “castle” on the Mall in Washington, or helping upgrade the First Bank of the United States building in Old City (a project already partly funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Park Service, plus private grants.)
The commission numbers 16 private citizens (most represent potential donors), eight members of Congress, and nine federal officials. Six of the 33 are from Pennsylvania. DiLella is chairman; besides Cohen and Toomey, members include U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.); Penn president Amy Gutmann; and Andrew Hohns, an infrastructure-finance investor who founded the nonprofit USA 250 group in the late 2000s to spark interest in the anniversary.
I asked DiLella and Cohen how the politicians and employers hope to ensure that masses of Americans feel represented by the decisions of the elite commission. Through the state and local commissions, they said.