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The head of Philly’s biggest business group is calling it quits with political tensions high

Rob Wonderling won't seek another three-term at the Greater Philadelphia Chamber Commerce, a group he headed since 2009. He says it's time for a change.

Rob Wonderling, president & CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, in February 2020.
Rob Wonderling, president & CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, in February 2020.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Rob Wonderling, who has warned of the threat to economic growth from the city’s progressive drift and helped lead pandemic recovery plans, won’t seek an additional three-year term as head of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. He will step down next summer when his current contract expires.

Wonderling has headed the group since 2009. He told the group in 2019 that he would not seek a new term and said on Tuesday that it was time for new leadership at the civic organization.

Tensions rose in recent years between businesses and City Council, now influenced by a progressive wing of elected members and the Kenney administration. In 2019, Kendra Brooks of the progressive Working Families Party won one of two Council at-large seats historically held by Republicans after beating back a negative campaign of robocalls and text messages generated by the chamber’s political action committee.

» READ MORE: Why Philadelphia’s business community rarely gets its way in City Hall

Business leaders say the city’s tax and regulatory policies hurt their ability to boost jobs even as Philadelphia has one of the lowest job-growth rates and the highest poverty rates among big cities.

Wonderling, 59, is leaving the posts as president and CEO as Philadelphia deals with an epic wave of homicides and struggles to recover economically from the pandemic.

Fragile economy

The Center City District estimates that only 45% of downtown workers have returned to their offices, with the others working remotely, posing a threat to Philadelphia’s biggest source of tax revenue, the wage tax. In addition, the hotel and tourism sector has yet to recover from the pandemic shutdown shock.

“The city is in a very fragile economic and fiscal condition,” Wonderling said on Tuesday, adding that he was optimistic that Philadelphia has the potential to be a world-class city even as it deals with the “aftershocks of the global pandemic.” He is a former Republican state senator, who served parts of Bucks, Montgomery, Lehigh and Northampton Counties between 2003 and 2009 and was a former executive at the Bentley Systems software firm.

» READ MORE: From wage taxes to red tape, here’s why Philadelphia is one of the hardest cities to do business

David L. Cohen, a former chamber chair and ex-Comcast executive who was sworn in to office as the U.S. ambassador to Canada on Tuesday, said that it would be unfair to judge Wonderling on the “contentions” of the last few years.

“If you look at the internal operations of the chamber, he has been an A-plus,” Cohen said. The chamber’s members are companies with about 600,000 workers in 11 counties in Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware.

Cohen added that “you can’t demonize the business community and expect to grow the economy in Philadelphia.” He said that businesses and the city government have to engage in dialogue and collaboration.

As head of the chamber, Wonderling advocated for the refinery complex in South Philadelphia and participated in the ultimately unsuccessful effort to lure a second Amazon headquarters to Philadelphia.

In 2017, Wonderling harshly criticized a measure ordering human resource departments not to ask applicants’ salary history. Comcast, the largest corporation based in Philadelphia, was also opposed to the measure and said knowing prior compensation was necessary for crafting pay packages for executives.

Wonderling complained at the time that “Philadelphia continues its record of passing legislation that hurts job growth.”

Under Wonderling, the chamber helped bolster the region’s cell and gene therapy sector that comprises more than 40 companies, up from 30 in 2018.

In response to the pandemic downturn, the chamber helped create Recharge and Recover, a public/private partnership, to retrain workers displaced by the COVID-19 and the economic downturn and those whose jobs are at risk of automation.

Cohen said the next leader in the chamber has to be someone with experience in business and local politics.

Focus on job growth

Susan Jacobson, the chamber’s board chair, said that “we have worked really hard with building our relationship with City Council and the administration,” adding that “we want to get businesses into the city. That is how you are going to get jobs in the city.”

Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, said that Wonderling’s departure “creates a very big opportunity for the chamber. A lot of businesspeople are looking at how to strengthen the relationship with Council and the administration with a focus on job growth.”