Residents have spent years advocating for improvements to Olney Recreation Center, which has a dilapidated building and a well-worn grass field for its popular Olney Eagles youth football program.
Work will finally begin this month on a $15 million project to build a turf field, outdoor track, new playgrounds, a new rec center building, and other upgrades — paid for by Rebuild, an ambitious $400 million program to improve parks, rec centers, and libraries, funded by Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature tax on soda and sweetened beverages.
“We have been waiting for this day,” said Quadir Bowman, an eighth-grade student who was among the dozens of children and families gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday at Olney Rec with Kenney and Councilmember Cherelle Parker.
Kenney has touted the Rebuild program as a chance to make desperately needed improvements to city facilities, and held three consecutive groundbreaking ceremonies Thursday — at Heitzman Recreation Center in Harrowgate and Glavin Playground in Port Richmond in addition to Olney — to highlight the program’s impact.
But Thursday’s groundbreakings also came after years of delay, and as more than half of Rebuild’s projects remain in design and planning stages.
The slow progress of the program has frustrated City Council, which plans to hold a hearing this fall to question administration officials on the status of Rebuild.
”I am underwhelmed” by Rebuild thus far, said Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., who sponsored the resolution calling for hearings. Jones said he is frustrated by the program’s slow pace and concerned that improvements are not being prioritized in neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence.
The Rebuild program, first touted as a half-billion-dollar investment in many of the city’s 400 parks, recreation centers, and libraries, has reduced in size and scope since it launched in 2017. The program will now total $400 million, after the beverage tax brought in less revenue than anticipated, and no new sites have been added to the initial list of 72 projects. Of those, nine are complete, another nine are under construction, 42 remain in planning stages, and 12 have yet to launch.
Kenney said in an interview this week that litigation over the beverage tax is to blame for much of the delay in Rebuild, because the city could not spend money while the tax’s future was uncertain. Months after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the tax in 2018, Rebuild got an $86.5 million bond to use on its projects and began its work, with plans to issue another bond after that amount was used. To date, just $26.7 million of the first bond has been spent.
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Community engagement, contracting, and other processes also take time, Kenney said, especially with Rebuild’s commitment to working with small, diverse-owned businesses and goals for diverse participation at construction sites.
“I’m frustrated, too, when it comes to timing,” Kenney said. “I like to see stuff done sooner than not. … The money’s there, you just want to see it done. But it’s public money so we have to go through this process.”
Rebuild was spared from pandemic budget cuts. But Kenney said COVID-19 still slowed the program, as the city and the nonprofit organizations leading individual projects had to shift their focus to more urgent needs.
Kira Strong, Rebuild’s executive director, said things are moving along and residents can expect to see more ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings in the next year.
“We actually feel pretty proud of what we were able to accomplish in those three years [since the bond was issued], and then throw a pandemic into the mix,” she said.
Yet Kenney acknowledged that not all of the first set of Rebuild sites will be completed by the time he leaves office in January 2024.
“My hope is that the next mayor, whoever that may be, would not reverse the beverage tax,” Kenney said. “I expect to see these projects opening up two, three, four years after I’m gone.”
Jones said he’s worried that won’t be the case.
“I have lived through enough changes of administration to know that one administration’s priority might not be the new administration’s priority, and continuity is a concern,” he said.
Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district includes Heitzman Recreation Center, one of the groundbreaking ceremony locations Thursday, said he is pleased that work is beginning at more sites. He said he wished that it was moving faster, but he noted that Council had asked for the community engagement process that has taken so much time for Rebuild.
“There’s a lot of work in progress but it just seemed like nothing was happening,” Squilla said. “It was just a lot of background work happening and no physical work so I think a lot of Council members were saying, ‘What’s going on and why is it taking so long?’ ”
Council members are also eager to add more sites to Rebuild’s list. But Kenney said the scope of work at many existing sites has grown over time as the city discovers issues that must be addressed or as Council members advocate for extra amenities.
“A roof isn’t sexy, electrical systems aren’t exciting, but some of this stuff just has to get done and it adds to the cost of the project and you really can’t see it with the eyes,” he said.
Jones said he is also concerned with the locations of the sites completed to date. Four of the nine completed projects are in Northeast Philadelphia, which has a greater share of white residents and less gun violence than other areas of the city. And one of Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremonies was also in the Northeast.
Overall, the Rebuild sites are spread throughout the city and some of the largest projects that have yet to break ground are in neighborhoods plagued by violence, such as Kingsessing Recreation Center and library in Southwest Philadelphia, Vare Recreation Center in South Philadelphia, and Cecil B. Moore Recreation Center in North Philadelphia.
Still, Jones said he’d like to hear from the Kenney administration how quickly those larger projects can be completed — and also focus on ensuring that the updated facilities have good programming to keep kids active and safe.
“We can build good buildings,” he said, “but we also need to build partnerships.”