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Philly’s war on growth: From ‘banning’ R. Kelly to cashless store ban | Opinion

The city is banning cashless stores while the state cuts investment in tech startups. Remember when progressives used to believe in creating jobs?

The West Portal of City Hall in Philadelphia.
The West Portal of City Hall in Philadelphia.Read more / File Photograph

Is it me, or have we been enduring more jump-the-shark moments in our civic life than at any time in recent history? Growing a local economy that provides opportunity for all ought to be the overriding challenge in a city with the nation’s highest poverty and tax rates. Yet, with an election looming, it seems we’re treated to story after story wherein progressives actually wage war on growth.

Let’s zero in on two such examples. City Council’s banning of cashless retail stores was an unwitting admission that our august legislative body fundamentally misunderstands its role. It’s motivated by a well-meaning desire to level the economic playing field in a city where 6 percent of the population is unbanked and 22 percent are underbanked.

But wouldn’t Council have been better served to hold thoughtful hearings and pass legislation aimed at diminishing the number of our citizens who don’t have access to credit cards or even checking accounts? Mandating that businesses accept cash does nothing to lift anyone out of poverty, after all.

Alas, it seems like Council, rather than do the hard work of real problem-solving, prefers to appeal to popular resentments and pander to public opinion. How else to explain that, in a city with 400,000 impoverished citizens and an economic growth rate that places us behind 23 of the nation’s top 25 cities, our Council has passed a resolution symbolically banning R. Kelly from the city and voted to place on the May ballot a question to amend the Home Rule Charter that would change the document’s wording, from councilman and councilwoman to councilmember.

I’m not opposed to either move. But let’s acknowledge that what our elected representatives choose to focus on is an announcement of our priorities.

Time and again, our body of electeds — most of whom haven’t worked in the private sector — has seemed to fixate on telling businesses how to operate. Philadelphia is competing with suburban counties as well as neighboring states in trying to draw businesses here. It’s not a competition we’ve been winning, thanks to the tax and regulatory burdens we disproportionately place on business.

If our Mayor and Council would only borrow from the playbook of such cities as Boston, Pittsburgh, and even Oklahoma City, and do the hard work of investing in inclusive growth, perhaps our story wouldn’t be one of retrenchment and struggling to stem decline.

Instead, ideology stands in the way of that new Philadelphia story. Under Mayor Jim Kenney, taxes have gone up a whopping 17 percent; what return have you seen on that investment? At some point — especially when the University of Pennsylvania and the city itself are our two biggest employers, both essentially tax-exempt — there is nothing left to redistribute. The only option is to grow the pie if citizens want more slices.

But it is not just city government that has misplaced the growth gene. In his rather visionless budget proposal, Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed continuing a long-standing lack of funding for Benjamin Franklin Technology Partners, the program created by the General Assembly in the early 80s to drive growth by investing in early stage start-ups.

Its funding has been cut by more than half in the last decade, from $28 million to $14 million, out of a budget of $34 billion. Wolf has doubled down on the trend, at exactly the moment we need more, not less, investment in innovative companies that can grow our tax base.

There are all sorts of statistics that attest to the good done by BFTP through the years, like the fact that for every state dollar invested in it, $3.90 in additional tax revenue has been generated. But forget about the dry statistics. At the Philadelphia Citizen, we often profile start-ups that are doing well and doing good at the same time.

Philadelphia has a growing cohort of companies that are rethinking the mission of business; we are, after all, the birthplace of the groundbreaking B Corp movement. And many of those companies likely wouldn’t exist without early-stage bets placed on them by BFTP, companies such as LIA Diagnostics, makers of a flushable and biodegradable home pregnancy test that is the first real disruptive product in that market in 50 years. The problem is we don’t have enough LIA Diagnostics to compete with other cities and states. And progressives such as Wolf, Kenney and our City Council know this, but lack either the vision or political will, or both, to make long-term investments in companies that can expand our tax base.

Late last month, the Center City District released Building Out From the Core, its 2019 housing report. “Strongest Growth in Housing Production in Center City Philly Area Since 2002, New Report Finds,” read the headline on But the report could just as easily be seen as an important warning. We could be closer to becoming Flint, Mich., than Seattle or San Francisco, if we’re not careful.

Here’s a novel idea. We have mayoral and council elections coming up. How cool would it be to put aside the R. Kelly resolutions and the hand-wringing over the mental health issues of the Republican Party’s handpicked mayoral candidate, and make this election about how we get more of our fellow citizens working every day and paying taxes? Is that asking too much?

Larry Platt is cofounder and co-executive editor at the Philadelphia Citizen. A version of this piece previously appeared there.