Center City businesses are doing just about everything they can, from providing lunch to handing out free transit passes, to get employees back in the office.
According to the Center City District’s “State of Center City 2022” report, pedestrian counts — measures of foot traffic in town — are back up to 80% of pre-pandemic levels. That welcome sign for local businesses has been powered by residents, up slightly from pre-pandemic levels, and visitors, lagging just behind.
Missing from that tally? Those who work downtown but live elsewhere. That includes Philadelphia City Council members and Mayor Jim Kenney, who have described going to City Hall as a “trudge.”
Our elected officials join suburban commuters in refusing to return to Center City in large numbers.
Beyond the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, one recent survey found that commuters are concerned about cleanliness and crime. The worries of SEPTA commuters dovetail with those of Philadelphians more generally across the city who also cite public safety as a top priority.
Despite these issues, business leaders have expressed confidence in the city’s ability to rebound. Philadelphia has many strong assets: a large and diverse workforce, world-class cultural attractions, and extensive infrastructure. The Center City District report said the city’s medical institutions received more than $1.1 billion in grants from the National Institutes of Health. Panelists at the report’s unveiling at the Union League last week said that there is strong national and international interest in visiting and investing in Philadelphia, comparing the city favorably with “world-class capital cities in Europe.”
The city can recover from the pandemic, but its leaders need to start showing up — if for no other reason than to show the rest of the region that Philadelphia is open for business.
The Philadelphia City Commissioners and nearly every legislative body in the country have resumed in-person meetings, why not City Council? The mayor has been publicly reluctant to resume regular, in-person news conferences since the pandemic began. According to recent Inquirer reporting, of the 10 largest U.S. cities, all but Philadelphia have returned to in-person or hybrid council meetings.
It is hard to thrive as a city when the mayor treats going to City Hall as a chore and residents cannot easily access city services.
It is time for Kenney, Council President Darrell L. Clarke, and other elected officials to lead by example and return to the accessible governing that the city needs. They should heed the advice of councilmembers — including Mark Squilla, David Oh, and Derek Green — who told The Inquirer they support in-person meetings.
Beyond coaxing more commuters (and their wage tax dollars) back into Center City, in-person Council meetings and news conferences are a crucial opportunity for journalists and the general public to hold elected officials accountable by asking questions that might otherwise never get through the filter of a government spokesperson or a one-question-per-media-outlet Zoom call.
At a time when Philadelphia faces significant challenges and 63% of residents feel that the city is on the wrong track, it isn’t too much to ask our elected officials to start showing up.