The 76ers are promoting their ambitious plan to build a new basketball arena and mixed-use development along the Delaware River waterfront using an eye-popping figure: $1 billion.
That’s how much the team says it could spend on businesses and contractors owned by people of color during the construction and initial operations of the project, which it wants to build with taxpayer support. That promise has attracted support for the project from several prominent Black politicians and groups who say it could be a significant opportunity to diversify the city’s development and construction industries.
City Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker said the Sixers’ estimates for how many jobs the project will provide — 35,000 construction jobs and 12,000 permanent positions — could be a “game changer” if the team is held to account and the plan produces high-quality jobs with living wages.
“This could potentially create a transformational opportunity to ensure that all of the citizens of Philadelphia could benefit,” Parker said. “Unless we have been tone-deaf to calls to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots, we know that we have to pay attention.”
But the proposal has also been met with skepticism from progressives, who say taxpayer resources shouldn’t be needed to ensure minority participation in major projects, and who question the team’s track record on delivering promised community benefits. They point to the 2015 construction of the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden, which was built with about $80 million in New Jersey tax incentives and which activists say has failed to deliver the promised employment opportunities.
Councilmember Helen Gym said Josh Harris, the private equity billionaire and co-owner of the Sixers’ parent company, can’t be trusted to fulfill the team’s promises.
“Four years ago, Josh Harris had the chance to invest in employment here in the city of Philadelphia, but instead took his training facility and headquarters over to New Jersey,” Gym said. “I don’t appreciate being used as a pawn in one of his games to leverage his own advantage, and I just think we have bigger priorities.”
The Sixers are one of several applicants to have submitted development proposals for the Penn’s Landing parcels, which despite successive revitalization efforts have struggled to become a major attraction since the construction of I-95 sealed the waterfront off from the rest of the city.
The quasi-governmental Delaware River Waterfront Corp., which owns the land and is guiding the latest revitalization effort, has prohibited bidders from publicly detailing their proposals. It plans to make a decision this month. The Sixers have privately briefed politicians at the local, state, and federal levels on their proposal. Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron reported last week that the Sixers’ proposal calls for not just a basketball arena, but also redeveloping the entire stretch of waterfront between Market and Lombard Streets with apartments, restaurants, museums, a hotel, a supermarket, and a new public school.
Another applicant is the Durst Corp., a New York-based real estate giant proposing to build a massive residential and commercial mixed-use development. Other bidders have yet to be revealed.
The DRWC’s agreement with its selected developer will include an “economic opportunity plan” with specific goals for workforce participation and inclusion, according to the agency’s solicitation for bids issued last year.
But that plan, a document typically used in city projects to ensure diverse participation, would not be finalized until after a developer is selected, meaning the Sixers’ promises are not set in stone even if they are selected to redevelop the site.
Additionally, developers can’t be penalized for failing to meet the plans’ goals if they demonstrate making a good faith effort to do so. It’s unclear what, if any, legally binding commitments the DRWC could secure from the team if its plan is selected.
The potential lack of accountability and the involvement of public money has driven much of the criticism of the arena plan.
“We should not have to subsidize corporations just because say they are going to hire Black people. That should be a given,” Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said.
The Sixers declined to comment for this article, citing the DRWC’s prohibition on applicants publicly discussing their proposals. The team is proposing financing the development with the help of a Neighborhood Improvement Zone, which would allow construction bonds to be issued based on future city and state tax revenues from businesses within a certain area — effectively borrowing against future tax revenue. Creating a zone in Philadelphia may require new state legislation in Harrisburg.
The level of detail the Sixers have put into their plans for minority inclusion is exciting advocates who have long called for the city’s development industries, dominated by wealthy white-owned firms and overwhelmingly white building trades unions, to better reflect the city’s majority-minority population. The plan also calls for the construction of a new building for the African American Museum. The Urban League of Philadelphia, the Urban Affairs Coalition, the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, and the African-American Chamber of Commerce all endorsed the proposal in a joint statement this week.
Parker said she is always skeptical of whether companies will live up to their stated inclusion goals, but has been encouraged by the Sixers’ early moves: The team has chosen Mosaic Development Partners, a Philadelphia-based Black-owned firm, to work on the project.
But clouding that optimism is the team’s track record across the river.
Manthu Tekhna, a community activist who has lived in Camden off and on for most of his life, said the city’s leaders presented the Sixers practice facility project as a development that would hire Camden residents, raise the city’s profile, and help build a booming waterfront.
”The promise of jobs is attractive,” Tekhna said. “But in terms of public dollars, I look at it as almost theft, and the transfer of wealth to a private corporation that didn’t need it, with the belief that there is some public benefit to the community.”
Tekhna said the facility is “great to look at, but it’s not for the residents of Camden.”
“We don’t work there, we don’t get to enjoy it,” he said. “It doesn’t affect the average person’s life in any way.”
When a local NAACP official asked in 2014 whether the practice facility would provide the community with entry-level job opportunities, the team’s CEO responded with a joke: “We need a shooting guard.”
Earlier this year, the a New Jersey agency sought to recoup $400,000 in tax credits for the facility, saying the team’s award had been improperly calculated.
Supporters of the new arena proposal, however, say Philadelphia won’t let the lack of accountability that tarnished recent tax incentive-funded projects in Camden occur on this side of the river.
”We appreciate Camden, but Philly ain’t Camden,” Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said. “We will pay attention from the beginning to the end.”
Staff writer Allison Steele contributed to this article.