After decades of being a vibrant commercial corridor bustling with commerce and charm, the 7100 block of Ogontz Avenue began to decline in the early 1970’s.
By 1981, Ogontz Plaza, the centerpiece of this once mighty block had become a vacant, graffiti-scarred eyesore. The Ogontz Hall apartment building was plagued with undesirable conditions and many other properties on Ogontz and 72nd avenues were also vacant and dilapidated. Finally, in 1983, the community had had enough. The neighborhood residents banded together to devise a solution for their prevailing problem – a local redevelopment corporation.
Following its inception, the Ogontz Avenue Redevlopment Corporation (OARC) worked with elected officials, government agencies, banks, local universities, various organizations and institutions, and formed partnerships with private developers to complete the Ogontz Plaza (1987), the Ogontz Hall (1992) and Ogontz III (1995), helping to restore the corridor to the vibrant, bustling avenue it once was.
Additional development projects Dwight Evans championed after the emergence of OARC: Concerned Black Men Headquarters (1994), NIA Center (1995), West Oak Lane Charter School (1998), Stenton Avenue Amoco/McDonald’s (2000). OARC is responsible for the development of dozens of housing units and has spurred the development of many private businesses in West Oak Lane that have created hundreds of jobs in the community and the overall improvement in the quality of life in one of Philadelphia’s finest neighborhoods.
We need to take this same holistic approach in neighborhoods across this country: Co-operation between the public, private and non-profit sectors. Neighborhood “downtowns” as the hubs of development. A wide variety of anchor institutions – commercial, financial, educational, cultural – in every hub. Connections between these institutions, and between the individual hubs, to form a thriving, and mobile network. Growth from within that spreads outward. And initial investment capital to catalyze this growth.
That’s what Dwight Evans will work to bring to every neighborhood in America – just as Dwight did for Philadelphia as a state legislator:
Re-Building Main Streets and Back Streets. The national Main Streets program has helped revitalize the commercial strips of neighborhood downtowns across the country. While advice and assistance is available from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Main Street programs are entirely local efforts – with the initiative, effort and funding all coming from local citizen and business leaders. This level of local commitment is a vital part of the program and needs to be preserved – but struggling neighborhoods could use federal assistance to catalyze success. Dwight Evans will work to ensure a steady funding stream for such efforts. Dwight will also work to replicate the similar Back Street program started in Boston in 2001 to address declining industrial spaces in neighborhoods around the city – since then serving as a model for similar efforts in New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. For example, 19 of Boston’s neighborhood commercial districts have participated in the Boston Main Streets Program since 1995, resulting in the creation of over 1,000 new businesses and over 6,500 new jobs.
Support small businesses from within the community. Technological progress stands at the epicenter of growth today, and as even more important than capital, labor and resource inputs. With traditional industrial sectors such as auto engines or financial services, a region became dominant in a particular cluster once one or more large anchor enterprise established operations there. The large anchor enterprise attracted smaller firms to serve as part of their supply chain; the small firms in the industry were dependent on the large ones.
For the life sciences cluster and other high-tech sectors, the reverse is true. The large companies depend on the development of breakthrough innovations, and are attracted to physical concentrations of small start-up firms. Even the largest life sciences companies can generate only a handful of breakthroughs in the biosciences, genomics and similar fields. These big firms grow by monitoring the scientific innovations and discoveries under way in university laboratories, and the research carried out by small start-ups. The few start-ups that develop potential blockbuster drugs or devices become targets for quick acquisition; the large firms’ success is dependent on being where the small firms are located so they can spot opportunities first before their national and global competitors. As noted economist Barry Bluestone has put it, “Globally important life sciences firms want to feed in the waters where the minnows are swimming.” Massachusetts attracted nine of the world’s ten major drug companies because of the presence there of a myriad of small life sciences firms. In short, encouraging small, community-based startups is the way we’re going to grow the bigger economy.
Incentivize non-chain retail. Many cities have recognized that interspersing local or regional stores – service-oriented retailers, mom-and-pop shops and unique boutiques –as well as local cafés and restaurants create distinct character in contrast to cookie-cutter malls filled with national chains. In addition, diverse options from cultural outlets like libraries, theaters, and museums to such public services as schools, town halls and post offices, all add to the atmosphere and can help to generate traffic 24/7 and “provide a sense of permanence relative to easily liquidated chain stores.” For nearly a century, federal policies have subsidized development strategies that have undermined cities and urban life; it’s time to reverse those priorities.
Introduce new models for reviving unused urban space, such as “Pop-Ups.” These short-term uses of vacant retail space, the likes of which are currently cropping up in cities like Philadelphia and New York, will reinvigorate declining shopping districts and main streets, and will serve to highlight the value of investing in these communities. Sponsored in partnership with public, non-profit and private organizations, Pop-up community gardens, restaurants, galleries, and businesses will energize our neighborhoods and provided local entrepreneurs with opportunities to “test the waters” and refine their business strategies.
No tax-breaks without job creation. Job creation incentives must be transparent and verifiable so that businesses receiving state incentives or tax breaks for their expansion or relocation can be held to their end of the bargain. If businesses don’t meet their job-creation or other commitments, economic development funds can be recovered through clawbacks. It may seem like common sense, but “clawbacks” have been rarely used in recovering public funds, allowing businesses that don’t fulfill the terms of their economic incentive agreements to keep their public funding with no financial consequences. But communities in states like Illinois, Texas, Michigan, and Kansas, have stopped looking the other way when companies don’t keep their promises, and started taking back tax dollars that did not produce the intended results. Illinois communities took back funds from 37 companies who did not fulfill their local commitments in 2008, compared to six in 2005. In Albuquerque, City Economic Director John Garcia has recently proposed starting a new economic development recruitment fund using a portion of $5.2 million in recovered clawback money.
We should encourage other communities to do the same – but, even more, we must end the destructive bidding wars between all our cities that produce no new net jobs but only a race to the bottom. As the Minneapolis Federal Reserve has been arguing for two decades, “The power of Congress under the Commerce Clause is so sweeping that [it can] enact legislation to prohibit the states from using subsidies and preferential taxes to compete with one another…. To implement a legislative prohibition, Congress could impose sanctions such as taxing imputed income, denying tax-exempt status to public debt used to compete for businesses and impounding federal funds payable to states engaging in such competition.” Dwight Evans agrees – and will press for such legislation in Congress.
Leverage local buying power. Buying local is what powers local business. We need to encourage large local and regional employers – especially large anchor institutions in health care and education – to stimulate their local economies by developing locally-based procurement policies aimed at inner city and minority businesses. The federal government can promote this by making it a requirement of the receipt of federal funds, on which such institutions – and many other large employers – rely.
Establish a living wage. The real value of the minimum wage has fallen dramatically over the past several decades. Recent legislation has resulted in increases scheduled through 2015,but even with the increased minimum wage, people working full time can still struggle to make ends meet – especially in cities that have high housing, food, and heating costs. A living wage determines the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet basic needs such as housing, clothing, food, transportation, and childcare.
Paid sick leave. Under a 2014 New York City law, businesses with 15 or more employees have to provide five paid sick days. Smaller employers have to provide five unpaid sick days. The New York City Council recently voted to require local businesses to give workers time off if they are ill or have to care for a sick child. The anticipated result will be fewer sick New Yorkers riding the subway, serving food in restaurants, or infecting their colleagues and classmates. Connecticut; San Francisco; Portland, OR; Washington, DC, and Seattle have all already approved sick leave rules. Paid sick time is currently available to only 40 percent of service workers, who interact directly with the public, compared to 61 percent of the overall workforce. We need to extend paid sick leave to all American workers.