City Council Committee Listens to Testimonies of Philadelphia's Economic Growth in Historic Hearings

Melody Nielsen, for GPA -- Philadelphia is expanding. It’s busy, whirring, as full of life, culture, business, and talent as its cousins to the north and south, New York and Washington. It’s a city that’s home to three major universities, not to mention the many just beyond its limits. There’s a thriving music scene, a growing art community, and plenty of young professionals flocking to reasonably-priced apartments. Here at Global Philadelphia Association, we celebrate the city’s diversity and wealth of global assets. And now, Philadelphia is striving for greater competition in the start-up community and international trade.

In two days of hearings on Tuesday, October 9 and Wednesday, October 10, a group of entrepreneurs gathered in City Hall to present their ideas for how Philadelphia can better nurture and foster small business growth.

The hearings were comprised of testimonies delivered by categorized panels before the City of Philadelphia City Council Committee on Global Opportunities and the Creative/Innovative Economy. A two-day event during which leaders from several sectors offered testimonies to Senator Mike Brubaker, Councilman David Oh, and others their ideas for improving Philadelphia’s reputation and economic development. Global Philadelphia's own founder, John F. Smith III, provided a testimony on the second day. Among the topics discussed were: the need to retain Philadelphia students who often move to other cities to work, for government reform to make Philadelphia friendlier to start-ups and investors, and for Philadelphia to function as a global center, much like New York.

Pete Groverman, president and CEO of Grovera-US Products, seemed to have a head-start in globalizing the city. His company exports about 3,000 products to 24 countries, assisted by the Branded Program, a government initiative which provides 50 percent reimbursement for international marketing. Groverman believes strongly in the power of US products overseas - people want American products, he says, because they feel that they are higher-quality. Anticipating skepticism due to China’s growing manufacturing dominance, he reminded the panel that the US has only been surpassed by China in the past year. More than anything, Groverman said, the growth of China’s economy only represents a new middle class for whom to market products overseas.

Groverman believes that the US needs an “exporting capital,” and that Philadelphia can develop to fit that need. He suggested a public-private partnership that would groom 10 leading Philadelphia businesses to expand overseas. He gave the example of Philadelphia-based company Bassett’s Ice Cream, which is now a leading brand in China. “International is the future of business,” he said, and it is how Philadelphia will rise to prominence in the business world.

Marvin Weinberger, owner of Innovation Factory, also believes that achieving on a global level is crucial to Philadelphia’s success, but he would start a little closer to home. South Korea, Japan, and Australia have invested in lightning-fast internet that gives them an advantage in the increasingly tech-fueled business world, and Weinberger believes that Philadelphia should follow suit, by instituting gigabit internet. Gigabit internet allows users to access the net at speeds of one billion bits per second - the average connection speed in the US at the moment is 6.7 megabits. On gigabit internet, a normally 40-minute download takes 40 seconds.

At the moment, gigabit internet is only available overseas. However, Chicago is planning to bring connection to its people, and Google will soon bring the service to Kansas City at $70 per month. Weinberg thinks that Philadelphia can replicate this model by creating a public-private trust to install gigabit internet throughout the city. With the existing infrastructure of FiOS wires, the upgrade would be simple and inexpensive, said Weinberger, and it would give businesses a leg up in competing nationally and level the playing field overseas.  Gigabit internet will eventually become a reality in Philadelphia with the advent of cloud computing, Weinberger said, so officials may as well be ahead of the curve. The social and economic benefits will be worth the effort, he said.

There’s no denying that technology plays a significant role in developing businesses, but according to Brett Topche, Principal of MentorTech Ventures, a company’s most important asset is its employees. “Until you have the right people, nothing else matters,” he said. Philadelphia is home to three major universities - Drexel, Penn, and Temple - which attract students from around the country and the world. The trouble is, Topche said, a large majority of those students do not stay long in Philadelphia after graduation. Instead, he said, they are going to New York, where there are more investors and more opportunities. Start-ups are mobile nowadays, and they move wherever they feel they can grow biggest. New York, according to Topche, has lost much of its advantage since many investment firms went bankrupt in 2007. Entrepreneurs need somewhere to build, and it is crucial to make Philadelphia the place where they want to be.

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