Eric is a general assignment reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune
The former Liddonfield public housing complex will be sold to Holy Family University for $4.2 million, with a developer planning to turn the 32-acre site in the city’s Northeast section into a mixed-use residential development and athletic fields for the university.
Philadelphia Housing Authority Commissioner Estelle Richman approved the sale on Friday.
The terms of the agreement included a provision requiring the developer, John Parsons and his company BSI Construction of Bensalem, to set aside just over $1 million in scholarships for students in PHA housing over the next decade. The company will give four full-scholarships to Holy Family University each year for the next 10 years.
“We are absolutely thrilled to be working with PHA on this project,” Parsons said on Friday after the vote. “It’s a great opportunity for PHA residents to further their education. We’re hoping that this partnership continues for many years to come because there are many opportunities that we’re looking into.”
Richman said there were still a few details to finalize, adding: “but at this point we feel we’re at a good point.”
In addition to the funds set aside for scholarships, Parsons promised to spend $550,000 employing PHA tenants.
According to plans outlined at this week’s board meeting, the site, bordered by Megargee, Tolbut and Cottage streets and Torresdale Avenue, will be converted to a mix of senior and student housing, shops and recreation, and athletic fields. Plans call for between 50 and 60 senior housing units.
Councilman Bobby Henon, who represents the district, supported the decision.
“It’s a game changer for Northeast Philadelphia. It’s a game changer for PHA and its residents and the opportunities that they provide,” he said. “I look forward to offering my assistance in any way possible.”
The site was once a 463 unit public housing complex built between 1955 and 1968. PHA closed it in 2009 and demolished it in 2010. The land has been vacant since then.
In other news, Richman also approved a memorandum of understanding with Cheyney University of Pennsylvania that will cement a partnership between the school and authority that is intended to give PHA residents more access to higher education.
According to the agreement, PHA will accept three Cheyney interns and help place others with its business partners; hold a young scholars conference; help provide broadband Internet access and netbooks to PHA residents; hold a career fair; and provide continuing education for PHA employees.
Frustrated at the political gridlock in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Thursday released a report that members hope can be used to re-focus national attention on the need for spending on infrastructure, transportation and education.
“It must be the mission of this bipartisan organization to make sure that the priorities of cities are addressed by both presidential candidates through the course of this upcoming election and beyond,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, president of the conference which was meeting in Philadelphia this week. We want to remind both presidential candidates, the Congress and Washington in general that when you invest in cities, you invest in America.”
The report, a 116-page document titled U.S. Metro Economies, compiled by the consulting firm IHS Global Insight, provided a detailed statistical snapshot of the nation’s cities and predicted modest economic growth for the remainder of the year.
Short-term projections in the report anticipated a 1.4 percent increase in employment in metropolitan areas by the end of 2012, and a 2 percent growth in city’s share of gross domestic product. In addition, the report anticipated that over the next 30 years, cities will grow 32 percent, adding 84 million to the nation’s population centers.
For that growth to happen smoothly the nation needs to invest, concluded the report. However, over the last several years, investment has fallen. Public spending on infrastructure in the United States has fallen to 2.4 percent of the gross domestic product, according to the report.
Nutter noted that infrastructure spending had been at 3 percent of the GDP not long ago, saying, “It’s going in the wrong direction.”
“We need to make smart investments today to ensure that we will continue to grow in the future,” Nutter said. “The nation’s mayors are calling for investments that will not only create jobs today but that will pay dividends for decades to come.”
Speaking to the Tribune after the press conference, Nutter said the report would be used as a launch pad for a massive lobbying effort in Washington, D.C., urging the federal government to invest directly with cities. Officials were already working on a draft of a condensed report that will prioritize the mayors’ concerns. It is expected in the fall, Nutter said. It will also be used in discussions with various state governors.
A lack of investment will cost more in the future, said Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, Calif.
“Underinvestment in infrastructure, there is going to be costs in the long term that are going to impact everything else that we do,” he said.
Perhaps more important than the report was the obvious frustration of mayors from cities, large and small, felt with the country’s political leaders, particularly Congress.
“We need Congress to do their job, so Americans can get a job,” Nutter said.
Others were even more outspoken.
“We’re done asking the federal government for help,” said Mayor Frank Ortis of Pembroke Pines, Fla. “We’re going to take action and tell the federal government our cities need help. And, we’re going to lead the way. We want action. We’re going to go to the Hill and say we want to put our people to work.”
Using House Speaker John Boehner as an example, Mayor Donald Plusquellic of Akron, Ohio, said the partisan divide, fueled by the tea party, has paralyzed Congress.
“He treats us like crap,” Plusquellic yelled at one point during the press conference.
After the meeting, he explained that traditionally, Congressional and administration leaders from the cabinet level down have taken the time to meet personally with the mayors of large cities in their states but that Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has not.
“He used to be a pretty good guy,” Plusquellic said. “It used to be Democrats and Republicans working together. We have this partisanship now.”
Plusquellic said he’s met with Boehner’s staff but not the Speaker, but if he could sit down with Boehner he’d urge him to remember the old days.
“Sitting down and talking to people works,” Plusquellic said. “He treats all of the mayors and the leaders of this country like crap.”
“It’s symptomatic of what’s going on with Congress. If you’re not going to listen to 90 percent of the country … in November we’ll see if 90 percent of the country listens to you,” said John Dickert, mayor of Racine, Wis.
Mayor Scott Smith of Mesa, Ariz., explained that the frustration has been building for years.
“Every mayor in the room has been through the fire over the last three or four years. Every mayor in the room has had to make decisions we didn’t like,” said Smith. “Our frustration boils over because at both the state and national level we don’t see our legislators taking the same approach. It’s frustrating.”
Critics also point to records of candidate’s off-shore accounts
A group of 21 mayors from across the nation is calling on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to release more of his tax returns — comparing him unfavorably to his father George Romney, who during a presidential bid in 1968 released 12 years of tax returns.
“It’s time to come clean, Gov. Romney,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, one of the group, which included six mayors from Pennsylvania, who sent a letter to Romney urging him to release more information. “Your own father set a precedent for presidential candidates of both parties when he said public release of several years of tax returns was necessary, explaining that ‘one year could be a fluke, perhaps done for show.’”
Romney has released his tax returns for just one year — far less that many other candidates have released, including his father.
It is also far less than Romney released when he was being vetted as a possible choice for vice presidential candidate by John McCain’s campaign in 2008. At that time, Romney released 23 years worth of returns.
“Now as you audition for the American people, you say only one full year is good enough,” said Nutter. “It isn’t.”
Nutter made it clear that the letter, which was made public during a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, was not linked to the meeting or the conference, but was an independent act by several discontented mayors.
“You can’t get a clear picture of a candidate unless they release more than one year,” said Mayor Ed Pawlowski of Allentown, a Democrat. “We would ask him to take his own father’s advice and release multiple years of his tax returns and let the public see what this individual is about.”
Other Pennsylvania mayors included Pete Lagiovane of Chambersburg, Richard Gray of Lancaster, Helen Thomas of Darby and John Callahan of Bethlehem.
They were part of a growing chorus calling for Romney to release more returns.
“This is something that’s going to continue until he does something about it,” Nutter said.
It’s not only Democrats who have called for more tax returns.
Several high-profile Republicans joined the call for transparency, including Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson.
In an editorial, the conservative National Review also urged Romney to release more tax returns even though it agreed with him that Obama’s camp wanted them for a “fishing expedition.”
The Romney campaign concedes that many voters would prefer transparency, but doesn’t believe that the issue is important enough to sway votes in November.
Mitt Romney’s wife is reinforcing her husband’s refusal to make public more of his tax returns, saying “we’ve given all that people need to know” about the family’s finances.
Ann Romney said people will decide whom to vote for based on whether their lives would be better under Mitt Romney than President Barack Obama.
Ann Romney says the family gives 10 percent of its income to the Mormon church and he took no salary during his four years as Massachusetts governor. She says that should be enough to put aside people’s concerns about his finances.
The single year of tax returns released by Romney shows investments and offshore accounts scattered across the globe, including places such as Switzerland and Grand Cayman.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Local billionaire and Phillies owner John Middleton and his wife Leigh have promised to give $16.2 million — largely dedicated to technical education — to Philadelphia schools over the next four years.
“No one can argue that the district is not in serious trouble today and needs us to embrace its troubles in order to fix them,” said Middleton, urging all Philadelphians to rally around the city’s education system.
His family felt compelled to come to the assistance of the embattled district — which faces a $282 million deficit — and the city’s youth for the sake of Philadelphia’s future.
“Well educated citizens of good character are the foundation upon which both our democracy and freedom rest upon,” he said.
He noted that recent changes in the make up the School Reform Commission, the strong support of Mayor Michael Nutter and an overwhelming realization that education reform is critical made it the right time for the donation.
“In every great struggle, there comes a tipping point, that critical moment when an infusion of resources — people, effort and assets — is necessary to prevail,” Middleton said. “For the school district, we believe that tipping point is now.”
The funds, which will go to the district, Drexel University and two education non-profits, will be administered by the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.
Approximately $5.7 million will go to the school district to expand its technical education program with the hopes of expanding its capabilities to serve up to 12,000 students over the next five years — an increase of 6,800 students.
Philadelphia Academies Inc., which is headed by Lisa Nutter, will receive $2.25 million to fund an expansion of its Career Academy model throughout the district. Plans are to expand the program to reach 5,000 students enrolled in 16 career academies at four target schools.
Philadelphia Youth Network will receive $5 million, and Drexel University will get $2 million to expand online learning and workforce development and $1.34 million for its Center for Strategic Leadership.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan praised the Middleton’s gift via his blog, and suggested the school district should do more to ferment these types of public-private partnerships.
“It is welcome news for our district, which faces an enormous challenge: preparing our kids for college, career and a future while wrestling with a huge deficit. But the Middleton family’s donation underscores a more important point: When it comes to education, genuine partnerships between public and private entities can achieve amazing results,” Jordan wrote. “As we continue to grapple with a $282 million dollar shortfall, we need to keep a collaborative model in mind. If we continue to let private interest groups make all the decisions for us, the focus will shift toward the bottom line and away from building innovative programs that provide the learning environments our children need.”
The Middleton donation will have no impact on the current budget, spokesman Fernando Gallard confirmed; the donation will help also fund several programs the district did not budget for in fiscal year 2013.
Middleton, Nutter and the mayor’s wife, Lisa, made the announcement Tuesday at City Hall.
“The Middleton family is making a game-changing investment in the future of the City of Philadelphia,” said the mayor.
He stood flanked by a chart filled with stark education statistics. Among them the facts that 37 percent of Philadelphians lack a high school diploma; 77 percent lack college degrees; 42 percent are outside the traditional labor force and 25 percent live in poverty.
“We hope that this announcement today will inspire others who have the interest first, and maybe the means, to join us in a new quest to turn this city around,” the mayor said.
Middleton, who sold his family cigar company to Altria — formerly Philip Morris for $2.7 billion, is also part owner of the Phillies.
Councilman Mark Squilla has emerged as one of the more influential of the six new members of City Council — a critical voice during the recent budget battle, and one that helped convince Council to delay the Actual Value Initiative — a controversial property tax reform measure.
“It was a good learning experience,” said the freshman councilman, who represents the city’s 1st Councilmanic District. “We learned how to compromise and come up with different solutions from maybe something the administration thought would work.”
Squilla is a member of what council members jokingly call the “serious six.” The six members who took their seats in January and were immediately swept up in an epic budget battle, the perfect storm of tax reform, education crisis and politics.
Looking back — nearly everyone agrees that the new members rose to the task.
“They’ve earned their title,” said Majority Leader Curtis Jones, at the end of Council’s spring session. “They were here to stand up for their core convictions.”
According to Squilla, the group has been energized by a common desire to change the status quo.
“Everybody is really serious about making a difference,” he said. “That energizes some of the other council members that have been there for a long time. We have the willingness to make tough decisions.”
None were as visible at Squilla during the debate, though he downplays his role.
“I didn’t think we were getting all the information that was necessary,” he said. “Once some of the other members started seeing that, they also started saying ‘wait a second.’”
His colleague Councilman David Oh put it this way: “What he did, in an effort, I think, to get more information faster was say, ‘hey look if you don’t get it to us, this is what is going to happen — we’re going to delay it.’”
While Squilla stood squarely in opposition to the mayor’s proposal, and frequently said he thought the move to AVI was premature, comparing it to diving into a pool when you couldn’t see the bottom. His criticism of the administration, Mayor Michael Nutter, in particular was muted — unlike that of some other council members.
“I know that people tried to get a fight between Council and the administration, but even though we disagreed on a lot of things [Council] was still able to work with the administration,” Squilla said, crediting Council President Darrell Clarke with his deft handling of the tensions.
“We’ve always been able to be straightforward with each other,” Nutter said. “He seems to be a guy that wants to get things done. He’s not looking to do something else or anything. He seems like he has principles and things that he cares about.”
Ultimately, Squilla was so persuasive that Council voted to delay AVI for another year.
His philosophy, Squilla said, is one of making things happen.
“My philosophy as a whole is to get things done. I hate when people tell me things can’t be done,” he said. The goal of Council should be ‘let’s get it done.’”
Surprisingly that even applies to AVI — provided it’s done right.
“Let’s get it done,” he said, his voice rising. “We can help the mayor do something that nobody else was able to do, but it speaks well for Council. Let’s get it done. It’s a hard thing to do. Let’s not pass it off because it’s going to make some people mad.”
Squilla, who replaced long-serving Councilman Frank DiCicco, has no prior experience in holding elected office but was, since 2008, president of the Whitman Council, and boasts of two decades of community service on his résumé. When DiCicco announced that he would not be seeking re-election he endorsed Squilla. He also collected Nutter’s endorsement during his bid for Council.
Though AVI is likely to dominate Council’s agenda well into 2013, Squilla hopes to get some things done in his district and to tackle other issues faced by the city — jobs and crime. He doesn’t have all the answers, but is open to suggestions.
“Let’s try some new things, even if they don’t work, we’re trying,” he said.
Squilla also hopes that Council exerts a greater influence over the school district by keeping a firm grip on the purse strings.
“Without education, our city is going to fail. We have to make sure that they’re accountable and the only way we can do that is withhold money,” he said. “We have no other say.”
A graduate of St John Neumann High School and La Salle University, Squilla has been married for 22 years to Brigid, a nurse anesthetist. The councilman’s three daughters and son currently attend high school and college in the Philadelphia area.
He’s optimistic about the city’s future.
“I think we have the potential to really move forward,” he said. “The changes we need to make over the next three or four years are very, very important because if we cannot make positive changes — improve our schools, decrease crime — the people who have given the City of Philadelphia a chance will move. This is our time to make it work.”