by Jay A. McCalla
In the Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare expressed an eternal truth that eludes many: “all that glitters is not gold.”
The scene: a young prince seeks marriage with the rich and beautiful Portia. To succeed, he must rightly choose between three caskets made of different materials. As the casket was to symbolize Portia’s beauty, the prince selected the shiniest one. He chose wrongly because the shine that attracted him was a veneer that coated material of little value.
As a boy, I’d sit amazed at the vast visual difference between the delicious burger depicted in the glossy menu and the relatively ordinary thing that was eventually served. How many of us have paid $12 to see a movie based on an “interesting trailer” that totally disappointed?
“All that glitters is not gold” is a hard-earned bit of wisdom born of disappointment and a willingness to learn one’s lesson. Absent that willingness, the wisdom is wasted.
And so I’m concerned when I see that Mayor Kenney is determined to compete for Amazon’s new hub facility that promises to employ 50,000 folks over 10-15 years. I understand it seems like a great opportunity, and there are real political pressures that demand Philadelphia compete.
But these aren’t the 1950’s when a factory moved to your town and there was nothing but upside for the community. Now, big employers demand the “winner” make significant, long-term economic sacrifices and rely on a local sense of boosterism to carry the day.
My recollection, though, is these deals rarely work out for Philadelphia. We give away too much, while getting few real guarantees.
Kvaerner Shipyard comes to mind. Every politician in town was heatedly scrounging for a mighty financial package that would incentivize (bribe) the creation of this facility at the old Navy Yard. With the help of the governor, Philly conferred a $429 million package of funding and tax benefits.
We have the shipyard but little more than 1,000 jobs. Kvaerner was bought out by a competitor, its owners earning money on the merger that was in part fueled by the value of a shipyard made possible by public dollars.
Former Mayor Rendell managed to incentivize the construction of almost a dozen hotels, but it was years and years before we required them to pay taxes.
State law requires that all licensed casinos include a hotel, so their locations can become actual “destinations” and not just houses of gambling. A drive past Sugar House – which has operated for years – will reveal there is no hotel. All the job creation and regional impact numbers they used to win approval never, ever materialized. A cynic might say Sugar House was deceitful.
Because we lack a serious approach to job creation and workforce readiness, our politicians bounce like toddlers at the thought of some splashy event they claim will be “worth millions in goodwill”.
The World Conference of Families, the Papal Visit, and the Democratic National Convention all reached deeply – with mayoral permission – into our treasury for significant subsidies – some explicit, some covert. At the end of each event, the media and public is always surprised at how loose and broad was our financial commitment.
Any Amazon deal will automatically include 10 years without paying any real estate taxes on what they build. Will we commit to pay to deliver utility services to what will be vast acreage? Will we build any additional roads they need for their juggernaut shipping operation?
When The Gallery decided it needed customer parking, Mayor Bill Green agreed to build it for them – at city expense.
When the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News relocated their operations to East Market Street, it was Mayor Nutter who agreed to pay for the move with taxpayer dollars.
I think back to the late Leonard Tose, the very rich owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, and the sob story he pitched Mayor Goode that resulted in the City of Philadelphia paying to construct luxury skyboxes and allowing Tose to collect the rents.
Our politicians rarely get good deals for us.
An Amazon hub will attract job seekers from North Jersey to Delaware to King of Prussia, with the cost of that hub being solely born by Philadelphia. The jobs won’t be “ours” in the sense that local boosters will want us to see them as “ours”.
Given that 500,000 city residents lack adequate literacy skills to compete in our new economy, it is unlikely that our poor will benefit. And, unless prevailed upon, Amazon is unlikely to hire any of our 300,000 ex-offenders. Essentially, this new hub will simply provide wider career options for people who are already employed.
But, the rockets of the same Philly boosterism that seduces us into paying for sports arenas that only benefit team owners have started to kick in Amazon-wise. Many are infused with a reflexive “wouldn’t it be great” attitude, upon which some cold water must be sprinkled.
That we were paying off the cost of Veterans Stadium long after it had been demolished, should raise deep concerns about the quality of politically motivated spending. Our pols have long realized that things that glitter can be represented to be golden.
Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.