Citizen of the Week: Rose Brandau McGee, Camouflage Rhino Thrift Store

Serving vets and saving vets in Mayfair

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

With America winding down two wars and flirting with other military interventions around the globe, Philadelphia’s Veterans Multi-Service Center in 2013 was overwhelmed with donations to help returning vets get back on their feet. The problem was where to put it all.

Suits donated through radio DJ John DeBella’s annual Veterans Radiothon hung from pipes in the dimly lit, inaccessible-by-elevator fifth floor of the center’s Old City building. Other clothes lay in high piles on tables. Shoes were stacked in the basement. Furniture was off site, in two rented storage units. Pairing donations with needy vets was cumbersome, at best. “Even with all the donations, we had no good way to get vets what they needed,” says Rose Brandau McGee, who was a family financial advisor at the center. “Often, we would just go and pull out whatever was closest to the front to give to them. They didn’t get to choose what they took home.”

So McGee and her boss, VMC former executive director Tim Meserve, set out to find a better way. In May 2013, Meserve bought an old thrift store in Mayfair, and turned it over to McGee to create a space where veterans could browse through donated clothes and furnishings. But McGee did more than that. Eighteen months later, she has turned the Camouflage Rhino Thrift Store into a successful jobs program for veterans, and a potentially profitable business that is expanding to the suburbs.

To McGee, this work is personal. She has a son currently serving in Afghanistan. Her dad was in Korea, and her husband was in the Army during Vietnam. Several cousins, uncles and aunts also served, and many sought help from the Vet Center when they came home. In her work at the VMC, McGee witnessed a new generation of veterans returning with few job prospects, an inability to navigate civilian life and, often, invisible wounds like PTSD and traumatic brain injuries that kept them from moving forward. “Vets are getting neglected, by the VA and by the community,” she says. “We need a better system to prepare these guys for what they may need in the future. I’m just doing a small bit of that.” Continue reading

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A Tale of Two Parties

A dispatch from the front lines of Pennsylvania Society, and its promising alternative

By Larry Platt

“I love individuals, but I hate groups of people,” the late, great comedian George Carlin once said. “’Cause pretty soon they have little hats. And armbands. And fight songs…I dislike and despise groups of people, but I love individuals.”

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The Waldorf-Astoria

I was reminded of Carlin’s take when I swept into the ornate lobby of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Friday night and was greeted by a throng of our city’s elite. They were dressed to the nines, spilling out of a ballroom where the IBEW 98 union—John Dougherty’s electricians—was throwing a gala. Doc, wearing hipster eyewear and a suave suit, stood in the center of the room, and everything seemed to revolve around him. He wasn’t surrounded by laborers so much as rich people; yes, on this, the Friday night of Pennsylvania Society, the annual power bacchanalia our state’s movers and shakers have held in New York since 1899, it seemed like Doc and his crew were partying with a bunch of people with whom, under most other circumstances, they’d be in combat.

“What are you doing here?” State Senator Daylin Leach asked me. “You hate this, don’t you?”

Not hate, exactly. But I’m definitely ambivalent about it. And I’m not alone in that. “This is the first year I’ve brought my two young kids,” Leach said. “I figure it’s time they learn how to have meaningless five hundred-word conversations with people. That’s an important skill.”

Pennsylvania Society is a place for insiders to talk to insiders, make contacts, and get backroom deals in motion. Mostly, though, it’s the place where conventional wisdom gets formed.

The weekend consists of a dizzying lineup of cocktail parties and fundraisers, culminating in Saturday night’s black tie dinner. The whole gaudy thing started 115 years ago so New York’s titans of industry could keep tabs on our state’s business and political elite. Now it’s a Pennsylvania tradition—never mind that the estimated $20 to $50 million in economic impact enriches Gotham’s economy instead of ours. (Governor Rendell is among those who have long called for relocating the weekend gala to Philadelphia.) It’s a place for insiders to talk to insiders, make contacts, and get backroom deals in motion. Mostly, though, it’s the place where conventional wisdom gets formed and disseminated, where whispered speculation turns into commonly accepted articles of faith.

My wingman on this night was Penn Deputy Chief of Staff Leah Popowich, an old friend, and one of her New York girlfriends. Later, Comcast honcho David L. Cohen, upon being introduced to Leah’s friend, would say, “She’s your friend and you brought her to Pennsylvania Society? Why would you do that to her?” It should be noted here that this was Cohen’s 27th Pennsylvania Society weekend, and he usually carries around a slip of paper listing every party—making it a point to appear at them all. Continue reading

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The Paper Chase

How a small University City company — one of the nation’s fastest-growing — is on a mission to “make Philadelphia awesome.”

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

It was only the second week of school and already the teachers of Northeast High School faced an absurd crisis: They were running out of paper. And without paper, they couldn’t do…well, anything, really.

The teachers, like elsewhere, were going to have to buy their own paper, out of pocket. At other schools across the city, parents were encouraged to send in printer paper along with their kids’ supplies for the year. And still schools might not have enough to get through the year.

“It sounds so crazy,” says Julia Anaya, a marketing associate with Leadnomics, a University City tech startup. “Paper was this overlooked resource. But we realized that paper is easy. It’s something we have in our office.”

So Leadnomics launched StackThatPaper, an 8-week word-of-mouth campaign to collect paper—or donations for paper—from companies around the city. Think ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, but for school paper: Companies posted pictures or videos as they creatively “stacked” their paper, while also donating paper or the funds to buy it to Leadnomics. CEO Zach Robbins launched the effort in September in plank position on the floor of his office, while employees stacked reams of paper on his back. (He made it to 17 before collapsing.) A few days later, another local tech company, LeadID, staged a videotaped basketball dunking contest with stacks of paper as launching pads. From there, the campaign took off: Some 20 companies made donations, allowing Leadnomics to provide 16 area schools with 270 reams of paper. (While the campaign has officially ended, Leadnomics will continue collecting paper for a later donation. Get details here.)

Making Philadelphia awesome is about more than being a good neighbor, says Leadnomics CEO Zach Robbins. It is also good business.

None of this has to do with the business of Leadnomics, a 40-person company that connects car insurers with customers looking for insurance through a proprietary technology platform. Started by Robbins and Stephen Gill in 2007, Leadnomics was one of the Inc. 500 fastest-growing companies for two years. Now, with 40 employees, Robbins says Leadnomics is expanding its lead generation program to the more than 50,000 local agents across the country. But Leadnomics is a tech company with another mission, as well: “To make Phialdelphia awesome.”

“I have spent a lot of time traveling in other cities, and have always had a particular fondness for coming home to Philadelphia,” says Robbins. “I see the potential this city has, and that it is not always exploited to the best it can be.” Continue reading

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Not Waiting Their Turn

This weekend, millennials will hold an alternative to PA Society. But this party is on Broad Street. 

KellanKellan White, 29,  is a city council staffer and son of long-time politico John F. White, Jr. He is also co-founder, along with his wife Nikki, of the Pattison Leader Group, a collection of ambitious, young change agents. This Saturday, they host their 2nd annual Pattison Leader Ball at the Hyatt at the Bellevue. All profits will be donated to the Monkey and the Elephant.

What motivated you to create the Ball?
In 2012 we went up to New York for the PA Society. We enjoyed Friday evening, which is relatively open to the public, but we found Saturday to be closed off to the average person. The flagship event, the PA Society Dinner, is an invite-only dinner that brings together the traditional PA “power brokers.” We felt as though young professionals should have a similar opportunity to come together. We found that there was no event that was attracting Millennials in this way, so we created the Pattison Leader Ball. We chose to name the ball after the two youngest governors in the history of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

What’s the vibe?
Upscale and elegant, with a strong element of fun.

This is the Ball’s second year. How would you like to see it evolve?
We would like the Pattison Leader Ball to attract more attendees from across the Commonwealth—at the very least the five collar counties. The first year we had a few people from York, Montgomery and Delaware counties. This year we are expecting four or five counties in the Commonwealth to be represented. As the Ball grows, we would love to have an event happening in Western Pennsylvania at the same time. Continue reading

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The Shame of Our City

Council’s refusal to hold a hearing on a $1.8 billion windfall for the city is just the latest embarrassment from what was once termed “the worst legislative body in the free world.”

By Larry Platt

On Monday night, we were to have a Citizens Speaks event (please note, this event has been cancelled). Michael West, vice-president of UIL, the company that’s been chomping at the bit to write the city of Philadelphia a $1.8 billion check for our publicly-owned gas utility, was going to come and do what City Council had denied him the opportunity to do: Make his case directly to the citizens of Philadelphia.

Only, yesterday UIL finally had enough. After two years and $22 million in costs, they couldn’t get a single Council member to defy Council President Darrell Clarke and introduce a resolution to hold a hearing. Now, any company looking to do business with the city of Philadelphia is likely running for the hills. Not only is this no way to run a city, it’s no way to treat a company that was looking to invest billions in our region and establish a corporate headquarters here.

This morning, I spoke with what sounded like a shell shocked Michael West. He’d just received an education in Philly politics.

“We kept thinking we’d get our day in court,” he said. “That’s Democracy. We kept saying to each other, ‘There can’t actually be a dismissal of a $2 billion deal with no public discussion, right?’ Well, wow. Okay.”

Now, any company looking to do business with the city of Philadelphia is likely running for the hills. Not only is this no way to run a city, it’s no way to treat a company that was looking to invest billions in our region and establish a corporate headquarters here.

When it was announced last night that the deal was dead, the reaction of Council President Clarke and Mayor Nutter was telling: both immediately released dueling statements, each pointing the finger at the other. One observer close to the deal said, “This whole thing was very high schoolish.”

Keep in mind what is not in dispute. That Philadelphia is one of the few remaining cities in the country to be in the gas business. That PGW’s rates are the highest in the region and its customer service ranking is among the nation’s lowest. That the deal would have netted the city $400 million—the number in common between both side’s projections. That our gas pipes, the second oldest in the nation, are dangerous. That UIL—as it’s done in Connecticut and Massachusetts—would replace those pipes far faster than if the utility remained a city asset. That UIL committed to fully fund employee and retiree pensions and to maintain the current workforce for three years. Continue reading

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A Man’s Home is His Church

Three people on the Main Line are turning churches into condos, saving the ornate buildings from collapse. With 200 churches expected to close in Philly, they could have a successful business model that will also preserve our landmarks.

By Rosella LaFevre

In Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, 16 Catholic churches are closing and merging with other parishes. Another 14 Catholic churches will have their fates announced soon. And in 2012, a Lower Merion Township symposium projected that 20 percent of Philadelphia’s 1,000 churches would close in the next decade.

It’s likely that many of the churches whose doors are or soon will be closed will fall into disrepair. In some cases, developers will raze them to make way for new buildings. For those who have spent their lives worshipping at these churches, it’s sad enough to see them closed. It’s another heartbreaking thing to see them knocked down.

Main Line reBUILD has found a way to save the structural integrity of these houses of worship while making money.

But there’s another way—a way that saves the structural integrity of these houses of worship and that makes money.

Just outside of Philadelphia, Main Line reBUILD’s Scott Brehman, Tom Harvey and Mac Brand have provided an interesting answer to the question of keeping the buildings in good repair and of viable use to their communities: Retrofit those buildings with condominiums while saving the facade and many of the interior architectural details.

This is what Brehman and his partners have done in Narberth, with a mix of new construction and renovation on the grounds of an old Methodist church, built of gray stone in 1929 shut down in 2012. It’s been empty ever since. This year, Main Line reBuild will construct six condominiums in the church. (The units in this and their other projects range from $495,000 to $1.2 million.) Those units join three others in Barrie House, a stately, historic home, and three in a new building they constructed over the summer. This combination of brand new construction with historic preservation is becoming a hallmark of reBUILD’s adaptive reuse.  Continue reading

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Your City Defined: Councilmanic Prerogative

By Rosella LaFevre

Councilmanic Prerogative refers to the near-absolute power each of the city’s 10 District council members wield over development projects in their respective districts. This longstanding tradition – not codified in any law or the Home Charter—is a gentleman’s agreement whereby District Council members defer to the Councilperson in whose district a project resides. The result is that each Councilperson holds the power to green-light or stall all projects in his or her district, whether for good or ill.

Councilmanic Prerogative In Action: Seven years ago, Councilman Brian O’Neill held up an $800 million expansion of Fox Chase Cancer Center in his Northeast district because he wanted Fox Chase to fund a “community benefit fund.” (When Fox Chase merged with Temple, the issue became moot).

Remember how long it took for the Barnes to relocate to the city? That was, in part, because Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell blocked the relocation of the city’s Youth Detention Center to her West Philadelphia district—until she got a $12 million grant for a community center named after her late husband.

The Case For: City Council President Darrell Clarke argues that, “in return for the prerogative, Council expects the district council member to negotiate on the Council’s and the city’s behalf to improve the project, often dramatically.”

The Case Against: The tradition weakens the power of the planning commission, zoning board and neighborhood groups. Developers claim what’s best for the city rarely comes up, as opposed to what’s best for the individual Councilperson—and that the tradition can lead to de facto extortion. In some cases, it has facilitated actual extortion: Former Council members George Schwartz, Rick Mariano and Leland Beloff all were sentenced to jail for shaking down developers.  Only a handful of cities still practice the tradition, including Chicago, where nearly a dozen Aldermen have been imprisoned for abusing it.

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The Mystery of the Missing Textbooks

Public schools have a fraction of the books they need to teach kids how to pass standardized tests. One parent has built an app to help fix that. So why isn’t the District listening?  

By Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

It seemed a simple enough endeavor: Meredith Broussard’s first grader needed help with his homework. Broussard, a Temple data journalism professor, should have been easily able to comply. Instead, she found herself stumped, alongside her 6-year-old, over the question: What are natural resources? “There is not a single right answer for the question,” says Broussard. “I’m a college-educated person, but I couldn’t figure out the right answer without the textbook. And my son didn’t have the textbook at home.”

Broussard knew that one question on one night of first grade homework wouldn’t make or break her son’s future. But she also knew that in two years, he and his classmates would be taking the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). Which led her to wonder: Could a shortage of textbooks be the reason Philadelphia school students fare so poorly on standardized tests?

Standardized tests are written by the same companies publishing textbooks. Yet for the last two years, the Philadelphia School District budget for new textbooks has stayed flat — at zero dollars.

As she catalogued in an article in The Atlantic, Broussard’s research over several months led almost immediately to a surprising discovery: The standardized tests that school children around the country take every year are written by the same companies that produce the majority of the country’s textbooks—McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt or Pearson. In Pennsylvania, McGraw-Hill is part of a consortium that works with the state to grade the PSSA; McGraw-Hill also produces the books—including Everyday Math—that schools use to prepare kids for the tests. This means that scoring well on the PSSA requires, at the very least, learning the materials included in McGraw-Hill’s textbooks. It also means that adapting to new Common Core standards requires new textbooks.

But for the last two years, the Philadelphia School District’s budget for new textbooks has stayed flat—at zero dollars. So, new tests and new standards. But no new books.

Standardized tests have become the most significant (and in some cases only) way in which we judge academic success—for students, for teachers and for schools. Poor results can mean not only that a student fails to graduate, but also that a teacher loses pay or promotion, or that a school loses funding—or closes altogether. In Philadelphia, PSSA scores declined slightly in 2014, with less than half of students scoring proficient or better in math and reading. Broussard notes that having the right textbooks would not magically raise those numbers. “Even if they had all the books, they’d still need papers, and pencils, and copiers and lunch,” she says. But it borders on the absurd to judge a teacher’s skill, a student’s knowledge and a school’s success without providing them the exact tools for the job they’re being asked to perform. Continue reading

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