Ideas We Should Steal:

Tax credits in New York are fueling economic growth. Can that work here?

By Larry Platt

You’ve seen the commercials, voiced by Robert DeNiro, proclaiming that New York State is “open for business.” A year ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled START-UP NY, a 10-year tax abatement offered to new businesses that relocate to, and partner with, one of the state’s 64 universities. The exemption, which mostly targets high-tech companies, applies to property, sales and state income taxes—and even extends to employees, who will pay no state or local personal income taxes for five years. The program is in its infancy, but its first class of 12 businesses have already created 400 jobs and invested over $50 million in Buffalo, Rochester, Ithaca and New York City. 

Would a “START-UP PHILLY” work Here? Philly isn’t a state, but it can take a page from New York and offer bold inducements of its own through the local tax code. Currently, the Department of Commerce’s Jump Start Philly program offers new businesses a two-year exemption from paying the Business Income and Receipts Tax, formerly known as the Business Privilege Tax. (Gross receipts are taxed at a rate of 0.1415% and net income at 6.43%).  And the city has introduced StartUp PHL, a $6 million seed stage fund doled out in small increments to help fuel innovation.

But this is not truly groundbreaking. A two-year tax abatement on one tax, and $6 million in seed funding (New York’s version invests $45 million) is not enough to lure startups here from traditionally lower-cost and less-regulated environments—or even to keep local entrepreneurs from jumping across City Line Avenue.

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Your City Defined: The Clothespin (thē ˈklōz-ˈpin)

By Rosella LaFevre

7945740_origThe Clothespin is a steel sculpture by artist Claes Oldenburg that towers above The El stop at Centre Square at 1500 Market Street. Developer Jack Wolgin commissioned The Clothespin sculpture in May 1974 as part of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s Percent for Art program, which requires that at least one percent of total building construction costs toward the commissioning of original, specific-to-the-site artwork.

It was dedicated June 25, 1976. The Clothespin is made of Corten (or “weathering”) steel, is 45 feet tall and weighs 10 tons. It’s been praised by art critics for its velvety texture and weathered, warm reddish-brown color. The silvery steel “spring” part resembles the numerals 7 and 6, a nod to the United States Bicentennial year. “If you bang it, it makes a lovely sound,” the artist, Oldenburg, told People magazine in 1976.

Can This Wayne Entrepreneur Save The NFL From Itself?

It’s harder than ever to be a sports fan and socially conscious. Here’s a way to return to the days when watching a game felt wholesome.

By Larry Platt

He doesn’t look like the guy who can save Roger Goodell’s job. He looks more like an aging hipster, with his goatee and old-school sneakers. But, as Jay Coen-Gilbert, 48, sits outside Teresa’s café in Wayne, pulling on a beer, the words come fast, like the intense true believer he is: “Sports teams punch above their weight class,” he says. “You get just one to make a stand for progressivism and the impact can be enormous.”

Jay Coen Gilbert, Founder of B Labs

Jay Coen Gilbert, Founder of B Lab

Coen-Gilbert knows impact. His Wayne-based nonprofit B Lab has jumpstarted the international “B Corp” movement. B Lab’s insignia—the B stands for Benefit—confers a type of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval when it comes to social responsibility for over 1,000 companies, including well-known brands such as Patagonia and Revolution Foods. B Lab has created a new type of company, the B Corp, which extends members’ fiduciary responsibility beyond just shareholders, to stakeholders such as employees, the environment and the surrounding community.

Now, as the NFL tries to dodge PR storms of its own making in the Ray Rice and Adrian Petersen cases, Coen-Gilbert and I are commiserating on just how hard it is to be a sports fan with a social conscience these days—you sit down to watch a football game and it feels like you’re rooting for Big Tobacco. It’s all well and good that the NFL has named three domestic violence experts—all women—as senior advisers and that, in the aftermath of Donald Sterling’s racist comments, the NBA is being advised by Dr. Richard Lapchick of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. But don’t these moves smack of after-the-fact PR moves? I’m still waiting for the answer to the most pressing question: Moving forward, how do we find out if our sports teams—beneficiaries of antitrust exemptions and taxpayer subsidies for their palatial stadia—actually share our values?

It’s hard to be a sports fan with a social conscience. You sit down to watch an NFL game and it’s like you’re rooting for Big Tobacco.

That’s the question that drove the founding of B Lab eight years ago. “Many companies say they’re socially responsible,” says Coen-Gilbert, who was one of the founders of AND1, the groundbreaking basketball apparel company that had $250 million in sales at its peak and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2005. “But how do you know if that’s just marketing? A company could be in a LEED certified building, but if they’re not paying their employees a living wage, are they really socially responsible?”

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Citizen of the Week: Lisa Miccolis

Why a coffee shop owner is hiring and mentoring those who have aged out of the foster care system.

By Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Six years ago, when Lisa Miccolis took a trip to South Africa, she expected to experience a cultural awakening of sorts. She just never thought the trip would open her eyes to a cultural divide right here in Philadelphia.

Lisa Micollis, Founder & Execuitve Director, The Elephant & The Monkey

Lisa Miccolis, Founder & Execuitve Director, The Monkey & The Elephant

During her travels, Miccolis befriended Ephraim, a teenage boy at an orphanage who had left his home in Zimbabwe at 14 for a better education in South Africa. When he was 18, two things happened: South Africa revoked Ephraim’s refugee status, and he aged out of the orphanage. Already back home, Miccolis learned through email with him about his struggles to finish high school, to find a place to sleep, to stay in a country where he could be safe and successful. It was heart-wrenching—especially when Miccolis realized that she could do little to help Ephraim or others like him in South Africa. “I’m not from there, and have no support there, and don’t know how the system works,” she says. “My ability to enact some change in South Africa was limited. There wasn’t much point in trying to make a change there.”

Each year, 250 youth age out of Philly’s foster care system. Ninety-five percent have no source of income; one in three live below the poverty line; forty percent experience homelessness. “It is easier for a young man who has a drug and alcohol problem to get services,” says Miccolis.

Instead, Miccolis founded The Monkey & The Elephant  to serve a similar population right here in Philadelphia: Each year, 250 youth age out of the foster care system in Philly with little or no support. Ninety-five percent have no source of income; one in three live below the poverty line; forty percent experience homelessness. Unsurprisingly, one in four end up incarcerated within two years. “There is nothing for these guys,” say Miccolis. “It is easier for a young man who has a drug and alcohol problem to get services, than for a young man who doesn’t.” Continue reading

Ideas We Should Steal: Ending Homelessness

Utah is poised to eliminate the state’s homelessness problem through a simple, yet radical, approach: Give everyone on the streets a free apartment with no strings attached.

By Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Utah’s Housing First program has already taken 2000 people off the streets and into state-financed housing, reducing its homeless population by 74 percent since 2005. Along with the apartment, the formerly homeless receive visits from a social worker. Combined, Utah estimates the $11,000 cost per person is nearly $6,000 less than the average spent every year on homelessness-related hospital and jail visits.

Would it work here? Three different organizations in Philadelphia already provide Housing First-type services to the city’s chronically homeless. The largest, Pathways to Housing , currently has 400 residents in apartments throughout the city, including 150 veterans. They do not have to get clean or sober; take mental health medications; or even get a job. They are required only to contribute 30 percent of their income (if they have it) to rent, and to meet with a team of social service workers twice a month. The goal is not necessarily to wean them from Pathways. It’s simply to keep them safe and healthy, and—hopefully—part of a community. “We want to make sure they stay housed; that they’re eating; bathing occasionally; and getting medical attention,” says Executive Director Chris Sirimiglia. “When those basic needs are met, they are more able to move towards further help.”

Pathways opened six years ago, and has been successful in the same way  touted by Utah. Eighty-nine percent of its clients are still indoors. And it is cost-effective: A 2011 study found that each homeless person placed in a Pathways house saved the city more than $4,000 a year.

Sirimiglia says Pathways plans to house another 30 people this year. But she says Housing First does not work for everyone. Some people need the support of a group home, or the services that go with a mental health facility in order to survive. Thirty-year-old ProjectHOME, for instance, operates some 620 units in clean and sober homes, recovery houses and subsidized mixed-use facilities throughout the city.

“It’s important to have a variety of ways to solve this problem,” says Laura Weinbaum, Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Strategic Initiatives at ProjectHOME. “For some people, having your own thing is what they need. For others, they need the community, and the accountability.”

Philadelphia is a national model for the way city agencies and nonprofits keep track of the city’s homeless population. Advocates know the names, locations and issues facing some 600 chronically homeless men and women. They are outside every night, building relationships with them and prioritizing them by greatest need. Weinbaum says she can envision a day when all those people are inside, in a form of housing that’s best for them.

But that will not necessarily solve the problem. “We could look at our list and say that we’ve housed all those people and ‘eliminated homelessness,’” she says. “But then we’ll go outside and see more homeless. More people end up out on the streets all the time.”

Read more about Utah’s program in The American Conservative magazine here.

Read about Housing First in The New Yorker here.

Finding Diamonds

An innovative program at Rutgers University is turning underprivileged inner-city kids into college scholars. It is hard; it is expensive; and it is a model other urban universities could follow.

by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

In 2007, when the Rev. William Howard was head of Rutgers University’s Board of Governors, he noticed a disturbing trend: That year, only 10 students from Camden public schools were enrolled at Rutgers, with similar numbers in the two other Jersey cities that host a campus.This didn’t sit right with Howard and the other governors, who, at a time when the divide between the haves and have-nots is ever widening, could envision their university as an oasis of privilege on an otherwise impoverished landscape. The day was fast approaching when not one local student was enrolled. None of them wanted that to happen.

Camden, New Brunswick and Newark—where Rutgers has its main campuses—have among the state’s highest poverty rates and, predictably, the lowest graduation rates: Camden, 53 percent; New Brunswick, 61 percent; and Newark 67 percent. For many—if not most—students in these cities’ battered public schools, college was inconceivable. But not, as Rutgers proved, impossible.

Future Scholars is a model for other city universities, like Penn or Drexel, that also straddle struggling communities with low-performing schools.

In 2008, the university launched Rutgers Future Scholars with a clear goal: To turn struggling urban students into capable collegians. Under program director Aramis Gutierrez, Future Scholars selected 50 seventh-graders each from Camden, New Brunswick, Newark and Piscataway. (The New Brunswick campus encompasses nearby Piscataway.) All were from a population least likely to get college degrees: They lived at or near the poverty line, and would be the first in their families to finish college. But they all showed some promise—excellent students who lacked confidence, perhaps, or those who were student leaders but didn’t have great grades. Over the next five years, Future Scholars provided tutoring throughout the school year; on-campus summer programming; mentoring; internships; and social services, when needed. In 2013, 98 percent of the Rutgers Future Scholars graduated from high school—and 97 percent went to college. Currently, 98 students from the first Scholars group are enrolled at Rutgers, which waives their $13,000 tuition; another 100 from the second class joined them this fall. There are now 1,400 New Jersey students from seventh graders to college sophomores in the program.

Karen Nicolas, from the first Rutgers Future Scholars class, an astrophysics major at Rutgers-New Brunswick

Karen Nicolas, from the first Rutgers Future Scholars class, an astrophysics major at Rutgers-New Brunswick

“Institutions of higher education are only as good as the communities we call home,” says Gutierrez. “Rutgers Future Scholars is an example of how higher ed and K-12 can partner to best serve all interests. It is an investment in communities, people and the future.”

Future Scholars proves that it is possible to change the trajectory for underprivileged and underserved urban students, whether in Newark or Philadelphia. As such, it seems to offer a model for other city universities, like Penn or Drexel, that also straddle struggling communities with low-performing schools. But it also makes clear the challenges that go along with such an effort. Rutgers developed Future Scholars with best practices from college access programs across the country, and in partnership with its school districts. Its main focus from the start was creating students who were academically rigorous enough to graduate high school and succeed in college. But it was the non-academic parts of their lives that more often overwhelmed the students. Gutierrez had grown up in inner city Trenton, where he was also a teacher and school counselor for several years. He thought he knew the challenges facing his young students. But he couldn’t anticipate the depth, or frequency, of their needs.

“I might have gone astray without Future Scholars,” says one student. “I was making bad decisions. But then I’d get a call from someone at Rutgers, and they’d set me straight. I needed that to get through.”

Karen Nicolas joined the first Scholars class in New Brunswick, when she was a studious seventh-grader with good grades and good discipline. It seemed like nothing would stop her from becoming the first in her family to go to college. But she says 9th and 10th grades were a struggle. Her parents were getting divorced; she felt torn between them, and found herself drifting in school and getting into the sort of trouble she had always avoided. Fortunately, she had Future Scholars to keep her on track. Continue reading

Are We Headed For A Coronation?

How the [alleged!] investigation of Chaka Fattah could disrupt the 2015 mayoral race.

By Larry Platt

The election to be mayor of the fifth largest city in America is (effectively) seven months away. In the past, candidates would have by now already prostrated themselves before donors and, with much populist fanfare, made public announcements meant to convey that here is not just another political insider. After all, the last time the mayor’s office was up for grabs, then-councilman Michael Nutter dramatically quit his legislative post and announced his intentions—nearly a year before the election.

Chakkah Fattah

U.S. Congressman Chakah Fattah

Yet this time around, we have two announced candidates—Terry Gillen and Ken Trujillo—and a slew of others possibilities, all deep in thought. Weighing things. What gives? Why so many Hamlets on Broad Street?

Partly, everyone is waiting to see what Council President Darrell Clarke does. If he runs, it could clear a good part of the field; some candidates, like controller Alan Butkovitz, have already said that if Clarke gets in, they won’t. But if Clarke runs, he would have to give up his Council seat and all the power he’s accrued since taking the reins of Council in 2012—unlikely.

But waiting on Darrell doesn’t fully explain our current state of freeze-frame. So what does? “Chaka has paralyzed the race,” one potential mayoral aspirant told me.

Chaka, of course, is Congressman Fattah, who looks to be under federal investigation—for allegedly concocting an elaborate scheme to bypass campaign finance laws when he ran for mayor as the presumptive frontrunner in 2007. Continue reading

Citizen of the Week: Danielle Mancinelli

A teacher takes it upon herself to fill a school’s empty library.

By Roxanne Patel Shepelavy

Danielle Mancinelli knew there would be many challenges to her new job as a reading specialist at Francis D. Pastorius Elementary last year. The Germantown school was one of the lowest performing in the district, with many students reading a full three years behind their grade level.

Danielle Manicnelli, Reading Specialist, Pastorius Elementary

Danielle Manicnelli, Reading Specialist, Pastorius Elementary

But Mancinelli was unprepared for what she saw when she walked in to the school’s library for the first time last August: Nothing.“The library was this gorgeous space with beautiful wooden shelves,” says Mancinelli. “But they were all empty. I couldn’t believe it: Where were the books?”

The School District made Pastorius a Renaissance school last year, turning over the reins of the troubled elementary to Mastery Charter, which took over the building in August 2013. First, though, the District stripped its library, sending the books to District-run schools elsewhere in the city. (The District contends that it only does this when charter companies request it; Mastery officials say they did not ask for the books’ removal.) Which means that Mancinelli has to teach reading to her students without books that her students can take home. This has real consequences: Mancinelli recently asked her 5th graders to read for 30 minutes at home and then write about what they read. Ten of the students told her later they had no books at home with which to complete the assignment.

Mancinelli found a beautiful library—with empty bookshelves. She decided to fill them herself. “Research shows that at least 20 minutes of reading a night significantly helps to improve your reading skills,” she says. “Not having a library makes my job much harder.

Mancinelli spent her undergraduate years at Temple volunteering for Treehouse Books, a literacy program in North Philadelphia. Through Teach For America after graduation, she taught 2nd grade in New Orleans for two years. There, she realized that reading is everything: “If you’re not strong in reading, you struggle in every other subject,” she says. “You can’t even do math, because you can’t answer word problems.”  Continue reading

Did Gov. Corbett Miss His Chance For An October Surprise?

Months ago, Center City philanthropist and entrepreneur Richard Vague put an intriguing idea on the table: What if Pennsylvania could cure cancer?

By Larry Platt

The possibility of curing cancer is closer than ever—thanks in part to a University of Pennsylvania researcher. An October 15 article in The New York Times touted the results of Dr. Carl June’s groundbreaking study: Thirty leukemia patients who were weeks from death had been treated with June’s T-cell therapy, in which the patient’s cells are genetically modified so his or her own immune system can fight the disease. Six months later, 23 of those who had been facing certain death were still alive—and an astonishing 19 had gone into complete remission.

Vague has contributed over $5 million in support of Dr. June’s groundbreaking research at Penn. He challenged Gov. Corbett to match it.

Center City philanthropist and entrepreneur Richard Vague endows June’s chair at Penn and has donated more than $5 million over the last three years to spur the doctor’s cutting-edge work. Buoyed by June’s results, Vague sat down early last spring with Governor Tom Corbett, as well as, in separate meetings, Secretary of Health Michael Wolf and Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley. He pitched a big idea: The state of Pennsylvania could become a world leader in curing cancer. “They very well may have found the cure for leukemia at Penn Medicine,” Vague, a courtly Texas transplant and a fixture on Rittenhouse Square, told the politicians. “And now they’re extending that breakthrough in new trials to brain cancer, ovarian cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer. It’s something that could be a gift to the world, but it could also be a jobs revolution in southeastern PA.”

Vague OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsuggested that  Corbett match his own contribution of $5 million. Not only would this advance the cause of eradicating cancer, it would be a brilliant PR move for Corbett, who was facing a challenging reelection: A press conference in which the Governor boldly proclaims the Keystone state as front and center in trying to cure cancer could be the modern-day equivalent of John Kennedy’s challenge to go to the moon within 10 years. Or, more to the point, it could echo Richard Nixon’s popular 1971 call to wage a war on cancer. “The same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease,” Nixon said upon signing the National Cancer Act.

“This is an iconic breakthrough,” Vague says of the cancer research at Penn. “It can be a gift to the world and a jobs revolution in southeastern PA.”

We’re still waiting for that announcement—and the ensuing plaudits (maybe even votes?) that would have followed. “The governor(?) says it’s a powerful idea,” says Vague. “Everyone’s been very receptive.”

So why the delay? Continue reading