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  • Writer's pictureBen Franklin 4 PA

In unprecedented move, Philly's regional economic development groups join forces during pandemic

By Natalie Kostelni  – Reporter, Philadelphia Business Journal When the first confirmed coronavirus cases began to descend upon Montgomery County in early March, Dave Zellers knew things were going change quickly.

As director of commerce for the county, Zellers and others in the local government were conferring on how to proceed when events relating to the coronavirus began to accelerate in the county. More people were coming down with it and, on March 9, Merck & Co. told its roughly 10,000 employees at its sprawling research and manufacturing operations in West Point to work from home. The company makes vaccines in at its local facilities. The county started to cancel events and make other move to stave off the spread of the virus.

“That Friday, I got a text from Sylvie [Gallier Howard, who is acting commerce chief in Philadelphia] saying she was thinking about us in Montgomery County and hoped I was well,” Zellers said. “I texted her back and said: ‘We should get some of our counterparts together.’ We knew this was going to become a regional issue.”

Minutes later, Zellers sent an email out to his counterparts across the Philadelphia region, inviting them to essentially mobilize collectively. That Sunday, March 15, with a few dozen economic development officials from county and regional organizations joining on a call. Ever since, there have been weekly calls often with about 30 out of the 50 or so organizations that have so far gotten involved.

“It is an unprecedented level of collaboration driven by the level of urgency,” said RoseAnn B. Rosenthal, CEO of Ben Franklin Technology Partners, the state-backed investor group. “This is hopefully a once-in-a lifetime and never again pandemic we are facing and it requires a different level of action. There were over 40 entities on that first call. Everyone just jumped in. We started to coordinate action. I’ve never seen this before.”

RoseAnn B. Rosenthal of Ben Franklin Technology Partners.

Local leaders acknowledge the breadth and depth of the issues spawned by the pandemic are so vast that acting collaboratively is the best route forward. The coordination and sharing among the various groups has surprised many who are involved and most say it is refreshing.

“Everybody recognizes that this is not a small thing that can be addressed on a county basis,” Rosenthal said. “We’re competitive, and there’s nothing wrong with being competitive, but you have to know when to stop being competitive.”

The Philadelphia region seldom unifies

or acts in a collective fashion when it comes to economic development.

While there have been rare occasions, their infrequency makes the collaboration

now underway among those involved in economic development extraordinary.

The effort behind the quest to land HQ2 isn’t a great example since many communities decided to launch their own campaigns. It highlighted the shortcomings of a region that doesn't act collectively — a shortage of tech workers were among the issues that were revealed during the process — and turned a spotlight on those are that do work with a common voice.

One example of economic development entities having a united front is the Greater Washington Partnership, which focuses on an area stretching from Baltimore to Richmond and studies issues such as labor, infrastructure, skills and other issues. Launched in 2016, Its mission is to make that region “one of the world’s best places to live, work and build a business.” It bills itself as the seventh largest regional economy. It won HQ2.

Select Greater Philadelphia was established to market the 11-county region to attract new businesses and focuses on assisting site selection requests. It's more of a clearinghouse for those companies looking for data on the region and available locations to build or locate a new division.

Matt Cabrey of Select Greater Philadelphia.

“For Select and me, it hasn’t been that different,” said Matt Cabrey, executive director at Select. “We talk about Greater Philadelphia as one big neighborhood and take a regional approach. We think about it in a shared holistic approach and how can we work collaboratively to benefit the region. We are stronger as a region than any one county.”

Some headway in taking a more cohesive look at the region was being made with the Philadelphia Global Identity Partnership though that is focused on creating a new brand identity for the region rather than coalescing economic development organizations.

There have been small and big ways this new collaboration has started to helped. Within hours of Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home orders, Anne Bovaird Nevins, CEO of Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. started to get requests from borrowers of its loans who were looking to make some adjustments to their terms because they were worried about not being able to pay.

“In a given year, there are handfuls of people who have problems unique to themselves or an industry,” Nevins said. “But this blows away and far exceeds anything we have seen before. These are all businesses we have worked with over the last several months or years that have been working to grow their businesses.”

PIDC quickly put into place an expedited loan forbearance process. Then, it moved to come up with a tiered system that provided capital relief in the form of grants to help businesses stay afloat. The amount of funding was based on revenues. An online application portal was quickly created that used multiple languages and word got out through community development corporations and smaller chambers.

“We moved quickly on these grant and loan programs and now we have been able to give a lot of lessons learned to Montgomery County and Delaware County,” Nevins said.

In that same vein, one of the first things Chester County Economic Development Council undertook was to conduct a survey of businesses, what they were experiencing and their needs. It was an idea CCEDC’s regional counterparts wanted to hear more about during one of the weekly calls that are being made. Even marketing programs that various groups are using such as a Take Out Tuesdays, Latino Night Dining, or Move it Mondays are being swapped.

“Everyone is more than happy to share,” said Mike Grigalonis, COO at CCEDC. “There is no question we are talking and communicating more. It’s the human spirit in people to want to help and we’re doing the best we can for our businesses community.”

Mike Grigalonis, COO of Chester County Economic Development Council. CCEDC

Many have started to view coming out of the pandemic as a regional issue and not just a Philadelphia or individual county issue. Sharing best practices, reporting on telecommuting patterns, checking in with major employers and providing updates on their progress are all part of what what is getting disseminated. The information is helping to shape various approaches to help businesses big and small get back to some sense of normalcy.

The nascent effort has also inspired some long-range thinking about how to keep the momentum going post pandemic. There is a general sense that regionalism and working together is the way of the future. Zellers is among those who are enthusiastic but also stoic about it.

“Regional collaboration is paramount and has to happen,” he said. “When you look at larger scale economies that thrive, they are regional economies. We have to do this. It may take on different forms and shapes as things progress but we need to build that vision for a stronger region in the decade to come.”


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