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September 26, 2017

Opinion: What could Amazon deliver for Philadelphia?

Let's hope the online shopping giant makes a few demands of its own to make us a better city

When online mega-retailer Amazon announced it was searching for a city to host its second corporate headquarters, it captured the attention of municipalities across the nation. The prospect of one company investing $5 billion and creating 50,000 jobs became the corporate-relocation deal of the century. In an instant, Philadelphia’s chattering class collectively pondered what winning the Amazon dating game could mean for the city's future.

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Brett Mandel

I'll let others do the "come-to-Philly" pitch and think more deeply about the benefits Amazon could bring and the costs Philadelphia might be willing to bear to attract the firm. But, the prospect of a corporation having the ability to make substantial demands on Philadelphia's municipal leadership – and the notion that city officials might be willing to do just about anything to attract the firm – has me hoping that Amazon makes some demands that could make Philadelphia a better city.

So, Amazon, I know that, in the end, you will decide to locate HQ2 here in the City of Brotherly Love. But, while you are asking for an appropriate municipal dowry to win your favor, I hope you will do the citizenry at large a favor and make the following demands to make Philadelphia a city that works for all of us (and not just for mega corporations that are playing hard to get).

We need to clean up our act. Make us do it. While running for mayor, candidate Kenney campaigned on the idea to bring back weekly street cleaning. But, as mayor, Kenney has balked at implementing the policy. Your employees, whether they are new arrivals or current city resident deserve to live in lovely neighborhoods. As a relocation inducement, please ask the mayor to implement citywide, weekly street and sidewalk cleaning so Philadelphia can be a beautiful home to big firms and families of all sizes in every neighborhood.

We need to fairly and accurately value real estate for taxing purposes. Philadelphia has not had a great history with its system of real estate assessment. In fact, for the most part, the city doesn't do much assessing or reassessing. We had a major effort to fix this a few years back, but have returned to stubborn lazy habits, which means that similar properties are not valued similarly for tax purposes. This is unfair, bad for development, and illegal. Thousands of new Amazon employees looking for homes in city neighborhoods will change home values, but the city and its schools will not capture the benefit of increased real estate values if our assessment system remains broken. As a sweeter to the deal you request from the city to encourage your relocation, please ask the mayor to annually and accurately assess properties for tax purposes as fairness and the law demands.

We need to better pave our streets. Amazon knows something about the delivery business. In Philadelphia, that often means bone-jarring potholes and rutted roads. Looking at cobblestones is charming, but biking or driving on city streets that make riders feel like they are cobblestoned is frustrating. As a condition of your coming to town, please ask the mayor to better pave our streets and to better coordinate street openings and pothole repair to keep them smooth so Amazon's packages, employees, and neighbors all have easier trips.

Let this message serve as an early welcome-to-town note. Don't forget, Broad Street is what we call our 14th Street, we use the numbered streets first when talking about intersections (think "23rd and Lombard" not "Lombard and 23rd"), and we use the word "anymore" to start sentences like this: "Anymore, it's easy to find a job in Philly because Amazon came to town." Just don't forget to ask for a few things to help all of us when you are negotiating.

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Brett Mandel is Democratic committee person in the 8th Ward/28th Division and former director of financial and policy analysis under former City Controller Jonathan Saidel. He is a lifelong Philadelphian.

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