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April 17, 2015

Can Pope's visit bring global business to Philly?

City will be on an international stage. Will foreign companies notice?

As many as two million people from all around the globe are expected to flood the Benjamin Franklin Parkway when Pope Francis holds his first Mass in the United States during his Sept. 26-27 visit to Philadelphia.

With them: some 7,000 journalists from Europe, Asia, Africa as well as the Americas.

The events that weekend, which will be beamed around the world, will throw a spotlight not only on the charismatic pontiff, but on the host city. Philadelphia will be thrust onto the international stage with greater intensity than ever before.

“It is, without exaggeration, a monumental occasion to raise awareness to a global audience of everything Philadelphia has to offer,” said Matt Cabrey, executive director of Select Greater Philadelphia, which works to bring business to the region.

The papal visit is just the first of a series of events here over the next 18 months – including a national biotech conference and the Democratic National Convention in 2016 – that will provide opportunities for the city to sell itself to a broad international audience as a place to locate or invest, Cabrey said.

Historically, Philadelphia’s international footprint has had room to improve.

In 2011, 5.8 percent of the Philadelphia region’s private industry jobs were U.S. operations of foreign organizations, according to a study by the Brookings Institute. That number has increased a fifth of a percent in 20 years. While it is higher than the national average, it is lower than some other major metropolitan areas and has increased more slowly. The Houston region, for example, had 8 percent of its industry produced by investments from foreign operations in 2011, an increase of 2.1 percent over the same period.

Some business advocates believe that investors must first see evidence of Philadelphia’s promising future to consider the city seriously for investment.

“We want them to actually come and visit,” Cabrey said. The goal is for people to walk away saying that the city has more to offer than they realized and that the cost of doing business here is low. When people show up, “we really make an impression.”

For the high-profile visit by Pope Francis, it is key for city officials to be able to brag about how well they planned and produced the event.

“Failure is not acceptable,” said Jack Ferguson, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

It won’t be an easy task. There are major security plans that need to be put in place, lodging has to be secured for many of the guests and the media will have its eye on what happens, according to Donna Farrell, the executive director of the World Meeting of Families Congress, the five-day event that precedes the pope's visit. The pontiff is scheduled to preside over a celebration of family life on Sept. 26, along with his history-making Mass the next day. She said along with enhancing the standing of the Catholic church and emphasizing the importance of the family, advertising the appeal of the region is a top goal of the meeting.

It's an "unparalleled opportunity," Farrell said. 

“A lot of folks don’t know where Philadelphia is,” Cabrey added, explaining it is important for them to know the city is close to both New York City and Washington D.C. 

“Cost of living and qualify of life is so much more significant,” he said. These elements can help convince companies that the city should at least be on their list of places to consider.

And Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for economic development and director of commerce, said the administration had already done work in this area. 

“The mayor and I have both traveled,” said Greenberger, referring to trips Nutter has taken to France, the United Kingdom and Israel to promote the city. “This is very much about planting our flag in foreign countries.”

He said there are now more direct flights to Philadelphia from overseas and that the city has a stronger international profile. The city is home to a branch of the World Trade Organization and on the state level, international trade representatives focus on specific areas of the world and talk to companies about investing in the state. 

With the pope’s visit coming up, however, Greenberger said it was essential that it go well.

“The city will look great,” he said. “Events that have run well become part of our narrative.”

Direct international flights, a relatively low cost of doing business and assistance finding affordable office space were all factors in a European biotech company's decision to expand recently into Philadelphia, according to an executive with the company, who asked not to be named.

One difficulty cited by that company, however, was the amount of available capital.

“Access to capital ... here is where Philadelphia is dropping the ball,” the executive said.

The National Venture Capital Association ranked Philadelphia 17th in the country in venture capital investment, according to 2014 data. The city’s $424 million investment was less than New York City and San Francisco, which were near the top of the rankings. But Boston, for example, invested $4.4 billion.

Sapna Bhatt, director of international business investment for Philadelphia, said companies were raising venture capital. The city was "focused on it" and had instituted tax changes, as an example, to make it easier for firms to locate in the city.

Along with the pope’s visit, additional events are also on the city’s calendar. A bio-tech event in June will bring in leaders from that growing industry, many of whom are stationed overseas. An angel investor’s meeting will be held in 2016, and the other recent, huge win for the city, the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

“When there are events that are happening in the city, we create unique opportunities for those international delegations,” Bhatt said.

No other event or meeting, however, will match the shining visuals afforded by the papal visit.

“The vignettes will be beautiful,” said Ferguson, imagining the televised images of the city. “That all leads to impressions. You can’t buy that type of media.”