Just how powerful is Penn? As an oasis of economic activity, culture and scholarship in Philadelphia, few question the idea that Penn -- a symbol of prestige and productivity -- is a force to be reckoned with in the city. But given Penn's prestige both city-wide and on a national level, does the city government feel obliged to grant the University's requests? In other words, does Penn always get what it wants in this city? Perhaps it should, according to City Council President John Street. At Council's April 14 hearings on a controversial bill regulating University City vending, Street declared that the city has "an obligation to the second-largest employer in the City of Philadelphia." But Kevin Feeley, the spokesperson for Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, said the suggestion that Penn is catered to purely because of its status as the city's largest private employer is "going way too far." Feeley said the University has had to wrestle with the city in recent years on such issues as the vending ordinance -- which was not passed immediately -- and its failed attempts to purchase the Civic Center in the early 1990s. Penn Executive Vice President John Fry agreed, noting that "we have to work really hard for everything we get." Penn does not always get what it wants, he added. And University Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs Carol Scheman said Penn has repeatedly prodded Council for initiatives that have not been implemented. Scheman cited the University's push for street lighting, street repair and a University of Pennsylvania sign heading east over the Schuylkill River -- none of which Penn has received. But Scheman still called Rendell's administration "responsive." "We certainly have a mayor and a city administration that cares about us and understands that this university is an important citizen in the city," she said. Feeley added that "Penn is a national institution of significant importance, so it automatically commands respect." At-large Councilwoman Happy Fernandez stressed the economic significance of a large university situated within the city, calling Penn "a very important part of our economy." "Every student who comes to the University from out of the city is bringing with them four years of hotel nights plus tuition, purchases and their parents' visits," she said. She added that Penn contributes roughly $2.5 billion to the state's economy each year, a statistic which speaks for itself. Also, Penn Vice President for Finance Kathy Engebretson said 1992 and 1993 -- when she worked as city treasurer -- were "tough years" for the mayor's administration and that Penn was a positive force for a city in debt, particularly in the way it pumped money into the city's economy. "Penn was really vital to the city as its largest non-governmental employer," Engebretson said. "It definitely was positive that Penn was here." If Penn's initiatives benefit the city economically, the city is more likely to grant its desires, Political Science Professor Jack Nagel said. "If the University is able to frame [its proposals] as a matter of economic development that is good for the city, then the University is in a superior position to get its way," Nagel said. "But the University can't just snap its fingers and get what it wants," he added. At-large Councilman Frank Rizzo said Penn has a large voice in the city because it is a big company and has greater needs than smaller companies or organizations. "Sometimes people just perceive that Penn gets more than it deserves, but Penn is a major contributor to the tax base of the city," Rizzo said. Any influence Penn might have in the city would not be unfounded, Fernandez said, since the University works hard at improving its surrounding area. Calling Penn a "neighborhood anchor," Fernandez cited Penn's work toward creating the University City District, which aims to clean the streets and make the area safer. Penn also works closely with University City secondary schools and encourages faculty and staff to own homes in the area, two initiatives which are beneficial for the neighborhood. Since universities and medical centers will be the driving forces in the next millennium, "the city needs to actively support these knowledge industries," according to Fernandez. Years ago the economy was run by factories and industry, but along with their gradual disappearance came a reliance on universities and hospitals to provide money, she added.Comments powered by Disqus
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