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Can Jim Kenney, Philly’s new ‘neighborhoods’ mayor, keep big events here?

Later this month, Forbes magazine editor Randall Lane is scheduled to meet with Mayor Jim Kenney and new city representative Sheila Hess. The future of the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia is on the agenda.

For Michael Nutter, this summit represented a major accomplishment. The former mayor once described having 2,000 of the U.S.’s top entrepreneurs as “a big thing in and of itself.”  This time Lane will be dealing with a new regime, one with a mantra of “serving the city” rather than Nutter’s desire to build a “destination city.” Not once in his inauguration speech did Kenney mention big events.

Yet the leaders charged with planning and bringing events suggest Kenney cares plenty about them. Just because Kenney hasn’t discussed events as often as his predecessor doesn’t mean he won’t be an events mayor, too. They say his administration will just have a different approach to them, in some ways trying to mix his neighborhoods mentality with events.  

“When you mention the word events he gets super energized,” said Hess, who used to be the director of foundation and community affairs for Independence Blue Cross. “That’s his sweet spot.”

In fact, later today Kenney will announce with the Pennsylvania Convention Center and Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau the return of a “major” convention. It will be the first convention booking of Kenney’s tenure. A source tells Billy Penn the event is in the life sciences area, where the Convention Center draws much of its business.

Hess points out that the biggest event scheduled for Philadelphia this year, the Democratic National Convention, might not be here if not for Kenney. He introduced a resolution in Council in 2014 saying Philadelphia should place a bid for it, adding that he was doing it because the Nutter administration “does not plan to convey interest in recruiting this massive economic boost to Philadelphia.”

An economic boost from any event is hardly a guarantee, of course. The Nutter administration learned that the hard way last year.

It claimed the Pope Francis weekend could lead to an economic impact of more than $400 million in the days leading up to his visit. Nutter also promoted an “OpenInPHL” campaign that encouraged local businesses to stay open. But restaurants ended up with sparse crowds and uneaten food and a mayor claiming he never promised any economic benefits.

Under Nutter, the city has had a mixed track record when it came to costs with big events. He decreed after the financial crisis of 2008 that the city wouldn’t be able to foot the bill for city services during traditional events like the Mummers Parade and Gay Pride Parade. But it made exceptions. Welcome America hasn’t always been completely covered by sponsors, and the papal visit and Forbes Under 30 Summit were both costly.

The papal visit left Philly with a tab of $8 million. Shortly before Nutter left office, WHYY’s Dave Davies reported that the Forbes Under 30 Summit cost the city $1.7 million.   

While anyone in Philadelphia could have seen the pope for free, the Under 30 Summit is closed off. The exclusivity has been criticized, perhaps most notably by Philebrity, which in 2014 called ita fucking promotional event for a fucking magazine that is primarily read by fucking assholes.”

“Under Nutter,” said Philebrity founder Joey Sweeney via email, “the city would just hand over huge chunks of infrastructure to brands like Budweiser and Forbes. And that feels weird and needy to me. It’s not like Philadelphia is Davenport, Iowa, and we should just be shocked that people wanna do anything with us at all. It’s fucking Philadelphia… It just felt beneath us.”

Lane declined to be interviewed through a spokesperson. He told Billy Penn last year the decision would be on a year-to-year basis, but that the magazine wanted to keep it in Philly as long as leaders remained supportive and cooperative.  

Hess said Philadelphia wants to continue hosting the summit, but could not guarantee any financial terms at this point. Jeff Guaracino, previously of Visit Philadelphia and the Atlantic City Alliance, is working with Hess’ office as the CEO of Welcome America Inc. said they’ll look into developing partnerships for all types of events as has been done in the past.

In addition to keeping costs down, Hess said one of the goals for the office is to appeal to the neighborhoods. Three weeks into her job, she’s not exactly sure how the plan will turn out, but she said they want to build relationships with the community and appeal to Philadelphia’s many races and ethnicities with new events or changes to events. The City Representative’s office produces about two dozen events a year and has a hand in many others.  

This year will prove to be an early test. Guaracino said leaders the last couple years had noticed bookings for this year had been down, even with the DNC in town.

For all the cost and planning problems associated with some of the biggest events under Nutter, Philadelphia reaped plenty of benefits from them. Hotels, for instance, had a record occupancy rate of 77.4 percent in 2015 and 3.1 million nights sold (about 75 percent more nights sold than in 1997). Kenney’s administration will have new standards like that to live up to.    

“We are world class already,” Hess said, “but we want to strengthen that and create an experience for our current residents and neighbors. If we can get them to be our biggest ambassadors and advocates… that’s the best.”

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