5 reasons Kenney’s grand Rebuild project might see some big changes

With a new director, the multimillion-dollar initiative is revving up.

Shovels outside Diston Recreation Center in Tacony in September 2019

Shovels outside Diston Recreation Center in Tacony in September 2019

Joe O'Connor / Parks & Rec

Philly’s multimillion-dollar program renovate dozens of recreation centers, parks and libraries has a new leader. Kira Strong was officially appointed as director of Rebuild at the beginning of January — and the project has potential to make big strides over the next few years.

It’s Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature initiative. At his inauguration on Monday, he touted plans to revitalize 72 Rebuild sites within his second term.

Since launching in 2018, Rebuild-connected work has begun at 61 sites, according to the city’s most recent report. Among them, eight new playgrounds have been or are being constructed, and four new rec center roofs have been installed.

With a new face at the helm, Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy hopes the project can tackle more prominent construction projects more quickly, he said.

“I would hope to see things start to move a little bit faster,” Abernathy told Billy Penn. “Start to see some of our big projects, things like Vare Recreation Center, get in the ground and start to see some significant movement so people can see change… I’m looking forward to some of that transformational work that Rebuild can certainly add.”

Kenney has also billed Rebuild as an anti-poverty initiative, working by creating a pipeline to union construction jobs for people of color. Some gains have happened on that front, per the city’s report, with a quarter of the construction money spent so far going to firms owned by women or people of color. More progress is needed on other diversity goals, however — something the new director said is one of her priorities.

What else is coming? Here’s five reasons you might see Rebuild pick up the pace going forward.

1) Instead of ‘interim’ director, Strong is now executive director

Strong previously worked as Rebuild’s design and construction director. When the previous director, Nicole Westerman, resigned from the post in early November, Strong was picked as interim director.

After about a month and a half, she was appointed permanently. Abernathy called Strong a “natural choice” for the position, crediting her for a lot of the progress to date.

“She [was] the driving force behind getting the work activated at 61 of the sites in the first year of implementation,” Abernathy said of Strong. “It was really clear that a search process wasn’t necessary and that she was the right person, and the right leader, to make sure that Rebuild can move forward.”

Westerman was appointed in 2016 after previously working for state and local government at the the Pa. budget secretary’s office and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, a quasi-government economic development agency.

2) Strong has experience in community engagement

Strong’s professional background is less bureaucratic than community driven.

Before joining Rebuild, she was VP of Community and Economic Development at West Philadelphia-based human services nonprofit People’s Emergency Center. At the PEC, she oversaw development in target West Philly neighborhoods, including Mantua and Mill Creek. The organization built affordable housing, worked with community groups and political leaders to execute the Lancaster Avenue Jazz festival, and involved itself in on-the-ground events support alongside neighborhood leaders.

Speaking with Billy Penn, both Strong and Abernathy noted the importance of community engagement in the success of Rebuild.

Strong said she’s working with community-based nonprofit partners on innovative ways to involve residents in the redesign of their neighborhood facilities. Rebuild design teams have integrated themselves into the facilities on which they’re working, attending regularly scheduled sports practices and hosting family photo days.

Rebuild Director Kira Strong; Ribbon cutting at Fishtown Rec

Rebuild Director Kira Strong; Ribbon cutting at Fishtown Rec

Provided / Isaiah Gaymon for Parks & Rec

3) Strong has a good relationship with the Kenney admin

After Westerman’s resignation, Maita Soukup, spokesperson for the Managing Director’s Office,  told the Inquirer that Rebuild needed a change in leadership to advance the program’s progress.

One of those changes involves strengthening communication with City Council, Abernathy told Billy Penn.

“We have a bold vision as we go forward,” he said, “so I think having Kira focused on that and being able to…manage those relationships with City Council to really push the work forward is really important.”

Rebuild is its own department within the Mayor’s Office, with 16 full-time employees. Leaders of the project have clashed with City Council, especially over workforce diversity requirements.

Council delayed Rebuild implementation to secure an enforceable commitment to workforce diversity from the administration and the building trades unions, causing Kenney to send a letter to Council doubling down on his intention to start the program regardless.

About promises of an ethnically diverse workforce, Kenney said at the time, “I don’t know what else they want. A blood oath?”

4) Rebuild has hit diversity goals in some areas

About 28% of $126 million spent on Rebuild have gone to minority-owned construction businesses and 18% of dollars have gone to women-owned firms, according to the city’s latest report.

However, the diversity is not echoed in professional services used by the project, including general consulting, design, and social service work. Rebuild has spent less than the low goal of 25% of dollars on minority-owned professional services contracts, and fell short of the 15% low goal for women-owned business spending.

Strong said she’s dedicated to doing better on that front.

“I think it’s incumbent on me and on us to make sure that our investments are really guided with an equity lens and inclusivity,” she said. “So really wanting to make sure that the business and the workforce participating in Rebuild are very diverse and reflect our city.”

Rebuild operates a two building trades pipeline programs — one for inexperienced and one for experienced tradespeople. So far all 16 participants have been people of color, four of them women. Right now, eight of them are employed as union apprentices.

5) Additional funding could be forthcoming

Initially billed as a $500 million effort hinging on taxes from the sale of sugary drinks, Rebuild had to rescale when soda tax revenue fell below projections, Strong told Billy Penn.

It’s now funded by a combination of tax dollars, government bonds and philanthropic commitments, including a $100 million matching grant from the William Penn Foundation.

Strong said she also plans to look for more nonprofit dollars to help supplement the budget.

“Out of fiscal responsibility…we have adjusted our budget,” she said. “We don’t want to overcommit or overspend.”

Despite lower than expected revenue, Strong said no sites scheduled to receive Rebuild improvements have been cut from the plan.

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