The day after Allan Domb lost the Democratic primary for mayor of Philadelphia, following months of round-the-clock campaigning, he allowed himself a small break.
“I took 45 minutes off,” Domb quipped, sitting in his 22nd floor office overlooking Rittenhouse Square. “I was in this office at 7:45 a.m. I made a list of all the things that I’ve neglected for six or seven years and started getting focused on that.”
Perched at a long black conference table, with rescue pup Allie at his feet, Domb glanced at a printout of the list and launched into a description of his business deals and civic efforts he hopes will have positive impact.
Despite his primary loss, and having quit City Council over a year ago to prepare for his mayoral run, Domb says he’s still laser-focused on making Philadelphia a better city, in part by deploying his $400 million-plus mini real estate empire to attract businesses and create jobs.
It’s not entirely clear how he can fix problems he says he’s focused on — poverty, crime, the opioid crisis — given they were also present when he had an official government position. Will he be able to use his vaunted connections and influence to bring about change now that he no longer needs to worry about being reelected? Or is he just another well-meaning rich guy trying to keep busy?
People close to Domb argue he’s a rare example of a big talker who can actually get things done, as shown by his success in private business and in various policy areas when he was on Council, including tax reform, accountability in city finances, and aid to businesses hammered by the pandemic.
Either way, supporters say, he’s such a networker — and indefatigable and enthusiastic city booster — that he’s going to keep trying no matter the odds.
“Allan doesn’t really have an ‘off’ switch when it comes to helping Philadelphia get to the next level,” said Eryn Santamoor, a former City Council candidate who served two years as Domb’s chief of staff.
Domb is still pushing for the ideas he touted as a councilmember and during his mayoral run, like cutting business taxes significantly to attract corporate offices and create high-paying jobs. (Critics during his two terms on Council sometimes called him too business-friendly.) He’s still calling for the feds to come into Kensington to shut down its open-air drug markets, still advocating for all schoolchildren to take financial literacy classes.
He also remains an avid supporter of Philly’s restaurants, both as a diner and investor, describing them as an essential part of social life in the age of work-from-home.
“The easiest way to think about Allan, and people like Allan, is that they’re Philadelphia patriots,” said Dan Fee, a political consultant who worked on Domb’s council and mayoral campaigns. “Now that he’s out of office, he still cares about Philadelphia, and he’s going to be investing in its future.”
Does that mean the former councilman might run for office again? Or would he take a job in City Hall, perhaps in some business-related position? “Probably not,” Domb said, despite what he called a good relationship with his former colleague and likely next mayor Cherelle Parker.
“I would leave every door open. I’m not sure what that opportunity might be,” Domb said. “But I will say this 110%: I’ll do whatever I can to help the city in any way I can.”
Restaurants and office buildings, a city-boosting combo?
Domb says he really did ease off of his usual 90-hours-per-week work schedule after the primary, seeing friends he’d lost touch with and visiting grandchildren in Boston. He spent time down the shore, jetting through the surf on a Waverunner. “Love it, on the water in the sun,” he said.
But he also attacked that list. He met with longtime collaborator Stephen Starr to accelerate planning of a 14,000-sq.ft. Italian mega-restaurant in the former Barnes & Noble space on Walnut Street, which he owns and which has been vacant since the bookstore relocated in February.
“I wanted to do that so badly,” he said. “I wanted it to send a message not just to Philadelphians, but to all our suburbanite friends, that the city’s coming back.”
Domb seems to spend a fair amount of time enjoying, thinking about and investing in restaurants (“I love to eat, you can tell”). He recounted a story about a great late-night burger at The Goat on Sansom Street; talked about dubbing his deli “Schlesinger’s” after his mother’s maiden name; reeled off a list of “phenomenal” Philly chefs he admires; and marveled at how central restaurants have become in people’s lives, compared to when he was a kid.
“Especially today, when you have many people working from home and they’re isolated, restaurants are a very important part of socialization,” Domb said.
His business interests also include retail stores and residential buildings, although he said the latter are a relatively small part of his business. “People call me the ‘condo king.’ That’s really this,” he said, holding his finger and thumb close together. “I’m really an entrepreneur.”
Office buildings are a bigger part of his portfolio. Domb revealed he’s a partner in the deal bringing insurance giant Chubb to a new, $430 million, 18-floor office tower rising on a former parking lot at 2000 Arch St. It’ll be one of the few new office towers in Center City in recent years, and is expected to create about 1,250 new jobs in addition to the roughly 2,000 Chubb already has here.
Creating more good-paying jobs like those — corporate, Center City jobs — is essential if Philadelphia wants to overcome its linked crises of unemployment, poverty, housing unaffordability, crime, disinvestment, and a less-than-optimal reputation among outsiders, Domb argued.
He brought up a study by the Center City District that found that, from 2009 to 2018, more than 60% of the new jobs created in Philly were in business sectors that paid under $35,000 a year. Across all large US cities, low-paying jobs made up way less of the total, just 28%.
While cities like Boston and Minneapolis retained corporate headquarters, Domb said, pharma companies and others that pay good salaries snuck over Philly’s borders to Conshohocken and Bala Cynwyd. He blamed that in part on the net income portion of the city’s Business Income & Receipts Tax, which he said contributes to a combined tax burden on businesses among the highest in the U.S.
“When you’re a small entrepreneur, especially Black and brown entrepreneurs, and you have to pay almost twice what other cities are paying in business taxes, guess what you’re doing? Going over the line,” he said. “It’s easy to do it.”
Domb noted that he co-sponsored a bill last year that shaved the BIRT down from 6.2% to 5.99%. “We lowered the net income slightly,” he said, his lip curling skeptically. “What are we doing?”
Unfinished business in Kensington
Another of Domb’s passions is education. While on Council, he donated his $142,000 salary to schools and education programs, and he continues to argue — as he did during the mayoral campaign — for mandatory financial literacy classes in all grades, as well as for more tech and entrepreneurship courses.
He recalled working nights as a janitor in high school, and cited a private school where older students attend classes four days a week and spend the fifth working. The school has a 99% graduation rate, he said, far higher than Philly’s 70% rate.
Another preoccupation is Kensington and its crisis of drug trafficking, drug use, homelessness and blight.
For years he’s been visiting the neighborhood, as often as a few times a week, and he remains appalled by the city’s failure to get a handle on the problems there.
“I saw people last night — one woman had almost no clothes on, lying in the gutter,” he said, as he brandished a copy of a Council resolution on Kensington that he had sponsored. “It really upsets me to see what’s going on there. We should not allow it. It’s just unacceptable.”
Last year, he said, he talked to then-Gov. Tom Wolf about declaring Kensington the site of a federal emergency in order to activate federal law enforcement and other agencies. Wolf said he’d talk to President Biden about it but would need Mayor Jim Kenney to request the designation, according to Domb. Council passed the resolution, but Kenney canceled two phone appointments to discuss the matter and the effort stalled, Domb said.
City spokesperson Sarah Peterson said she could not immediately confirm those phone cancellations. She said Kenney is “supportive of all attempts to gain additional resources for the city,” while noting that an emergency declaration would not guarantee such resources. Last year administration officials said they were planning to speak with Domb about the designation.
Domb can no longer call hearings or sponsor legislation, but he said plans to continue offering his ideas to anyone who will listen, via social media and an occasional column for Philadelphia magazine. His first was dedicated to solutions to the crime problem, such as his Kensington plan and diversion programs for low-level defendants. He suggests the next mayor bring in much-admired former police commissioner Charles Ramsay as a consultant.
He may be most effective as a convener — someone who brings people together to make and implement a plan — because so many will take his calls and he doesn’t care about getting credit, suggested Santamoor, his former chief of staff.
“Whether that means the business community or a community group coming together, Allan is happy to be involved, happy to lead, happy to host. I have no doubt that he will continue to do that behind-the-scenes work,” said Santamoor, who previously worked as a deputy managing director in the Nutter administration. “Those kinds of outside organizations sometimes are more successful than when you go it alone in city government.”
Domb was gratified by the number of people who reached out to him after the primary, asking him to join their organizational boards or help their neighborhoods, said Fee, the political consultant. Domb is unlikely to take up most offers, but he may accept a few.
“He’s trying to figure out where he can be an actual benefit, rather than just a name,” Fee said.
Domb said he will make himself available “to offer, in a positive way, anything I can do to make Philadelphia the best that it can be.”
“It’s a great city,” Domb said. “We need to fix a lot of things. This taxation thing’s a big issue. A lot of these problems go away when you have good-paying jobs — when people are making a family-sustaining income.”