(Photo courtesy of the Borough of Conshohocken)
If Philadelphia city is growing toward its rightful role as regional tech business lead, several of its more established suburban satellites remain powerful forces for their size. One of them is tiny Conshohocken.
The Montgomery County borough of fewer than 8,000 residents just 15 miles northwest of Center City has seen its stock rise for profitable tech companies that seek the density of a city with the perceived tax and school benefits of wealthier suburban communities. Measuring one square mile, Conshohocken is home to about 17 bars, four funeral homes, nine churches and a tidy cluster of mid-sized glass office buildings.
It also is home to an impressive collection of tech businesses, including 180-person ecommerce analytics firm Monetate, 200-person expanding financial services firm eMoney Advisor, life sciences software firm NextDocs, design agency Empathy Lab and most prominently Kynetic, the holding company that Michael Rubin uses to operate the Fanatics, Rue La La and ShopRunner brands he spun off from the eBay acquisition of GSI Commerce.
At least three of the largest tech business acquisitions from the region in the last 15 years were based in Conshohocken, a town with a smaller population than many Philadelphia neighborhoods.
To be sure, there are examples of firms that have left Conshohocken for Center City, often related to technical recruitment, like videographer network Poptent and digital agency Netplus (sister town West Conshocken lost First Round Capital and Real Food Works last year) but perhaps as many have stayed, including startups like health IT firms Estenda Solutions and Goliath Technologies. Digital agencies Think Brownstone and Empathy Lab are toeing the water with a Center City satellite office.
Giving watchful eye to this is Paul McConnell.
In his three years in the part-time office, the 49-year-old Conshohocken Borough Council President has taken a heavy interest in drawing in fledgling tech companies, leveraging, in part he says, his town’s accessibility — at the crossroads of I-76 and 476, in addition to being serviced by SEPTA Regional Rail — and business hospitality.
In 2012, McConnell was part of a town effort to help Kynetic founder Rubin get the licenses, permits and process down to construct a helipad, which the company pays an annual $5,000 fee to utilize.
McConnell, who works by day in pharmaceutical sales for AmerisourceBergen, previously lived in the San Francisco area, where he saw firsthand the 1990s-era dot-com explosion. During his time in the Bay Area, McConnell said he also did some contracting for tech companies, which helped expose him to their growth and influence.
To get a better sense of how McConnell views his role and that of Conshohocken as a business anchor, below find a transcript of answers McConnell gave to Technical.ly questions.
(Edited for length and clarity.)
Conshohocken has business roots. Why the particular interest in technology?
Being a local elected leader, one of my primary concerns is jobs for our residents and a healthy economy for our community. Having lived and work in the San Francisco Bay Area for 10 years prior to relocating to Conshohocken, I have lived through the high-tech boom and the dot-com boom. I saw first-hand the positive effects that a concentration of technology companies can bring to an area, including good jobs at all levels for a lot of people and a thriving small-business community supporting the tech companies. I have seen what it looks like when done well, and some of the pitfalls that do not really let it get off the ground.
I think Conshohocken is an ideal place to expand as a technology center and all the good that comes with it for the community.
How do you sell Conshohocken when trying to attract or to retain business?
We are semi-urban. We have space for companies to grow. We have ready transportation access including two SEPTA regional rail stations and easy access to 76/476 and the turnpike. We offer a favorable tax level. We have a river and a trail. We are a walkable community and enjoy local restaurants and bars, proximity to major universities, and amenities such as parks, recreation, a rowing center and a community garden. We are building a tech community and have amazing tech companies already here.
Not many other communities can say all this. Conshohocken is the place to come to, the place to stay and the place to grow.
How does the Conshohocken government interact with the tech business class there?
We participate in attracting tech companies here, and equally importantly, we listen to what they might need to thrive. For example, [Kynetic] wanted a heliport, and through a public/private partnership we now have a heliport that they can use. It is also an important amenity for public safety, so everyone wins.
Our next step is building a stronger tech community here. For example, County Commissioner Josh Shapiro is working with us and the companies here to host a tech summit in Conshohocken this coming June. From that we are exploring with our Business Development Commission led by Councilman Matt Ryan have continued a series of get-togethers of the tech community and potentially will host job fairs.
We’ve seen more suburban tech firms come back to the city to hire young talent, Conshohocken has some urban feel to it. Is that why urbanism is part of your pitch about Conshohocken as a place to do business?
Absolutely. I describe Conshohocken as semi-urban because it is definitely does not feel like the suburbs, yet it is somewhat calmer — with cheaper and easier parking — than is Center City. We are a walkable, vibrant, transit-based community only three miles from the Philly line and 25 minutes by train to Center City.
And our Earned Income Tax is only one percent compared to Philly’s at around 3.5 percent to 4 percent. That is a pretty sweet benefit.
What is your relationship to the City of Philadelphia Commerce Department? The Nutter administration has made a big push for business attraction, specifically in the tech sector, so does that make them competition?
We have not worked with the Philadelphia Commerce Department, but I do not see them as competition because as much as we want to attract tech companies locally, there is great benefit for them to come here anywhere in the region.
What are the biggest challenges for you in leading a small, business-heavy town outside a big city to become a better place to live and work?
Two things I will call out.
Transportation: As Conshohocken grows, we need to be careful that our infrastructure, in particular our transit and transportation infrastructure keeps up.
We are too close to capacity to stand by, but our local government is working with SEPTA, PennDot, Montgomery County and Harrisburg to not only keep up but get better. We commissioned our own traffic and transportation study this past year, and we feel promise from the Commonwealths Transportation Bill moving forward.
Housing: Over-development of rental properties vs. owner-occupied housing is a pressure we are now seeing. Apartments are currently a cash-cow, but the housing market is coming back.
If all the current developer-proposals go through we will be approximately 60 percent rentals, which creates an inflated market and a lack of stock for home purchases, not to mention we will become well out of balance for affordable housing. Conshohocken leadership is making significant effort to keep both of these in check.
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