Updated: 5/30/10 @ 11:48 p.m.: Wrong David
It’s 2026 and a lot has changed.
Online databases, tracking codes and service applications have washed over much of the country’s municipalities, making leaner, more transparent and effective local governments, and Philadelphia became among the movement’s leaders. A smarter, cleaner, more efficient mass transportation system shuttles residents from a reshaped Frankford to a recast Kingsessing.
Philadelphia exports enough entertainment, eating, music and culture that we can cool it on the cheesesteak and Rocky references. Our sports teams win, and City Council has enacted smart policies around affordable housing, education and healthcare. Every flashy magazine city list — however those magazines are distributed and in what form — explores our depths.
Philadelphia is again regarded as among the best places to live in the world.
Sometime in the muggy July of 2026, our mayor, whose name we probably already know, will trot out to a stage on Independence Mall, flanked by the U.S. President, Congressmen and women, historians and dignitaries.
Behind them or in front of them — somewhere anyway — will be a pack of gray-haired men and women, of different backgrounds and experiences, who will be prouder than most. It will be the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and, once again, the world’s eye will be on the most historic square mile in all of the United States. It will be Philadelphia’s day, but then, that old pack of leaders may take some ownership themselves.
That, at least, might be a vision, if only in passing now, of Steven Wray.
Wray is the executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia and while day to day he is at the helm of an organization’s whose mission is to promote sound public policy to increase the region’s prosperity today, he’s looking to get as many eyes on the prize as he can. The Economy League’s World Class Greater Philadelphia initiative is a multi-party scenario planning project pushing for regional advances in a fast evolving world, wanting impact now but orientated toward an internationally captivating metropolis when Americans come back to the altar and its cradle of liberty to celebrate a quarter millennium of developing democracy.
“We’ll have a good story of the past,” Wray tells Technically Philly in the front conference room of the Economy League’s fourth floor offices on the Avenue of the Arts. “But we’ll also have a great story of the present.”
We talk to the native of Pittsburgh about how entrepreneurs can help save 2026, how the city can work with the ‘burbs and why we should all be a bit more like Comcast.
As always, edited for length and clarity.
After 15 years with the Economy League, what has changed most prominently in Philadelphia and the region from your perspective?
The first change that comes to mind is how much more energy there is in Philadelphia now. I think it is fair to say there is more belief in the future of this region today than 15 years ago for sure. There is this core of younger folks — a lot of them aren’t from here — who are enthusiastic about this city in a way that locals here can’t be or haven’t been.
I’m from Pittsburgh and, really, what you find in a lot of the regional economic development conversations are a lot of people who aren’t originally from here but care about it passionately.
What about the Economy League, what has changed there in 15 years?
Well, we’ve really gone from a government watchdog of sorts to be much more focused on connecting and developing the new regional economy. As an organization, we’ve rolled up our sleeves and tried to bring together leaders from industries of all kind in the region and tried to get together for partnerships and conversations that are ultimately going to help this region. One of the ways we’ve done that is through the travel programs of our Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange program.
What are the value of these travel programs?
There are three big reasons these trips can be so valuable.
First, it’s a chance to take best practices. When we took a group to Chicago, we learned more about the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus where [Chicago] Mayor [Richard] Daley got together the mayors of the municipalities of that region to come to common sense solutions about problems. So we came back and talked about that and then Mayor Nutter enacted something similar here to try to connect the region.
Second, it gives us a chance to look back at our own region and see both the bad and the good that we might not have recognized or appreciated before. It’s about looking back through the lens of another place. When we went out to Atlanta and heard their leaders talking about needing a better regional transit agency and sidewalks and ways to make their communities more walkable, I think we all thought about how very special Philadelphia and much of the region is in having that already.
“Everything,” starts Steven Wray, the Executive Director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.
It won’t necessarily mean more jobs in Philadelphia, than California or New York, but the perception and long term benefit are unmistakable for the region, he said.
But is the benefit of Comcast acquiring a major content creation company different for the region than the country?
“Absolutely,” Wray says.
“If I’m in Seattle, I want Microsoft to dominate,” he says. That will only offer opportunity in Seattle, he says. The money comes back and the talent and education from those companies can offer employees a chance to spin off and create new companies and new jobs and new opportunities.
With Comcast, Philadelphia can become a major hub for content creation, he says.
“What that means is very different for someone here than it is for someone somewhere else,” he says.
So with a few years of lessons behind you, what are our clearest strengths and weaknesses as a region?
What first comes to mind is how our region’s complex makeup can be both a challenge and a benefit.
When you think about it, there are really at least three states in our region — Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Those three states can be a challenge because it means working with three systems, navigating those waters, getting consensus and bringing on support for a unified vision moving forward.
But, of course, when we agree, if we can come together, our region can be a real force in Washington because that means six senators and more than 20 Congressional representatives backing our interests as a region.
We have our standard assets of eds and meds — the universities of the region and the pharmaceutical, biomedical and health innovation work. For the meds, we have to make sure that remains a strength and not a crisis… which can happen in a field so dependent on technology and advancing and competition. With the universities, we always need to do better in bringing in a diverse group of students and then retaining them here to do good work.
For a benefit, it’s increasingly our location. There’s the thought that being in between New York and D.C. hurt, but we’re only seeing that location becoming more and more of an asset, being between the two, we’re not overshadowed, we’re right in the middle. We’re a day’s drive from a quarter of the U.S. population. It’s valuable for travel and tourism and our ports and industry.
If there was only one thing that I could change and you gave me a magic wand, it would be to make our political institutions to modernize, become more open and effective and transparent to make tracking its work possible… We’ve fallen behind some of these trends [of online government openness.]
You talk broadly about the Philadelphia region, a perspective the Economy League sticks to. Does that broad view undervalue what Philadelphia proper, the 135-square mile city with an international draw, has and needs to be?
We need to have growth in all parts. We can’t be in competition. That’s important.
That said, Philadelphia is our central magnet community. It’s crucial that Philadelphia is successful and the more successful it becomes, there will be more than enough for those who live in the suburbs. Philadelphia is a draw for those in the suburbs, and those in the suburbs can help fuel Philadelphia, so we have to be in this together.
But we need to get to a place where you live where you live by personal choice not because of business limitation. If New Hope [in Bucks County] makes sense to your business because you’ll be closer to your primary clients, then that’s where your business should be. If you have clients from throughout the region and from New York and D.C., then you should be in a place like Center City. Then wherever you want to live, you live there.
I think our region is special in that our suburban towns have identities. It’s not all sprawl. I say all of this as a suburban resident. I live in Newtown in Bucks County. Newtown was developed as a small town. It’s [more than 320 years old]. It’s a town that the suburbs grew to.
So we have a lot to celebrate here. Philadelphia is where it starts. It sets the tone, but we need to succeed as a region.
People think about this as a zero-sum game. That a company leaves Philadelphia and goes to the suburbs, so the city has lost. But I see that like a new company grew in Philadelphia and expanded to the suburbs and now there’s room for someone else to prosper in Philadelphia.
The Economy League is a public policy advocacy organization, so what are some policy objectives your organization leans on?
Let’s start out and work in.
In the suburbs, we should rethink how we deliver services. It’s not about getting rid of local governments, but there are inefficiencies and wasted money in repeated services that could be shared to save costs.
I think there needs to be more support for the Ben Franklin Technology Partners and ideas like it that are market driven and are about growing from within. That can be done better when we start to fight one-size-fits-all policies for the entire state. Pennsylvania is diverse, so spreading evenly money for programs like Ben Franklin really doesn’t make sense.
If you have an economic engine, then you need to feed it. The benefits can come back in other ways.
I’d say something else.
I think we need a regional news entity that covers the region and covers it serious and completely and in context. It would need to be an entity that covers the economy like we cover sports, completely and with great knowledge and long view vision…
That kind of news coverage could help connect us all.
So what is the real goal for 2026 and how is the Economy League working to make that goal attainable?
It’s about growing wealth and giving opportunity to everyone here. It’s about outwardly having a reputation as a place people admire and want to visit and learn from.
That’s happening already, but there is so much more.
We need to celebrate growing small businesses, not just recruiting outside businesses and needing to give away tax breaks and incentives. How do we get more Comcasts? We want distinctly Philadelphia companies that grow here and base here and spin off opportunity.
Really, we want to this be a place where young people will come and crash on a buddy’s couch before they take a job here. That’s a thought from David [Thornburgh, former Economy League chief] David [Cohen, Comcast Executive Vice President, whom we recently interviewed] but I agree.
And we’re getting there. There’s a lot of talk about how Philly has become cool and is getting cooler…. We need the jobs and opportunity throughout the region to allow people who want to be here to be able to stay here.
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