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As city waits on soda tax ruling, private sector pours on support for Rebuild

Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Via Plan Philly | By Malcolm Burnley

Given all the news stories that have described Rebuild as a “$500 million initiative,” you might have assumed that, at least by now, the project’s funding was set in stone.

While that’s largely true, there still are a few unknown variables for financing for Rebuild, Mayor Jim Kenney’s massive attempt to rewrite the future of the city’s rec centers, libraries, playgrounds, and parks.

One of those variables, which has received the most  press, is the never-ending lawsuit challenging the validity of the soda tax, which the city has earmarked to pay off the interest on the $300 million in construction bonds. While city officials have acknowledged that Rebuild would crumble if the plaintiffs tied to the soft drink industry prevail, most observers believe the soda tax will be upheld by the Democrat-controlled state supreme court.

Another variable is philanthropic fundraising. From the start, Rebuild has been presented as a public-private partnership, with the William Penn Foundation’s $100 million commitment leading the way. While the soda tax remains in limbo, the nonprofit sector has already stepped up for Rebuild.

The latest sign came earlier this month, when the Knight Foundation awarded the Fairmount Park Conservancy $3.28 million for bolstering residents' engagement in the city’s changing public spaces. While the grant is not going toward the $500-million purse of Rebuild, it’s very much intended to be part of the same ensemble.

“We’re trying to ride the Rebuild wave, which is investing on the physical capital side, and making an investment in the people capital — the communities that are going to be using the sites,” says Patrick Morgan, Knight’s Philadelphia programs director.

More than piggy-packing on Rebuild, Morgan says, the grant serves as a sign of the steadfast role that private partners play in helping to define public space in Philadelphia. For example, the Knight-funded Reimagining the Civic Commons, which began in Philadelphia and has since expanded to four other cities across the country, was a project managed by Fairmount Park Conservancy — itself a nonprofit — in collaboration with city departments.

This grant is a continuation of that work as much as it’s responding to Mayor Kenney’s agenda. “We’re inspired by Rebuild, but we also think the Civic Commons demonstration, which we started with William Penn [Foundation] in 2015, has inspired Rebuild, too,” Morgan said. “Hopefully, this work isn’t only going to inform Rebuild, but then inform a national conversation around doing engagement in different ways.”


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