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Navy Yard Executives' Annual Meeting

April 13, 2017

President John Fry discusses the success of the Navy Yard development and the inspiration it provides other business initiatives to make Philadelphia a top-tier metro area.

I am so pleased to join you this morning. Just having the chance to visit this wonderful space that URBN has created … And from so many vantage points around us, it is clear the Navy Yard is a very special place in the city of Philadelphia. It’s an oasis, for one thing. We’re surrounded by world-class architecture, and great amenities … places to relax, work out, grab a bite to eat … all in a beautiful natural setting.

At the same time, this is a crucible for the growth of the new city economy. From finance … to retailing … to health care … to the most modern methods of manufacturing, it’s all here. That’s why I wasn’t really surprised when an article about the Navy Yard in Politico Magazine last summer bore the headline, “The Coolest Shipyard in America.” I imagine you saw that, and said to yourselves, ‘Yes, that’s about right.’

I’m told that this is the 11th annual gathering of this group. And it’s fair to say the Navy Yard was not an overnight success, but that it shows the fruits of years of planning, hard work … and daring moves by civic and business leaders. That history offers lessons — and great encouragement — to all of us working to ensure that Philadelphia stays competitive in an innovation economy.

I think back to how the renaissance here began more than 20 years ago, when it seemed that Philadelphia’s shipbuilding days were behind it. And who would have imagined being able to create a business campus with more than 12,000 employees and 152 companies, that spans 1,200 acres? The great lesson here was in seeing what changed the outlook: And that was forward-thinking leaders who stepped up to reinvent both the city’s place in global shipbuilding, and also to carve out this campus.

We can thank an activist mayor, Ed Rendell, and a governor, Tom Ridge, who was willing to work across party lines, and economic-development professionals like Bill Hankowsky, Peter Longstreth and John Grady. What an incredible testimony to their leadership.

I served as a board member at PIDC during the time Bill was president and Charlie Pizzi was chairman. I remember sitting in the meeting room, hearing about this project and thinking, well, that’s impossible. Because everybody at the time thought of this area as a dead zone.

But then these leaders started to make things happen. There was the intense, trans-Atlantic courtship of the Norwegian company, Kvaerner, which brought back the ships to what we now know as Philly Shipyard. Then, PIDC leadership from Peter, and now John, gave private business executives the confidence they needed to make the move here.

They were assured by the sound concept of the Navy Yard that Peter promoted over his decade at PIDC: a setting under unified ownership, with a consistent master plan and a vision for development that was sustainable. What made so much sense was the concept that Peter outlined for a place where partnerships and innovation could flourish.

It was further a stroke of genius to stress a research and development strategy — one that would build on the Navy’s historic strengths in engineering, and, over time, give the city yet another attractive selling point in addition to its successful life-sciences economy. Executives like Dick Hayne, Michael Forman, Charlie Pizzi and others saw the attraction in the new Navy Yard, and set up shop here. So we have them to thank, too.

I know they were joined by many others, but I’m happy to call out these three ‘colleagues,’ and thank them for their service as trustees of Drexel University. As a group, their companies represent hundreds and hundreds of Navy Yard employees … some 2,500 here at URBN … another 200 at FS Investments, and about 600 at the Tasty Baking Company.

I should also give a shout-out to RevZilla, another great Drexel success story by two graduates. With more than 200 RevZilla employees here, the company has come a long way from the Philly apartment where Anthony Bucci and Nick Auger, and their friend from Lock Haven University, Matt Kull launched their motorcycle apparel gear company.

I recall some of that history of creating the Navy Yard to introduce a couple of themes.

First, you need to know just how much of an inspiration the Navy Yard is to the rest of us in the city. The sheer scope and courage that it took to create this business campus stands as a testament to the possibility for success of all the innovation projects and districts that will follow.

So, you’re a beacon of hope to the University City Science Center as it rebrands and grows into uCity Square. And certainly, at Drexel, we looked to the Navy Yard when formulating the Schuylkill Yards innovation district that we are building on a 14-acre tract across from 30th Street Station.

I think we all know that it’s a lot easier to venture out with a new idea if you can see something audacious that’s been accomplished so successfully. I understand that, at times, you may feel like you’re an outpost in the city’s business community. Even so, you should never doubt the enormous impact of the example that’s being set here.

So that’s the first thought I want to leave you with.

As you know, I took on the role last fall of chairman of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. My perspective on growing the city’s economy is that of an educator, but also as a leader in private higher education … which, like any other business, has to pay its own way. And because I work in a university environment where research and entrepreneurship is so vital, my focus as Chamber chair is on growing this city’s innovation economy.

For benchmarks in this effort, I’ve looked to researchers at the Brookings Institution, which about two years ago was hired by Drexel — among 10 other anchor institutions like Penn and Comcast — to look at Philadelphia’s prospects. The work that Brookings has done will be unveiled this spring, and I think it’s going to get a lot of people talking and wheels turning.

What Brookings tells us is that Philadelphia has a great chance to compete against other metro areas around the world. The goal is to rank as one of the top-tier cities — say, among the 25 best. To get there, we need to build on our capacity for innovation, for research, and for tech transfer.

We’re starting from a position of strength, according Brookings. In fact, there’s really an embarrassment of riches. From this space, for instance, you could walk, or certainly hail a cab, and soon you would reach a half-dozen Fortune 500 company headquarters. Or great teaching and research hospitals. Or great, Top 100 universities. We’re also surrounded by leading pharma companies.

All told, there is substantial corporate, health care, and academic capacity in the region – and that’s the nexus of so much entrepreneurship and innovation opportunity. Around the city, we also have more than 50 incubators and co-working spaces … places where the entrepreneurial spirit thrives, as well as the collaborative nature of the city.

So, Brookings tells us that we have to emphasize these strengths and — what’s really important — we have to work on making the connections between them.

In terms of innovation, Brookings thinks we have four clusters that exist — and here, this brings me right back to the Navy Yard. The four include University City, the so-called N3rd Street tech corridor, the Lower Schuylkill area starting at Pennovation, and, of course, the Navy Yard.

So that’s the second theme that I want to leave you with: As the Brookings initiative rolls out and becomes part of the Chamber’s broad-based plan to grow the city’s economy, I see only good things in it for the Navy Yard. And I know we won’t see anywhere near the success I’m hoping for without the Navy Yard.

Again, the watchword for me about this place is ‘inspiring.’

I really like what Mike Gerber, executive vice president at FS Investments, said about working in an innovation hub like the Navy Yard. During an interview, Mike said, “We look out our windows every day and see creativity, innovation and hard work driving meaningful job creation and the rejuvenation of an important historic asset.”

Someday, in fact, I would love to fly the Drexel flag in the Navy Yard. We’re here already, in a real sense. Our undergraduates — some 350 of them — have had co-op experiences working for more than 20 companies with locations at the Navy Yard … stretching back over the last 10 years. Some of these great business partners include: Urban Outfitters, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philly Shipyard, FS Investments, and the GBS Group.

We’re also here doing research at the Naval Sea Systems Command … at the Ben Franklin Technology Partners …at Urban Outfitters …and at GSK.

You may know that we launched the Charles D. Close School for Entrepreneurship at Drexel a few years ago. It’s a place where any student from any discipline can learn the skills to launch a business or be the change-agent that so many businesses demand today. We use a catchphrase with our student entrepreneurs. We tell them, “Start Something!” I suspect that will sound very familiar to this group.

Let me close by emphasizing both my admiration and support for what you are doing at the Navy Yard. It is vital to moving the city’s economy forward in the 21st century. And I’ll tell you this: If our collective efforts at the Chamber prove to be half as successful as yours have been at the Navy Yard, then, for Philadelphia, I think it’s going to be smooth sailing.