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How to Fix Philly: Still striving to Rebuild

Mayor Jim Kenney's Rebuild project is still working out key funding issues, but promising great results.
Powers Park Port Richmond Philadelphia
Powers Park is located in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia. Brittany Salerno

When legislators announced the Rebuild Community Infrastructure initiative as part of the benefits Philadelphia citizens would receive thanks to the soda tax that went into effect this year, it was pitched as a way to improve and repair parks, libraries, playgrounds and recreation centers throughout the city.

As detailed as a benefit of the new tax, Rebuild was set to receive and influx of up to $500 million in funding all set to repair the city’s ailing public playgrounds, parks and rec. centers.

Six months after the start of the tax, where are those promised improvements? What parks will be getting the first repairs? Where is the money?

According to David Gould, deputy director of community engagement and communications for Rebuild, the fact that opponents of the tax are involved in ongoing litigation over the legality of the tax has stalled the effort to secure $300 million in bonds for the initiative.

“We will not borrow until that litigation is over,” said Gould during an interview on Friday.

But, that doesn’t mean nothing is happening over at Rebuild. While $300 million for the program will come from bonds – to be repaid by the proceeds from the soda tax – the initiative is also funded by $100 million from the William Penn Foundation, $48 million from the city’s capital budget and another $52 million from fundraising efforts.

“The administration is still very excited about Rebuild,” he said.

While they await the outcome of this litigation – arguments on the case were heard in April and court documents list the case as currently “awaiting decision” – Rebuild has been meeting with city officials, community groups and, what Gould called “key stakeholders,” throughout the city in order to prepare and to determine the needs and priorities of the communities throughout the city.

Then, there’s another piece of this that, Gould said, they are waiting on. On Monday, City Council will hear the first reading of the ordinance that needs to be passed in order to authorize the borrowing of the bond money.

Gould said that legislation – City Council ordinance #170206 – also includes wording that would bring structure to how the Rebuild initiative operates going forward.

With the passage of that legislation, even though they might not be able to access the bond funding – since Gould said they will not borrow funds until the litigation over the legality of the soda tax is finished – Rebuild can start digging in.

That ordinance, he said, is expected to pass by the end of this month.

“We are looking forward to getting the ordinance passed, but we will not be able to operate at scale until after the litigation is over,” he said.

To “operate at scale” would mean being able to optimize the greatest resources in order to produce the best results.

Then, where will they begin? Gould said they are still working with members of City Council to determine which parks and rec. centers throughout the city will be addressed first.

But, over the seven-year planned life of the initiative, he said, Rebuild hopes to bring improvements to 150 to 200 sites – meaning improvements could come to a majority of the city’s 150 parks and 156 rec centers.

Just how many projects they would intend to undertake in the first year, Gould said, Rebuild is unable to determine just yet.

“Different projects will be of different scale,” said Gould.

In the coming months, once the legislation has passed through council, he said, residents can expect to see representatives from Rebuild at community meetings throughout the city, in order to gather community input for the projects they intend to begin.

“We are getting closer, so we are getting excited,” he said.