The Philly soda tax pays for recreation center upgrades. But Mayor Kenney and City Council disagree on the pace.



Residents have spent years advocating for improvements to the Olney Recreation Center, which has a dilapidated building and well-worn grass field for its popular Olney Eagles youth football program.

Work will finally begin this month on a $ 15 million project to build turf, outdoor track, new playgrounds, new recreation center building and other upgrades – paid for by Rebuild, an ambitious $ 400 million program to improve parks, recreation centers and libraries, funded by Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature tax on sodas and sugary drinks.

“We were waiting for this day,” said Quadir Bowman, an eighth-grader who was among dozens of children and families gathered for a dedication ceremony Thursday at Olney Rec with Kenney and board member Cherelle Parker.

Kenney pitched the Rebuild program as a chance to make desperately needed improvements to the city’s facilities and held three consecutive groundbreaking ceremonies on Thursday – at the Heitzman Recreation Center in Harrowgate and the Glavin Playground in Port Richmond in addition to Olney – to highlight the impact of the program.

But Thursday’s first groundbreaking also came after years of delay, and more than half of Rebuild’s projects are still in the design and planning stages.

The slowness of the program has frustrated city council, which plans to hold a hearing this fall to question administration officials on the state of Rebuild.

“I am disappointed” with Rebuild so far, said Board Member Curtis Jones Jr., who sponsored the resolution calling for hearings. Jones said he was frustrated with the slow pace of the program and worried that improvements might not be a priority in neighborhoods most affected by gun violence.

The Rebuild program, first billed as a half-billion dollar investment in many of the city’s parks, recreation centers and libraries, has reduced its size and scope since its launch in 2017. The program will total now $ 400 million, after the drink. the tax generated less revenue than expected and no new sites were added to the list of 72 projects. Of these 72 sites, nine have been completed, nine more are under construction, 41 are still in the planning phase and 12 have not yet been launched.

Kenney said in an interview this week that the beverage tax litigation caused much of Rebuild’s delay, as the city couldn’t spend any money while the tax’s future was uncertain. Months after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the tax in 2018, Rebuild secured a $ 86.5 million bond to use on its projects and began work, with plans to issue another bond after the use of this amount. To date, only $ 26.7 million of the first bond has been spent.

READ MORE: Timeline of the Philadelphia Soft Drink Tax

Community engagement, contracting, and other processes also take time, Kenney said, especially with Rebuild’s commitment to working with small businesses from diverse groups and its goals of diverse participation on them. construction sites.

“I’m also frustrated with the timing,” Kenney said. “I like to see things happen sooner than not. … The money is there, you just want it to happen. But it’s public money, so we have to go through this process.

Reconstruction was spared by budget cuts linked to the pandemic. But Kenney said COVID-19 is still slowing the program down as the city and nonprofits with individual projects have to focus on more urgent needs.

Kira Strong, executive director of Rebuild, said things are moving forward and residents can expect to see more ribbon cuts and openings over the next year or so.

“We are actually quite proud of what we have been able to accomplish in these three years. [since the bond was issued], then throw a pandemic into the mix, ”she said.

Still, Kenney acknowledged that all the first round of reconstruction sites will be completed by the time he leaves office in January 2024.

“I hope the next mayor, whoever he is, doesn’t take down the beverage tax,” Kenney said. “I expect to see these projects open two, three, four years after my departure.”

Jones said he was worried that wasn’t the case.

“I’ve been through enough administration changes to know that the priority of one administration might not be the priority of the new administration, and continuity is a concern,” he said.

READ MORE: Philly’s soda tax purported to ‘rebuild’ parks and recreation centers. The start was slow.

Council member Mark Squilla, whose district includes the Heitzman Recreation Center, one of the locations for the groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday, said he was happy that work was starting at more sites. He said he wished it would go faster, but noted that the Council had requested the community engagement process that took so long for Rebuild.

“There’s a lot of work going on, but it seemed like nothing was happening,” Squilla said. “It was just a lot of substantive work and not physical work, so I think a lot of the board was like, ‘What’s going on and why is it taking so long?

Council members are also eager to add more sites to the Rebuild list. But Kenney said the scope of work at many existing sites has widened over time as the city uncovers issues that need to be addressed or council members advocate for additional equipment.

“A roof is not sexy, electrical systems are not exciting, but some of those things just have to be done and it increases the cost of the project and you really can’t see it with your eyes,” he said. he declares.

Jones said he was also concerned with the locations of the sites completed to date. Four of the nine completed projects are in northeast Philadelphia, which has a higher proportion of white residents and less gun violence than other parts of the city. And one of Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremonies also took place in the northeast.

Overall, reconstruction sites are spread across the city, and some of the biggest projects that have yet to see the light are in neighborhoods plagued by violence, such as the Kingsessing Recreation Center and the Library. in Southwest Philadelphia, the Vare Recreation Center in South Philadelphia and Cecil B. Moore Recreation Center in North Philadelphia.

Still, Jones said he would love to hear from the Kenney administration how quickly these big projects can be completed – and also focus on ensuring that the updated facilities have good programming to keep kids active and safe.

“We can build good buildings,” he said, “but we also need to build partnerships. “



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