Sixers Arena Saga: Right-to-Know Appeals, Behind the Scenes "Gamesmanship," and a Question of Blacklisting
It’s 2024, which means quite a lot in the Sixers’ arena saga. As Mayor Cherelle Parker takes office and we await the release of the city’s impact study, I’ve got four notes on the project that you might find interesting:
1) The Chinatown opposition recently appealed after their 76 Place Right-to-Know requests were denied. This follows a separate sequence of events involving activist/journalist Faye Anderson, who had some success appealing a separate RTK denial.
Team co-owner and arena lead David Adelman responded to the development with this:
You caught us! We’re planning a $1.5 billion project atop Jefferson Station so we are talking to SEPTA about how to improve access and service at the station. What a grand conspiracy! Thanks for the laugh…. https://t.co/lVs1cMuMGv
— David Adelman (@david_adelman) December 22, 2023
The latest update is that the city is appealing after Anderson’s initial appeal was “granted in part and denied in part,” according to Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records.
How we ended up here is somewhat complicated, so I’ll try to make it as simple as I can:
- Anderson made 18 requests.
- She asked for written or email communications between March 1st, 2023, and July 21st, 2023.
- The requested correspondence was between the mayor’s office and Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC).
- The focus was “76 Place” and the PIDC-led independent evaluation of the arena project.
The city denied the request, arguing it was “repeated and burdensome.” However, Pennsylvania Appeals Officer Erika Similo ruled on December 8th that the city did not do a sufficient job of making its case. She also ruled that the request was specific “in part,” but too broad in other parts, which resulted in this conclusion:
“For the foregoing reasons, the appeal is granted in part and denied in part, and, within thirty days, the City is directed to conduct a good faith search for records responsive to all subparts of the Request as set forth above and to provide all responsive records to the Requester.”
We’ll have to see what happens in court. Adelman suggests that 76 Devcorp has nothing to hide, and if/when the communications are released, the opposition will go through those documents looking for evidence of collusion, or conflict of interest, basically any hard evidence proving their assertion that this has not been a proper and independent process. In regard to Anderson’s request, specifically, the Sixers are paying more than half a million dollars to fund the arena study, which the PIDC is using to hire consultants to do the evaluation. That, opponents say, amounts to untrustworthiness.
2) Inga Saffron wrote a recent Inquirer story titled “The Sixers want to model their arena on Boston’s TD Garden. I went there to see how it works.” It’s a decent writeup, and posits the idea of building 76 Place over the 30th street rail yards instead, but this passage jumped off the page and slapped me across the face:
“We know that even the most sensitively designed basketball arena is an urban beast. These large gathering places invariably dominate the street, yet rarely support more than 150 events a year. And when nothing is going on — as was the case on the day I visited TD Garden — people have no incentive to visit.”
So let me get this straight –
The Inquirer sent Inga to Boston to check out the arena, but there were no games taking place? That would be like dispatching a Boston Globe writer to the South Philly sports complex, except the Flyers, Sixers, Eagles, Phillies, and Wings are all off. Nobody is playing, so the writer goes to Xfinity Live to buy $13 crab fries and submit 800 words on parking lots.
This renders the story incomplete, because you’re only getting 50% of the experience. Are Inquirer editors asleep at the wheel? Send Inga up on a Tuesday when the Celtics are playing. Buy her a ticket to the game. She checks out the scene and takes some notes. Then, on Wednesday, she walks around the area when the Celtics and Bruins are both off, and gets the full and complete snapshot. Now that’s a solid story! I should run the Inquirer.
3) That said, we are a fair and balanced sports blog, and not above giving credit where it’s due. The local newspaper’s arena coverage has been much better in recent months. Jeff Gammage and Sean Collins Walsh teamed up on a story titled “Sixers and Comcast Spectacor are battling publicly and privately over the team’s proposed downtown arena,” which shed some light on Comcast efforts to influence the arena project.
Most of the things that resulted in negative Sixers publicity have been well-documented. There was the $400,000 for Jeff Brown’s failed mayoral campaign, for instance, and the dust up over the striking of Filbert Street, which made it into a bill introduced by Councilman Mark Squilla. There was a span of several months where the Sixers were getting totally hammered, highlighted perhaps by Chief Diversity and Impact Officer David Gould leaving a Chinatown meeting early when the Sixers delegation was essentially shouted out of the room.
But there wasn’t much on Comcast Spectacor. Their stance is that they want to continue working with the Sixers, vs. the alternative of competing with them for concerts and other events. That much has been said publicly, and they’re entitled to push back against what they claim are falsehoods being spread by Sixers ownership, but the real question is the extent of their involvement behind the scenes. If the Sixers are working feverishly in their promotion of their project, is the current landlord justified in doing the same thing to shoot it down?
Adelman was unhappy to see Comcast Spectacor representatives at a June gathering of the Washington Square West Civic Association in which the team was scheduled to make its pitch.
“Not sure what their standing is related to this,” Adelman told the neighborhood group.
The next month, according to emails obtained by The Inquirer, Adelman’s frustration grew as he tried to schedule a meeting to promote the arena to the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia.
The chamber repeatedly delayed the date — and invited Hilferty to speak.
The chamber now has scheduled separate appearances by Adelman and Hilferty.
In this instance, the allegation is that Comcast Spectacor is trying to insert themselves into situations where the Sixers feel they don’t belong.
When reached for comment, a Comcast Spectacor spokesperson told Crossing Broad the following:
“As we’ve always said, we want what’s best for the City of Philadelphia, we’re committed to the City’s success, and we have a proven track record of doing just that. For decades, we’ve hosted the world’s biggest events right here in Philadelphia, we know this market and this industry better than anyone else, and so of course we’re going to share our perspectives with community and City leaders.
“The fact of the matter is that there are major questions and concerns about the 76 Place proposal, from their claims that they can attract 50 new major shows each year when there is no meaningful excess demand in the market to their promise to generate significant tax revenues for the City and State. Those questions should be publicly asked, answered, and understood by the media, elected officials, and most importantly, local communities, before this project is forced through City Hall.”
I reached out to various city groups looking for a little bit more, and board member Tony Payton Jr. from the African-American Chamber of Commerce (different organization than the one in the Inquirer story) was happy to talk on the record. He noted that Comcast Spectacor lobbied the Chamber regarding a Sixers grant that would create a capacity building program allowing businesses to participate in the arena construction.
“I got call from a Comcast person, asking ‘hey, you guys gotta vote on this initiative with the Sixers, can you delay it?‘, Payton said. “The rationale was really nothing more than the gamesmanship. I don’t know that it was well thought out. The whole purpose of the Chamber is to increase the foothold of black business, and the Sixers have done a lot of work in that regard. So I didn’t quite understand the cause, and it was like they didn’t want to give (the Sixers) what they considered a win, even though it would be good for black businesses. It was kind of antithetical to the mission of the chamber, to even make that ask… There wasn’t anything meritorious about the argument.”
Payton explained that this was an MOU (memorandum of understanding) to begin an incubator program.
“As it relates to all of this talk about minority inclusion, you can set as many goals as you want. But if you’re not seeding the ground to make sure that businesses can participate in the way you want them to, then all of your goals and efforts go unachieved. If my goal is to say, ‘I’ve got a construction project, and I want to make sure it’s 50% led by black contractors,’ if I’m not identifying those black contractors and making sure that they have the bonding capacity to do the job, then I’m just wishing. It’s the pre-work that you’ve got to do.”
Comcast responded to this, also via spokesperson, saying:
“Comcast Spectacor is proud of our strong relationships with the African American Chamber of Commerce and diverse communities throughout the City, including those surrounding East Market Street. We look forward to building on those strong partnerships in the months and years ahead.”
It’s not exactly groundbreaking to note that two powerful organizations would be doing what they can to see their best interests come to fruition. Breaking news! Both sides are using all of the tools at their disposal, be it PR firms, lobbyists, research and polling, printed media, etc. We’d all have to be really stupid to not recognize this.
Plus, most of the people currently working against each other know each other, and would probably call each other friends, they just happen to be representing different clients at this particular moment. It’s nothing unusual. It’s business, and what it comes down to is the public deciding which side has the more legitimate lobbying position on a per-case basis. For instance, while Comcast Spectacor might not have a dog in the Market Street fight, you could craft an argument that a Sports Complex partnership or 76 Place alternative might warrant their inclusion in these types of meetings.
That said, you’ve probably noticed that the public portion of the Sixers vs. Comcast Spectacor saga has quieted down in recent weeks. There are fewer instances of Adelman going after them on social media, and the Wells Fargo Center account is tweeting mostly about the Flyers, Wings, and various scheduled events. The conflict has simply shifted to behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
(EDIT – I’m adding a statement from African American Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Regina Hairston) –
“The African American Chamber of Commerce firmly believes that as a City, as a community, we must think creatively to intentionally grow our Black businesses across the city. We must open every door that is in front of us to take full advantage of every opportunity to grow and expand our ecosystem.
As President and CEO of the African-American Chamber of Commerce, I know that the Black business community in Philadelphia is vibrant, it’s ready, and it’s excited to engage with all of our corporate partners across the city. We’ve had the distinct pleasure of working with partners, including both the Sixers and Comcast for several years, and look forward to continuing to build and expand the Black Business community throughout the region.”
4) In late 2022 and early 2023, some of the most prominent anti-arena voices were from a group called Students for the Preservation of Chinatown, or SPOC. They were featured prominently in Inquirer pages, and members include Taryn Flaherty and Kaia Chau, the daughters of former mayoral candidate and councilwoman Helen Gym and activist Debbie Wei. Also a member is Kenny Chiu, a Philly native who came on Crossing Broadcast over the summer and did a good job of explaining why the community opposes the project.
In recent months, SPOC voices have been largely silent, or have fallen off the grid entirely. Some of their social media accounts became protected, or were deleted outright:
I asked around and it turns out these students were profiled by a controversial watchdog group called “Canary Mission,” which is “motivated by a desire to combat the rise in anti-Semitism on college campuses,” according to a blurb on the official website. Canary Mission creates dossiers for students, professors, and organizations describing these allegations, and in the entries for SPOC members, this is written:
“On October 11, 2023, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) anti-Israel group Penn Students Against the Occupation of Palestine (PAO) authored a statement in support of Hamas titled: “Statement of Solidarity with Palestine.” Four other groups co-signed the statement, which praised Hamas as “the Palestinian resistance.” The statement described Hamas’s war crimes against Israeli civilians, such as mass murder, torture, rape, beheadings and kidnappings, as “resistance efforts.”
The entries allege that SPOC was one of four groups to co-sign, leading to Flaherty, Chau, and Chiu all being profiled on the website. Each has a dedicated page, complete with photo, biographic information, and links to social media accounts.
So now we’re getting into some serious shit, and the question is one of fairness. Does this amount to the blacklisting and/or intimidation of college kids? I wouldn’t call this “doxxing,” since private and personal information is not shared (home address and whatnot), but Canary Mission is regarded as a shadowy organization with secretive operations and funding. We could go down a rabbit hole exploring the necessity or justification of the operation, which would require a separate column entirely. Regardless, it appears as though this is why SPOC voices went silent on the arena project, and explains these November tweets:
Their refusal to address the blatant antisemitism by those members does not go unnoticed . https://t.co/mlq0VmiRNu
— David Adelman (@david_adelman) November 17, 2023
As we’ve mentioned before on the site, Sixers owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer are Jewish. Adelman is a limited partner, and also Jewish. He bought his stake from Jewish Michael Rubin, and his mentor is Alan Horwitz (The Sixth Man), a Jewish man who donated $2 million to the Holocaust memorial on the Ben Franklin Parkway. Taking that into account, you can understand why the arena fight even remotely sliding into this territory would be “heavy,” for lack of a better word.