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From Oil Refinery To Economic Hub: How HRP Is Transforming A South Philadelphia Community

A rendering of The Bellwether District.

In 2019, the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery experienced a massive fire that took its entire site out of commission — 100 buildings, 3,000 tanks and 950 miles of pipeline.

For months, the 1,300-acre site sat vacant. But where others saw a piece of land littered with industrial debris that seemed nearly impossible to clear, Hilco Redevelopment Partners saw the foundation for a new beginning.

Today, the site is well on its way to becoming The Bellwether District, Philadelphia’s next hub for e-commerce, life sciences and logistics that will bring more than 19,000 jobs to the area. The goal is to deliver a sustainable development that will house one of the largest life sciences campuses in the region and a logistics campus that can connect Philadelphia to the rest of the world.

HRP purchased the site in 2020 and has already made great strides toward deconstruction, a phase of the project the company predicted would take four years, but it now appears will be accomplished in less than three. Over 90% of demolition is complete, 99% of legacy petroleum has been removed, and hundreds of miles of pipeline have been dismantled.

For HRP, it was important that this project transform both the former refinery and the community, HRP Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Jasmine Sessoms said. 

“We are all about transformation at HRP, and when we come into a community, we recognize the tremendous responsibility we have to ensure we are doing what’s right for the city,” Sessoms said.

“We meet with community members, local business leaders, elected officials — any stakeholder who will be impacted by this project — to understand what the city truly needs and what impact we can have on helping to meet those goals.” 

Sessoms said that while Philadelphia is one of the largest cities in America, it is consistently ranked as the poorest in the country. With that in mind, and after hearing the jobs of tomorrow are a priority for residents, HRP set about sponsoring and developing workforce programs that create opportunities for Philadelphia residents, equipping them with the skills and resources they need to succeed. 

The company partnered with several local workforce organizations, including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Asian Chamber of Commerce and the African American Chamber of Commerce, to start building opportunities for community members, including the participation of minority- and women-owned local businesses. Sessoms said that despite the fact it will take 10 to 15 years for The Bellwether District to fully come to life, they want to help the community prepare now for all the jobs it will bring.

“Just one contract from The Bellwether District can change the trajectory of a small business,” she said. “And we understand that responsibility and we take it seriously, which is why we make a large investment in workforce development. We are training today for jobs that are coming in five years, to ensure that our residents are ready for them.” 

Sessoms said some of the jobs that HRP is preparing residents for include not only on-site construction work, but opportunities for security, lab and warehouse positions and other roles — all of which will pay more than the current Pennsylvania minimum wage of $7.25.

Members of HRP with 30 young women in the National Association of Women in Construction MyWIC camp for teen girls visiting The Bellwether District.

One initiative HRP has become involved in since starting The Bellwether District project is Build Latino, a 15-week program in partnership with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that helps Hispanic-owned businesses compete to both become subcontractors on major local CRE projects and access the pipeline to ultimately become primary contractors.

“In Philadelphia, only 3% of construction businesses are Hispanic-owned, and we want to change that,” Sessoms said. “We’re proud to be early investors in Build Latino as we work to build a pipeline of Hispanic-owned contracting businesses that can be involved in not only this project, but projects across the city.” 

This partnership represents what HRP and The Bellwether District are setting out to do: investing in and building a workforce that will transition Philadelphia and the region into a greener and more equitable economy. 

“With Hilco Redevelopment Partners' financial support, our Build Latino program has helped small businesses in the construction industry learn fundamentals and adopt best practices that are essential for success,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“To date, the program has led two cohort graduates to receive contracts, brokered three collaborations and 12 cohort businesses have become OSHA 10 certified. This makes the graduating businesses competitive in a field that is largely controlled by larger construction firms.” 

As part of its commitment to listen to and ensure the community’s voices are being heard, the company has a community advisory panel made up of 26 stakeholder groups that inform HRP on what investments it should be making within the community. Sessoms said most of these investments are focused on workforce development, youth employment and youth programming.

HRP has also partnered with the Carpenters’ Apprentice Ready Program through the Carpenters Union to provide hands-on training to the next generation of construction leaders.

The company’s internship and apprenticeship program will work with more than 500 Philadelphia students over the course of The Bellwether District project. Its Career Connected Learning Program offers job shadow days and informational interviews on development-related jobs for local eighth- to 12th-graders. 

As HRP works hard to support the community, it has been supported in return by local leaders who understand the impact The Bellwether District could make. 

“The action creates jobs, ensures the future commercial viability of the site, and decreases the former refinery's environmental impact,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said.

Sessoms added that current Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro has also mentioned the project several times and shown his support. 

“We've been really lucky to have so much support within our city, and also within the community and from important stakeholders,” Sessoms said. 

While The Bellwether District is poised to transform and establish a new legacy for the former PES refinery, HRP is also working to create opportunities for a more diverse community of businesses and workers in the construction industry and across the entire workforce, she said. 

This article was produced in collaboration between HRP and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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