South Philly has a guardian angel. But he … or she … or it … is very shy.
Last year, the nonprofit Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods received an $11-million cash donation from an undisclosed benefactor.
State Sen. Vince Fumo and City Councilman Frank DiCicco founded the organization in the early 1990s, when DiCicco was working as an aide to the senator. The alliance was established to help advisory councils and other neighborhood groups fund their pet projects — to reach the voids that city and state money never seemed to fill.
People best knew Citizens Alliance in its early years for helping with quality-of-life problems like cleaning the streets, repairing alley lights and trimming trees.
Today, the nonprofit has around $25 million in assets and tackles more ambitious initiatives such as creating charter schools and spurring the revitalization of Passyunk Avenue.
But since Citizens Alliance’s early days, some have made an issue of the organization’s political ties. DiCicco remembers meetings early on at which people called the nonprofit a political tool for Fumo.
These criticisms are now amplified because Citizens Alliance and Fumo refuse to reveal the identity of the $11-million benefactor — a decision they are legally protected to make under IRS guidelines, but one that has left people in some circles pondering why.
DiCicco stands by the organization’s success, the vast majority of which benefits his district. That said, DiCicco admits he has put some distance between himself and Citizens Alliance since being elected to Council — not because of any activities the organization is involved in, he said, but rather because of the public perception in cases like this.
"To hear this kind of rhetoric that there is something happening here," DiCicco said, "when I know all the good work it’s done … it does bother me somewhat."
He added that if the perception spread that he benefited politically or otherwise from Citizens Alliance’s work, he would scare away government grants.
"I didn’t want that to be an obstacle, to create any appearance of any impropriety," DiCicco said.
The councilman, a licensed real-estate broker, said he also has refrained from buying property on Passyunk Avenue for personal investment, though he admits he’s been tempted. He said he’s even asked his sons not to buy real estate there.
"I do not own, nor does anyone in my family own, a property on Passyunk," DiCicco said, "nor have we ever owned a property on Passyunk, contrary to what people are suggesting."
Citizens Alliance is run from Fumo’s South Philly office by one of the senator’s aides, Ruth Arnao. Calls for comment to Fumo’s Harrisburg office were referred to Ken Snyder, spokesperson for Citizens Alliance.
Snyder blamed the media for the negative light cast upon the organization, particularly regarding the $11-million contribution. People in the neighborhood do not care from where the money came, he said.
"They care how the money is spent," Snyder contended, "and they are enormously satisfied with the important things we are doing."
One of the biggest beneficiaries of Citizens Alliance’s wealth is the Christopher Columbus Charter School. The school opened in 1999 on the 900 block of Christian Street in the old St. Paul’s School after the nonprofit purchased the building. Citizens Alliance also built and owns Columbus’ building at 13th and Wharton.
The group plans to expand its charter school endeavors, Snyder said, but he declined to elaborate, "except to say that the schools we have helped to create have been so enormously successful that the demand is dictating that we move forward with another school."
Another major South Philly initiative is the revitalization of the East Passyunk Avenue commercial corridor.
Snyder said Citizens Alliance owns about 14 storefronts on the avenue through its for-profit subsidiary, Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Inc. The goal of the corporation is to acquire as many properties on the street as possible and fill them with handpicked "boutique-type" merchants who will sign long-term leases in exchange for below-market rents.
Merchants must agree to open on specific days and during designated hours, similar to what a mall requires of its tenants.
The goal is to make the avenue the focal point for businesses in the area and the centerpiece for the surrounding residential neighborhood.
"In a lot of ways, we have a lot to prove with Passyunk," Snyder said. "We hope we send a strong message to private developers who held their noses at Passyunk and refused to invest while we did."
Among the other controversies linked to Sen. Fumo in recent weeks has been the status of the fountain at 11th Street and Passyunk Avenue. Work on the small triangular plot has been halted for weeks after Passyunk Avenue Revitalization received a citation for not having the proper permits. Andrea Swan, spokesperson for the Department of Licenses and Inspections, said the company still lacks the proper permits, however it has not been cited again because a backlog of inspections has prevented inspectors from returning to the site.
Snyder acknowledged the company needs to "professionalize the organization" to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.
Citizens Alliance is not hiding anything, Snyder asserted. He noted its expenditures are documented, and that the organization is regularly audited by the state and federal governments — as well as by a third accounting firm it hires — and no red flags have ever been raised.
"These are civic-minded public servants [Fumo and DiCicco] that were frustrated with the pace of government and the lack of service that the city and state were giving," Snyder said. "That shouldn’t be vilified. That should be celebrated and repeated."
Even though it would be easier from a public-relations standpoint to reveal who gave the $11-million gift, Snyder said it is in the nonprofit’s best financial interests to keep the name secret.
The donor’s anonymity, he said, prevents other nonprofits from calling and asking for a similar donation. PECO Energy Co. is reportedly one of the contributors, but neither the company nor Citizens Alliance is saying how much it has donated.
DiCicco downplayed the political influence of the donation. Money will buy name recognition, he said, which might make it easier to get a meeting with a politician, but he insisted it does not guarantee favors.
"Unless you are in this business that we’re in and see it firsthand, people will always be suspect," DiCicco said. "There is nothing anyone can write or say that will change the minds of people who are suspect."
You make the call
Do you care about where the million-dollar donations to Citizens Alliance came from? Starting tonight, cast your "yes" or "no" to this question on our Web site, www.southphillyreview.com — because, at the very least, we’d like to know what you think.