PhillyDeals: Girard investments recover, but school still shrinks

Joseph Martz, executive director of Stephen Girard's estate, with a statue of the 1800s merchant, says: "We will have to stay small."
Joseph Martz, executive director of Stephen Girard's estate, with a statue of the 1800s merchant, says: "We will have to stay small." (JOSEPH N. DiSTEFANO / Staff)
Posted: October 30, 2011

Stephen Girard, early Philadelphia's self-made millionaire global trader, energy and transport pioneer, war financier, and vegan slaveholder, left most of his $10 million fortune to the city, so it could build Delaware Avenue, hire cops, and fund other public projects - especially the Girard College for orphans.

The good news is that Girard's legacy, managed by pros hired by Philadelphia's Board of City Trusts, grew a little last year, to $515 million from $486 million.

The bad news is, the school this is supposed to be funding continues to shrink.

Girard's stock investments have rebounded with the market. Its real estate portfolio gained from the profitable sale of high-end buildings like 8 Tower Bridge in Conshohocken, factory deals in the Carolinas, and the leasing of its old railroad warehouse on Island Avenue. But it also wrote down $10.7 million when the Pennsylvania Department of Public Works did not renew its lease on Girard-owned offices in Harrisburg.

Hard-coal sales from old mine properties Girard bought before his death in 1831 have risen. Demand from China helped boost royalties to an estimated $1.7 million on 431,000 tons of coal this year, from $1.2 million on 298,000 tons in 2008.

Girard's estate grew last year even after paying out $20 million to run the free school and $19 million to maintain buildings at the school and at the trust's many investment properties, including the Ararmark headquarters in Center City.

If the Girard Estate keeps making money, it will be able to repay another chunk of the $100 million-plus bond debt it borrowed to expand its investments in the late 1990s and early 2000s, says executive director Joseph Martz.

Yet Girard College, on its 43-acre campus, continues to diminish. Enrollment was just 480 last year, down from 753 in 2007.

The school cut its entering class to 24 students a year when the endowment contracted in the 2008 stock market crash. But the market has gone back up. Why not refinance all the debt at today's record-low rates, and start accepting more students again?

Martz cited legal impediments: money-losing interest-rate swaps that need to be unraveled at a loss or to await higher interest rates so they can be closed at a profit, and a tax deductibility case pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. "The estate can't refinance" until those issues are resolved, Martz said.

"We will have to stay small" while there is still uncertainty in the investment markets, Martz added.

How big does the endowment have to get before Girard boosts enrollment? "There is no threshold," Martz said.

Turns out the city board is using the recent volatile investment markets to re-think Girard College.

"The school is going through a strategic planning program," Martz said. It has hired FSG Social Impact Consultants, of San Francisco, which counts the Merck and Pfizer foundations and New York City schools among its clients. A report is expected next summer.

How far will the board go in changing the school Stephen Girard planned so meticulously, specifying the kind of marble, iron, and grout to be used in construction, banning ordained clergy from holding jobs, urging the teaching of Spanish and French instead of Greek or Latin?

Will the board, headed by Philadelphia Stock Exchange chairman-turned-lobbyist John J. Egan Jr. and including Mayor Nutter and a roster of politicians from both parties, seek to sell the historic campus, or to take over some of the specialized student services that might otherwise be handled by the cash-strapped Philadelphia School District?

"Everything is on the table," Martz said.

The goal, he said, is to figure out "how to best deliver a 21st-century education and still meet the obligations of the will."

Girard's will was famous with contradictions: He used it to free and pension his personal slave Hannah, but donated his Louisiana plantation slaves to the City of New Orleans, with instructions to sell them and keep the profits.

He famously limited Girard College to enrolling "white male" scholars and ordered its construction in the 1100 block of Chestnut Street, in the "Girard block," where Martz now has his office. Those two conditions were later changed.

What else will change when Girard's civil heirs are done plotting new uses for his old gift?

Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

comments powered by Disqus