Michael A. “Mike” Kowalski, a former representative of the city’s Commerce Department under two mayors and longtime Northeast Philadelphia resident, died on Jan. 22 following a lengthy illness.
Kowalski, 74, had moved with his wife, Jane Wood, to St. Augustine, Florida, following his 2013 retirement, but the couple lived in the Bakers Bay Condominiums in East Torresdale for three decades before then.
Kowalski gained prominence in the Northeast community largely due to his work as a representative for the Mayor’s Business Action Team under Mayors John Street and Michael Nutter. According to former Commerce Director James Cuorato, a large part of Kowalski’s role was to help businesses in the Northeast navigate the city’s permitting and licensing protocols, among other duties. Although Kowalski worked with businesses of all sizes within the Northeast, he probably had the greatest impact on smaller companies with fewer professional resources of their own.
Kowalski always approached his work and his personal relationships with the same graciousness.
“It was impossible not to like Mike,” said Cuorato, who now serves as president of the Independence Visitor Center. “He was always cheerful, always smiling, always upbeat. The businesses in the Northeast just loved him. He did his job and did it well. He really cared about the city and the Northeast. As a public servant, that’s what you want.”
Randy Giancaterino, a former public relations coordinator for the Commerce Department who now works in the City Representative’s office, recalled that Kowalski facilitated mutually beneficial partnerships among neighboring businesses that hadn’t necessarily been working together for the common good. Kowalski was sometimes called “the mayor of Northeast Philly” during his tenure.
“Mike was a tireless, dedicated civil servant who knew adeptly how to connect the dots to navigate the intricacies and nuances of municipal government,” Giancaterino said. “He was a true connector of people and projects.”
City Councilman Al Taubenberger worked closely with Kowalski when Taubenberger served as president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
“If there was a chamber member who had a problem with the city, he would work relentlessly to solve it,” Taubenberger said of Kowalski. “He was also a great advocate for the chamber. He brought in dozens of new members. When he saw a new business operating, he would tell them how important (the chamber) was.”
Kowalski developed many professional and personal friendships in those years with the MBAT.
“He cared about people. He was just a friendly person who cared about helping people,” Taubenberger said. “He will be missed.”
Kowalski was born and raised in South Philly. Before joining the Commerce Department, he worked as a media director for SmithKline Pharmaceutical Company. He also taught at Drexel University and engaged in several small business ventures. He was a military veteran and served in the reserves with the 717th Army Transportation Railway.
Kowalski loved photography, travel, spending time with family and storytelling. He was a Mummer and a member of the Philadelphia Pickwick Club.
He is survived by his wife, step-daughter Sarah Valley, grandchildren Faith and Spencer Valley, brother Ronald Kowalski, sister-in-law Linda Kowalski and many other relatives. Memorial services will be held in Florida. Donations in Kowalski’s memory may be made to Community Hospice Bailey Center, Jacksonville, Florida. ••