Executive director of Riverfront North — formerly known as DRCC — is calling it quits.
By Tom Beck
The recent early spring snowstorms may have been disrupting the interview process, but sometime in the coming weeks, Riverfront North — formerly the Delaware River City Corporation — expects to select its new executive director. That’s because its current executive director, Tom Branigan, is retiring. Again.
“I retired early,” said Branigan, 65, who worked as an engineer in the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Streets for 38 years. He retired from that job when he was 55. “Having worked for the city government for a lot of years, it kind of wears you down, and I was looking to at least take a break and revitalize myself and so I did that.”
Being a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Branigan would often attend the organization’s meetings even after he retired. But he quickly realized he missed the life of being an active engineer.
“Their life was busy with a lot of work,” he said. “Mine was not.”
In late 2010, when Branigan was riding the train home from an event in the city, he ran into an old colleague who also worked for the city, Jim Donaghy, who was then the vice chairman of the DRCC — a position he still holds. At the time, the DRCC was looking to hire an executive director.
“We sat down together, we were talking, and I said, ‘Tom, so tell me. Are you looking for any work yet?’ And he said, ‘No, not really. Why are you asking me?’ ” Donaghy recalled.
Donaghy explained the situation: the DRCC was looking for an executive director. He knew Branigan was retired, but he also knew he’d be perfect for the job. Branigan mulled it over and eventually called Donaghy to tell him, sure, why not. He’d throw his hat in the ring.
“We went down to talk to the executive board and they questioned him,” Donaghy said. “After he left, everybody said, ‘Wow. He looks good.’ And I said, ‘Good, because I really think he’ll do a good job.’ ”
Branigan got the job. He started in January 2011. Seven years later, Branigan is now retiring, retreating back to his Huntingdon Valley home to spend more time with his family.
At a rollout event for Riverfront North’s new branding, the Times had the opportunity to talk to a variety of people who have known Branigan over the course of his professional career.
“The guy has an amazing capacity for work,” said former Congressman Bob Borski, who’s the current chair of Riverfront North. “He’s been a joy to work with and he just stays on task. A lot of what we do is rebranding with the partnerships and he’s been out, talking with businesses and civic associations in the community to make sure everybody’s on board with what you’re doing. He’s an amazing guy. We’re lucky to have had him.”
“When he left the streets department…I thought [that] was a real waste of a lot of talent,” said Joy Syrnick, who’s the president and CEO of the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, but also a former co-worker of Branigan’s at the city’s streets department. “I was so pleased to see him come back and take this job [at Riverfront North]. I worked on the Schuylkill River doing the same kind of work, so it was really cool seeing two ex-streets department guys leading different, but very similar efforts on the two rivers. And I knew that he would be tremendous at it.”
“I was at Tom’s first retirement party at Le Chateau and all these streets department guys had to leave in the middle of the retirement celebration because there was a big snowstorm going on, and they all had to go out and I guess direct trucks and stuff,” said Nancy O’Donnell, who’s the director of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. “Great guy. We love him. He loves trees. We love trees. It’s all about parks and trails and partnership so it’s really been a very fruitful partnership.”
“He’s a lot of fun,” said Mariann Porter Dempsey, a board member for Riverfront North who also serves as the executive secretary to the board. “I mean, he can be serious when it needs to be serious, but I was very lucky in that I spent 26 years working for Bob, and Bob is very easy to work for. And Tom’s more or less my second boss and he was just as easy to work for. He told you what he wanted done and left to go do it. There wasn’t a lot of hanging over you and making sure — he doesn’t micromanage. He tells you what he wants, what he expects. And gives you the tools to get that done the way he wants it.”
Over the course of Branigan’s career at Riverfront North, he’s helped facilitate much of the plan behind the organization’s series of parks and trails along the waterfront, most of which have been completed or are nearing completion. When he first was hired, Branigan did so on the condition of working only part-time. He had committed to working 26 hours a week for the job, which, Branigan said, really actually turned into about 38 hours a week.
“It was a small organization that didn’t have a lot of funding, and I was just helping move things along,” Branigan said about the situation the DRCC was in when he first was hired. “We’ve grown it and we’ve had a bigger budget and better funding so that’s where we are now. I think I got the organization in a good spot from my perspective, and it was a good time to make a move.”
Branigan, who is an avid artist, intends to spend much of his newfound free time painting and drawing landscape scenery and portraits. But there’s still a lot he’ll miss about the job, mainly the people, who he said made it “fun to come to work.”
“I’m going to miss that,” he said. “I will probably wind up volunteering my time pulling weeds.” ••
Tom Beck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org