Karen Heller: A stadium plan that won't pay off

Posted: December 02, 2008

Major League Soccer, you may have heard, is coming to Philadelphia. Well, not Philadelphia, but Chester, the town so irrevocably socked by hard times that the recession barely registers.

Chester, the state's poorest city, is without a supermarket. There's hardly a place to get a decent cup of coffee.

However, there is a casino, and, come April 2010, a professional soccer stadium.

Yesterday, a group of ebullient developers and politicians broke ground on the site, a muddy promontory by the side of the Commodore Barry Bridge.

On my way there, I drove past Lincoln Financial Field, built on so much promise and public financing, a place where most fans can't score an Eagles ticket despite its being built with $171 million of our money.

Major League Soccer is not football, at least not when it comes to American dollars. Its teams posted an operating loss last year. Attendance is paltry. However, the league shares one trait with football: the ability to get citizens to underwrite its wishes with little opposition.

The $115 million yet-to-be-named Chester stadium is being built with $77 million of public funding - $47 million from the state, $30 million from Delaware County.

For those of you doing the math at home, that's $4,132.23 a seat.

It's public welfare for rich people.

The team will play 18 home and two exhibition games - roughly 40 hours of play. And the arena will host a few concerts and festivals, for 31 events total.

That's one month of days out of a dozen.

Soccer to us

I like soccer. Perhaps you do, too. But why should we be underwriting the game, and in this economy?

Oh, right, jobs creation, community revitalization.

"Those 'public impact statements' are fantasy documents," says Villanova professor Rick Eckstein, coauthor of Public Dollars, Private Financing. "Look at South Philadelphia. If any place was the poster child for all sports stuff, it's South Philadelphia. With all those sports arenas, the place should be teeming with economic development. What do you have? A Holiday Inn."

With so few home games, "the economic impact of a sports team has the same impact as a midsized supermarket," Eckstein says. "With soccer, maybe we're talking a bodega."

He's not joking.

Tina Johnson spent the first five years of her life in Chester, traveled the world, then came back four years ago. She's president of Chester's Community Grocery Coop, one of the only places residents can buy quality produce in the winter.

"For Chester, I don't see this as a win. I don't see where the jobs are going to happen," Johnson says.

"This is a project owned by people in Philly, for people in Philly," says longtime Chester resident Joan Broadfield. "No one has asked us how we feel. I don't think it will do what's needed. There's a whole lot more people could do for Chester than a soccer stadium."

Direct kick to our taxes

At the groundbreaking, the tent swelled with good intentions. Everybody wants to help Chester.

One third of the city doesn't have access to private transportation. Less than 10 percent of the population holds bachelor's degrees. The city has one union. "Most residents don't have the skill sets to fill these jobs," says Johnson, who knows of few residents hired at Harrah's or the Wharf at Rivertown commercial complex.

Fans will be able to get off the bridge, the Blue Route, or I-95 without ever having to spend a minute or a dime in the rest of Chester.

When the commonwealth and Delaware County plead hard times in the coming months - and, trust me, they will - remember that $77 million went into funding a group of rich men's dreams for yet another stadium when the existing ones are dark so many days of the year. In this regard, our professional stadiums mirror so much of Chester's housing.

"I don't know of a single example where a stadium has produced new jobs or rejuvenated the economy," Eckstein says. And a supermarket would have cost so much less.

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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