Can Chester be kick-started? Big hopes for revitalization pinned to new stadium

Many Chester residents want to know how their neighborhoods would benefit from stadium development.
Many Chester residents want to know how their neighborhoods would benefit from stadium development.
Posted: June 25, 2010

IT'S LUNCH HOUR in Chester, and Obert Burchell is sitting in the back of his Jamaican restaurant on Route 291, playing cards with his cook. They're the only two people in the building. Oxtail is on the stove, but the lights are off.

"Very good, mon," Burchell, a Montego Bay native, said of his traditional Jamaican dish.

Just one problem: He has no customers.

Last year, Burchell, 62, opened OB's Jamaican & American Restaurant, at 2nd and Lloyd streets. He's usually closed Sundays, but not this week. The Philadelphia Union's 18,500-seat stadium is opening down the street - finally - and Burchell is hoping to cash in on the influx of soccer fans.

"I'm really, really depending on it, because now I'm doing nothing," he said. "Everybody's telling me this is going to bring me a lot of business. It's the only Jamaican food in the area."

Burchell is one of many small-business owners in Chester who are anxiously waiting, with varying degrees of expectation, to see how the soccer stadium will affect their bottom line.

Bob Ginn, owner of Ginn's Restaurant and Bar - "Coldest beer in the city," he says - doesn't expect a big payday, at least not until chains and retail outlets that visitors are familiar with start popping up along Route 291, which runs parallel to the Delaware River. But he'll be pedaling slabs of BBQ ribs and bushels of fresh crabs to tailgaters as they drive by his adjoining crab shack en route to the stadium.

"They're not going to really hang around the city too long," Ginn, 77, predicted. "At least, not until it gets better."

In itself, a sports stadium isn't going to fix Chester, a fiscally distressed city whose population dropped by half following World War II. Today, Chester is in a "state of emergency" due to a recent spate of homicides, including that of a 2-year-old boy who was shot in the head this month. In five sections of the city, an all-ages nighttime curfew is in effect.

"You don't find any examples where a stadium has kick-started an economy or rejuvenated an area," said Rick Eckstein, a Villanova sociology professor and co-author of "Public Dollars, Private Stadiums: The Battle Over Building Sports Stadiums."

"The rhetoric dies hard," he said.

But the $122 million stadium is only one part of Chester's long-term revitalization strategy, said David Sciocchetti, executive director of the Chester Economic Development Authority.

Consider this: Out-of-town fans are going to want to stay overnight. And next month, table games will come to Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack, which opened in 2007 about two miles upriver of the stadium and which attracts 4 million visitors a year.

Those are potential incentives for hotels, restaurants and other business to develop along the waterfront, helping to create a tourism-based economy in Chester, which sits halfway between Philadelphia and Wilmington and has easy access to Philadelphia International Airport and I-95.

Construction will be completed next year on ramps that connect I-95 to Route 291. That would drive up the projected traffic count for developers considering building along the river, Sciocchetti said.

"No one project is a panacea," Sciocchetti said, "but when you start layering one over another, you're changing the fundamentals of the economy, and that will have an impact."

The stadium is already providing some benefits to local residents and companies. Chester-based Buono Bros. Bakery, for example, won the contract to sell rolls to the stadium.

In addition to the 350 construction jobs that were generated over the past two years, about 500 employees have been hired to run the stadium during soccer games. Almost 85 percent of them live in Delaware County. Half the new hires are from Chester, according to Nick Sakiewicz, the Union's chief executive officer. Talks are under way to use the stadium for concerts and other sporting events year-round.

"Everybody needs a job," Chester resident Steven Jones, 27, said Wednesday as he walked into the stadium to turn in his application. "I'm hoping I get it. If not dishwashing, then maintenance."

More than 1,000 people attended the stadium's job fair in April.

"It's been a great thing for us in terms of the people that wanted the jobs here," Sakiewicz said. "They showed up, they were ready, they were prepared, they interviewed great."

Developer Buccini/Pollin Group, a partial owner of the Union, is planning at least another $200 million in ancillary development around the stadium, said Delaware County Council Chairman Jack Whelan. That construction, which was delayed when the economy tanked, will likely include a hotel and retail, office and residential buildings. Site work has begun.

"It's exciting that it's happening in Delaware County," Whelan said. "I believe this is something that will benefit the city of Chester and the entire Philadelphia region."

The project has been subsidized by $47 million in state funds and $10 million from the Delaware River Port Authority. Delaware County contributed $30 million through a loan that will be paid off with Harrah's slots revenue designated for economic-development projects in Chester.

Standing on a stadium staircase that overlooks the Delaware River, a park with lush, green grass and a fishing pier near the Commodore Barry Bridge, Sakiewicz defended the use of tax dollars to develop a section of the Chester waterfront that was an open sewer outlet and illegal dumping zone.

"This land was ugly, horrible," Sakiewicz said. "Now, it's a beautiful river walk and park."

"Broad and Pattison is kind of, 'Been there, done that,' " he said, referring to the South Philly sports complex. "We could have probably built it there, but we wanted to do something different and create a spectacular setting.

"We'll bring barges onto the river, shoot fireworks off on special occasions. We can have music festivals and down-by-the-river stuff. It's not just soccer."

But Eckstein, the Villanova professor, said he doubts that the project will rejuvenate the city or prove to be a net gain for the taxpayers who subsidized it.

"If I got $87 million in public money I could make my neighborhood look a lot nicer, too," Eckstein said, questioning whether most taxpayers would support spending money on a soccer stadium when funding for libraries and schools is scarce.

Opinions are equally divided in Chester's neighborhoods.

Retired carpenter Gus Daniels, 61, couldn't care less about soccer.

"It must be outside people coming in, because we don't have nothing to do with soccer," Daniels said. "Black people don't play soccer. This is a basketball town."

Many Chester residents are angry that the stadium was built so quickly, yet the city can't even get a supermarket. It hasn't had a full-service supermarket since 2001. Up to $4 million in state funding was earmarked for a Chester supermarket as part of the stadium deal, but it hasn't been built.

At Wednesday's Chester Council meeting, city resident Bennie Issamadeen said that the city's priorities are out of whack.

"This stadium, that whole corridor on 291, seems to be a place for the rich and powerful to sport and play, but there's no money for vocational schools for our young men," Issamadeen told Mayor Wendell Butler Jr. and council members.

But Tamika English, an after-school supervisor and gospel singer, is optimistic about the stadium's ability to help restore the city's image and produce needed jobs.

"I think this is a great idea if there will be jobs for residents," English said as she ate a soft pretzel on the pier near the stadium. "All and all, this is wonderful. It's a godsend."

Sciocchetti doesn't expect the stadium to transform Chester overnight, but it already is paying dividends by generating positive publicity for a city that desperately needs it these days.

"We'll keep peeling away the layers of the onion and exposing the value of the geography, and I think the stadium will add to that," he said. "It will bring all these people down here to see what the riverfront is all about."

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