Why can't Chester and soccer get along?

PPL Park during construction in 2010: They built it, people are coming, but is Chester benefiting? David Maialetti / staff photographer
PPL Park during construction in 2010: They built it, people are coming, but is Chester benefiting? David Maialetti / staff photographer
Posted: June 11, 2012

In early 2008, as politicians from here to Harrisburg were scraping together $87 million in public funding to bring a professional soccer team to the Philadelphia area, Ed Rendell made a trip to Chester to offer his vision of what the hard luck town would look like after a proposed 18,500-seat, soccer-specific stadium was built along Route 291, a stretch of industrial wasteland pocked with abandoned houses on dead-end streets.

After wading through a crowd of backslappers at the Wharf at Rivertown, a power plant-turned-office complex adjacent to what is now PPL Park, the governor stepped up to the podium: "It's going to change the face of Chester forever," he predicted.

Chester's then mayor, Wendell Butler Jr., couldn't have expressed it better. "This is utterly amazing," said Butler, a Republican.

It was a nice scene: Democrats and Republicans. Working together to bring a project to a part of the state that desperately needed help.

But the stadium was only one element of the plan. It was supposed to be part of a $500 million development — one that included town houses and apartments, a 200,000 square-foot convention center, retail. office space and a supermarket. At the time, officials said it would generate an estimated $19 million in annual tax revenue.

"This development will, I absolutely believe, guarantee that Chester will become one of the first-class cities in Pennsylvania," Rendell said.

It hasn't exactly happened that way. When the economy tanked, it took the ambitious plans for "Rivertown" with it. Today, it consists of a gleaming soccer stadium and parking lots — some unpaved.

And more than four years after Rendell predicted that Chester would become a first-class city, Chester remains…Chester. Last month, two men were convicted of murdering a 19-year-old man, wrapping the body in trash bags and dumping it a few blocks from PPL Park.

Today, the Philadelphia Union's CEO still calls Chester his "partner." Soccer fans are still packing PPL Park on the Delaware River. And Chester's new Democratic mayor insists he's not going to "tamper with success."

But the tangled relationship between Major League Soccer and a bullet-riddled city is looking more like a cold marriage of convenience than the win-win lovefest envisioned five years ago.

New taxes are on the table. The team is freaking out. And residents of Delaware County's impoverished city are tired of seeing dozens of police officers provide game-day security for well-heeled soccer fans while Chester's neighborhoods are crumbling and its school district is nearly broke.

"At night, I'm scared to walk six blocks to get a bag of chips. I gotta wait 'til morning. But during a game, I'm as safe as can be," said Jesse Berry, 36, a laborer who lives about a half-mile from the stadium. "It's like the police officers are giving them security, but once the game's over, for the people that live here, you gotta play at your own risk."

There is ample evidence that stadiums in general don't work as economic engines, and that subsidizing them with taxpayer dollars is a bad investment, period. Ask Rick Eckstein, a Villanova sociology professor and author of "Public Dollars, Private Stadiums: The Battle Over Building Sports Stadiums," who warned early on that Pennsylvania taxpayers were getting ripped off by the investor group behind the team. "You don't find any examples where a stadium has kick-started an economy or rejuvenated an area," Eckstein told me a couple years ago. "The rhetoric dies hard."

But there were signs from the beginning that this particular project was going to be an awkward fit, especially for anyone familiar with the trajectory of Chester politics and the mood on the street in recent years.

There are about 34,000 people in Chester, and most of them, it seems, are pissed off. And with good reason. The schools are a mess, and trigger-happy thugs run some neighborhoods. It's not a city where anyone was clamoring for a soccer stadium. "I think it's foolish," Maltrese Sessoms, a crossing guard at 3rd and Tilghman, told me back in 2008. "We're talking about the city of Chester. It needs so many things other than to bring in something that no child — or even adults — are interested in."

The story fell into my lap in 2007 when I got a tip about a pending stadium deal that turned out to be true. Then-Daily News reporter Dave Davies and I confirmed that talks were under way to bring a soccer facility to Chester, and we published the story the next day. Seven months later, I was at a raucous news conference where MLS announced that the Philadelphia Union would become the league's 16th team. The Polish American String Band strummed. The Sons of Ben, a group of Union supporters, rejoiced.

It was a big deal for Philadelphia, especially for the community of soccer diehards who had been instrumental in bringing a team here.

But I also wanted to hear what Chester residents thought, a group that didn't include many soccer diehards. At the time, Sessoms summed it up: "The kids that get off my buses have basketballs in their arms," she said.

She wasn't just a lone curmudgeon. Her feelings were echoed by other residents I spoke with that day — and on many subsequent trips to Chester. Today, it's not just residents; you'll hear similar things from Democratic Mayor John Linder, who unseated Butler in the last election.

Linder and his allies on the all-Democratic council are only the second crew of Democrats to control City Hall in more than a century. And they have some new ideas that, not coincidentally, jibe with what I've been hearing for years in Chester neighborhoods when chatting up city residents about the stadium and soccer. "I think the city should get more back. We should reap some of the benefits," Berry said outside his duplex near 3rd and Broomall streets, the other half of which is abandoned and looks structurally unsound. He glances over his shoulder. "You see what I'm living next to?"

Unlike his predecessor, Linder is talking about new taxes — a 20 percent parking tax and 10 percent amusement tax are being kicked around — aimed at the Union and, if the costs are passed on, its fans.

As you might expect, this development doesn't sit well with Union officials. Team CEO Nick Sakiewicz warns that such taxes would be "catastrophic" for the team, costing it $2 million a year, or about 10 percent of its gross revenue. "That would effectively put us out of business," said Sakiewicz, adding that the proposal has halted the team's plan to build a practice facility and office building.

After chucking a few bombs in Linder's direction — "Why would developers and new businesses come to Chester with this type of policy: Tax after you get there," Sakiewicz told the Inquirer last month — he was more diplomatic when we spoke the following week. "We've been partners with the city since Day 1 on this project," he said. "It was never a get-rich-quick scheme."

Linder is trying to pull his punches, too. Even so, Chester residents are still grumbling about the Union's deal, and they're the ones that elected him, not soccer fans. When the city's Mother's Day parade was moved due to the Union-New York Red Bulls match on the same day, a commenter on The Chester City Blog called Linder a "fraud" for failing to stand up to the soccer team. This is what he's dealing with.

"It's a soccer stadium in Chester," Linder said, "not necessarily for Chester."

Linder points out that, under the deal that brought the Union here, the team is supposed to pay the city $500,000 a year in lieu of property taxes. But, he said, the team had fallen behind by $750,000 at one point and still hasn't made the $500,000 payment for 2010. The $500,000 payment for 2012 is due at the end of this month, according to Linder. The team did not respond when asked to confirm the figures.

"The first thing we want to do is get paid up to date," Linder said, adding that there are equipment, infrastructure and labor costs that Chester's previous administration and officials in Media and Harrisburg hadn't accounted for. Linder said he's also cleaning up the mess left by his predecessors' mishandling of the firefighters' union contract, which could blow a huge hole in Chester's budget.

"There are a lot of unforeseen things, both current and down the road, that were either not anticipated when the agreement was made or not considered at all," Linder said of the stadium. "As a new administration, we have to revisit all these agreements."

Pleasing all constituencies will be difficult. Chester's a basketball town, one that has produced NBA talent like Jameer Nelson and Tyreke Evans. The Chester High Clippers are on a 58-game winning streak and just won back-to-back state basketball championships. The city is 75 percent black, and more than a third of its residents live below the poverty line. "We don't have no soccer fans," Berry chuckled.

Union fans are predominantly white and more affluent. Their soccer team isn't named after Chester and they don't live in Chester. A new ramp dumps them off right at PPL Park from Route 322. "The joke's been made that it's white flight on the weekend," said Scott Kessler, who runs the Brotherly Game soccer blog.

Republicans at the county courthouse, who had a major role in shaping the stadium deal, are concerned that Linder's tax proposal could stifle future waterfront development and send the wrong message to businesses considering setting up shop in Chester. "I think it would be a mistake," said county Councilman John McBlain, who served as the county's top lawyer when the Union deal was sealed.

Dominic Pileggi, the state Senate Majority Leader and former Republican mayor of Chester, put it even more ominously: Any city with a reputation for squeezing the maximum amount of tax revenue out of successful businesses eventually won't have many businesses left to tax. That city will fail, he said.

"That's the troubling thing to the proposal," Pileggi said.

Regardless of whether these new taxes will really put the Union "out of business," as Sakiewicz says, the team has good reason to be livid. They are getting screwed. None of this was part of the deal they agreed to, and changing the terms now is unfair. And it could easily backfire on the city.

Here's what Linder's tax-happy supporters need to realize, though: Chester won't be fixed with money alone.

One reason there's no supermarket in Chester is because the last guy at the West End Food Center was practically run out of town by shoplifters. He had to hire off-duty cops and posted a sign that read: "Free Ride in a Police Car If You Shoplift from This Store."

Yes, the Chester Upland School District is out of money, but can you blame the state for not wanting to divert more funds there? Last month, district school board President Wanda Mann was convicted of fighting with a teacher at Chester High School.

And out-of-control crime doesn't exactly inspire new businesses to invest in Chester. The city was forced to declare a "state of emergency" days before the Union's home opener in 2010. A takeout seafood joint has somehow become a "public nuisance," where cops have responded 59 times since 2001 — three murders and 10 assaults included. In February, Chester controller Edith Blackwell took a bullet in her back at the A-plus at 9th and Kerlin streets. Two months earlier, the store's owner was killed during an attempted robbery. More than a dozen gunshots were heard near a polling place during the April primary election. Poll workers showed me the bullet holes in the wall from a previous shooting.

As I was leaving Chester last month, my phone beeped with an alert: Two people shot near the Crosby Square Apartments. Then on Memorial Day, the 27-year-old son of the Rev. Calvin Williams, pastor of the Temple of Brotherly Love, was shot and killed. Right now, as I'm filing this story, cops are investigating a suspicious death on Jeffrey Street. An hour ago, someone was shot at 12th and Tilghman.

None of this is Nick Sakiewicz's area of expertise. He's trying to run a business — one that has a very prominent profile — and "lift some trophies along the way," as he said back in 2008.

So if Chester residents want to complain that soccer's not their sport, if they want to milk a little more money from the Union or its fans, that's their right. The city's struggling financially. But soccer isn't the problem in Chester. But it's not the solution, either.

Contact William Bender at 215-854-5255 or benderw@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @wbender99. Read his blog, "Daily Delco" at philly.com/dailydelco.

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