Chester still awaits a big score in soccer

The first Union game at PPL Park, in 2010. Some say the recession dealt a blow to hopes.
The first Union game at PPL Park, in 2010. Some say the recession dealt a blow to hopes. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)

PPL Park was going to lead a city rebirth. While the mayor remains hopeful, frustrations are rising.

Posted: April 28, 2014

CHESTER - Far more than a mere sports arena, the Major League Soccer stadium was going to be the centerpiece of an economic renaissance for the struggling city of Chester.

In announcing $47 million in state funding for the project in 2008, Gov. Ed Rendell went so far as to say it would "change the face of Chester forever," the axis for development that would include housing, a convention center, office and retail space, and a riverside promenade on the city's historic waterfront.

Today, with the Philadelphia Union in their fifth season, PPL Park, in the shadow of the Commodore Barry Bridge, remains an island among vacant land and dilapidated buildings.

In the meantime, two modest projects are in the works. The Union are preparing to build practice fields next to the stadium on land earmarked for the envisioned development, and plans are underway to renovate a building nearby that will house the Union's corporate offices.

But the $7 million projects have caused frictions to surface between the team and the city - and have underscored the challenges of bringing large-scale private development to a financially troubled city.

"The business environment here continues to be inconsistent," said the team's chief executive officer, Nick Sakiewicz.

Mayor John Linder, who is working to bring the practice field and office space projects to fruition, said that he hoped they would represent progress.

"It's frustrating sometimes to wait when you need something to happen right now, but I'm hopeful and optimistic that this is a signal that some of these other things will come," Linder said.

Chester may keep waiting, said Villanova University professor Rick Eckstein.

About the lack of development, "I'm not surprised," said Eckstein, a coauthor of Public Dollars, Private Stadiums: The Battle Over Building Sports Stadiums. Eckstein has been skeptical of the project since plans were unveiled. "Many of us who follow stadiums through the years know that the development rarely, if ever, comes," he said.

Both the city and the team point to a poor economy as a barrier to development in Chester, a financially distressed city with nearly one-third of its residents living below the poverty level.

Months after announcements of public investment for the soccer team and the proposed $500 million riverfront revival, a recession took hold.

Construction of PPL Park nevertheless commenced in December 2008, funded primarily with the state money and $30 million from Delaware County. Other plans, however, were scaled back and put on hold.

"We always had a grand plan to build a lot of stuff down here, but . . . the economy made it very difficult for us to get any kind of bank financing or people interested in developing," Sakiewicz said.

Quick exits

Sakiewicz said the stadium has "over-delivered" in creating 650 jobs, most of which are part-time, game-day positions. Half of those employees live in Chester, said team spokeswoman Aimee Cicero.

But the stadium has not been the anticipated boost to Chester's economy. More than 18,000 fans pack PPL Park during games - and most immediately leave town when the games are over.

"I would like to see something where they stay and they spend money here on that waterfront," Linder said, citing the importance of nearby retail or restaurants.

After Sakiewicz went public a few months ago with his frustrations with the city, Linder has worked closely with him. The team had shelved plans for the practice fields and new offices, but the mayor helped them back on track.

Sakiewicz praised Linder's efforts but continued to express doubts about the city's ability to work with business owners. In an interview last week, Linder said he did not want to discuss Sakiewicz's comments about the city's business climate.

"We have a process with each developer, and we will take their issues as they bring them," Linder said. "But our goal is to continue to make this a place for businesses to come and develop."

Lost revenue

When the practice fields are completed, the next phase of development would include renovation of a building next to the Wharf at Rivertown, an office building near the stadium. Both buildings are owned by the Buccini/Pollin Group. The developers are part owners of the Union and have led the plans for the waterfront site. The company did not respond to requests for comment last week.

Sakiewicz said the Union would move their corporate offices, now in the Wharf at Rivertown, into the renovated annex building.

However, further development isn't on the horizon, even as the economy has improved.

And Sakiewicz said that other attempts by the city to gain revenue have hurt the team.

Private parking lots have opened near the stadium, and the Union unsuccessfully fought zoning changes in court that allowed the lots. Sakiewicz said the private lots have meant about $1 million in lost revenue to the team annually. The city also instituted a new tax on parking facilities last year.

Linder defended the tax, noting that the city has been declared financially distressed by the state and needs to consider all revenue options.

He said he still hoped to see development blossom in the stadium area, as does Sakiewicz.

"If people want to move to Chester or build in Chester," Sakiewicz said, "we could relocate the [practice] fields."


lmccrystal@phillynews.com

610-313-8116

@Lmccrystal

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