Hoping for recovery in Marcus Hook

Just three houses have been built of 14 planned for River Place Homes in Marcus Hook. A deadline for proposals to finish the project passed this month with no interest from prospective developers.
Just three houses have been built of 14 planned for River Place Homes in Marcus Hook. A deadline for proposals to finish the project passed this month with no interest from prospective developers. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 27, 2014

Marie Horn's front porch offers a panoramic view of the Delaware River and riverfront park in Marcus Hook.

Her back deck overlooks a different scene: empty lots, with curb cuts and street lights prepared for 11 more houses.

The land has long sat vacant, as a nonprofit group struggles to find interested builders or buyers to complete a neighborhood of brightly colored colonials along the river, bookended by a refinery and a former refinery property. Horn's house is just one of three built in the last few years.

It is unclear when more will join them.

Marketing new houses is a challenge in Marcus Hook, a Delaware County community with a long and colorful career, where about 60 percent of residents are renters and most houses were built before 1970.

Once a 19th-century resort community, Marcus Hook became the site of the nation's first oil refinery in 1892, according to the county Historical Society, and subsequently one of the country's most important ports. But its population, about 2,400, is roughly half what it was in 1930.

Today, local officials are looking to the future as the borough recovers from the closing of the former Sunoco Marcus Hook Refinery. Work is underway to make that industrial property into a hub for shipping fuel from the Marcellus Shale region.

"We're not by any means out of the woods yet," Borough Manager Bruce Dorbian said.

The loss of tax revenue when the refinery closed continues to hurt the municipal budget. When the refinery was operating, about half the borough's $2 million annual tax revenue came from the earned-income tax, according to state figures.

Unless the new Marcus Hook Industrial Complex becomes more than a shipping hub, Dorbian said, it will not create enough jobs to restore those taxes. Last year, the borough increased its real estate taxes 12 percent, adding almost $100 to the annual property tax bill for the owner of a median-price home.

The vacant housing lots down the road are another reminder of challenges facing the borough.

"It's hard - we're not Lower Merion," Dorbian said.

After building just three houses, including Horn's, a developer backed out of the River Place Homes project.

This spring, the Marcus Hook Community Development Corp. again sought a builder to complete the work. But a deadline for proposals passed quietly this month, with no interest.

"I am hopeful that I eventually will have neighbors here," said Horn, whose home is now the most valuable in the borough.

Horn and her husband, Borough Council President Brian Mercadante, own the Star Hotel in Marcus Hook. Horn is also involved in work to attract buyers or builders to the site; she serves on the board of the Marcus Hook Community Development Corp.

As she folded laundry in her home at a high-top kitchen table, surrounded by modern decor, Horn said the changes at the refineries may be part of the issue for the housing development.

"People would think, 'Oh, we don't really know what's going on with Marcus Hook now,' " said Horn, who moved to the borough in the 1980s to work as a bartender and later bought the Star Hotel with her husband.

"It's beautiful," she said of her current neighborhood. "I just don't understand it."

Larger and newer than the other residences in Marcus Hook, the three colonial houses with yards and driveways appear out of place compared with aging, tightly packed twins and rowhouses elsewhere in the borough.

The median home value is $86,800, according to U.S. Census data.

Horn and Mercadante bought their home from the builder for $329,500. Their gray house with white trim has large front porches on both stories, three bedrooms, and an open first-floor living space with a large back deck.

Only a handful of houses are worth more than $200,000, making the River Place Homes site an anomaly from the start.

"I thought that there was a buyer pool that would like it," said Ed Jenks, who, with his son-in-law, built three houses on the site before giving up. "It would have been a nice community, 14 houses on the river."

Jenks said he had to deal with the collapse of the housing market and struggled to find banks willing to give mortgages to interested buyers.

Ultimately, he walked away from the project for a simple reason: "I can't build at a loss."

The third house he built finally sold last year for $194,900 - less than the cost of construction, Jenks said.

Florence Jenkins bought that house a year ago. She was moving her family from Philadelphia into the suburbs, and the house was the only one she considered in Marcus Hook. Jenkins said she likes the area, "especially the riverside."

Construction of the Riverplace Homes project began in 2000, when three houses were built in a section of Market Street across from Jenkins' home. It was a success, Dorbian said, because "people never thought there'd be new homes in Marcus Hook."

A few more came later, and in 2007 Jenks tried to build 14 more houses.

The project still awaits completion.

"At this point we'll probably work on Plan B," which could include working directly with potential residents rather than a builder, Dorbian said.

Additional residents and property-tax revenue would benefit the borough, but officials understand it will take time.

So will the recovery from the "shock to the system" of the refineries closing, Dorbian said. The reopening of the former ConocoPhillips Refinery in neighboring Trainer - now operated by Monroe Energy - has already helped businesses in Marcus Hook. "It's been much better," said Mario Giambrone, owner of Italiano's restaurant, who can again rely on a lunchtime crowd.

"We're slowly recovering, but we're not by any means there yet," Dorbian said.


lmccrystal@phillynews.com

610-313-8116

@Lmccrystal

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