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Produce market's Navy Yard move killed

Gov. Rendell's announcement caught terminal officials off-guard. They were promised the site - after trying since 2002 to relocate to updated facilities.

Gov. Rendell yesterday canceled plans to move the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market to the Navy Yard, saying it would cost too much and block expansion of seaport operations.

He said the market, run by an association of 35 small businesses, and its 1,100 jobs are important to the city. He pledged to help the market get the new facilities it needs.

The news caught produce-market officials off-guard. "I feel like I've been hit by a sledgehammer," said James P. Storey Jr., president of the association that runs the bustling terminal in South Philadelphia.

Since 2002, the produce-market association has been warning the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., the city agency from which it leases space, that its present facility, built in 1959, would not comply with tightening federal food-handling regulations.

At one point, produce-market operators became so frustrated that they considered a proposal from New Jersey to move to Camden.

Over the years, the produce market has been told by Pennsylvania and city officials to study three possible sites for a new terminal. The first was at the Navy Yard; the second, the Pier 98 annex on Delaware Avenue. Finally, in 2005, Rendell and State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.) announced plans for a $150 million terminal at a third site, at the Navy Yard's east end.

At that 2005 announcement ceremony, a gleeful Rendell and Fumo chided Michael Sklaroff, attorney for the produce market, for being skeptical that the Navy Yard site could be built affordably.

The Navy Yard site would require construction of a four-lane bridge over the big Greenwich railroad yard, strong enough for long lines of 18-wheelers arriving at the terminal, to keep trucks from clogging the main entrance to the former military base and adding to sports-complex traffic. The site is also fill land and would have required a costly foundation to support the terminal and truck-parking areas.

Rendell said yesterday that cost estimates had exceeded $400 million, excluding the cost of the bridge, and that is the reason he canceled the project.

In recent months, the governor and Fumo kept backing the Navy Yard site, despite sustained opposition from State Rep. William F. Keller (D., Phila.), maritime businesses, and labor unions.

At a private May 4 meeting with produce officials, Fumo's staff said the project cost estimates were over budget, but gave no indication that the governor and senator would back down.

Rendell acknowledged Keller's fight to save the Navy Yard site for port expansion. "Bill Keller is a tough opponent. Fighting him is like trying to single-handedly bring down a Patton tank," Rendell said, with the South Philadelphia lawmaker and former longshoreman standing at his side.

Storey, the produce-market president, and George Manos, its secretary-treasurer and largest shareholder, said the future of the market was being threatened by the repeated delays.

"We feel we're being pushed around terribly. We've wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars studying several sites they proposed," Storey said.

Until March, when a nest of bald eagles was discovered near the Navy Yard site, Storey and Manos thought site preparation would be under way this month. In recent weeks, they thought that problem had been solved; they said they had been told a sound barrier could shield the nest and allow work to go forward.

Yesterday, Rendell pledged to spend up to $180 million on either building new somewhere else or improving their existing facility next to the South Philadelphia sports complex.

The produce market, which is made up of competing businesses, opposes the latter approach. It would, Storey and Manos said, have some members in brand-new facilities, while rivals remained in dilapidated quarters. The last businesses to get new space would probably fail, they added.

Also, the present facility does not have direct access to rail, which Storey and Manos said was important to its long-term future.