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Former Dallas Cowboy Emmitt Smith asking Pa. for $14M to build techie office park in Manayunk

The plan would mark a shift from the past residential development on Venice Island, a thin land mass between the Schuylkill and the Manayunk Canal.

Photo from a marketing brochure for PaperWorks Industries Inc.'s former paper mill property on Manayunk's Venice Island, where a new office and lab complex is now planned.
Photo from a marketing brochure for PaperWorks Industries Inc.'s former paper mill property on Manayunk's Venice Island, where a new office and lab complex is now planned.Read moreSVN Concordis Group

A development firm helmed by former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith is seeking $14 million in financial support from Gov. Wolf's office to raze part of a shuttered paper mill complex on Manayunk's Venice Island so it can build a sprawling campus of labs, offices, and homes on the 31-acre property.

Dallas-based ESmith Properties LLC wants to use the grant and loan money to ready PaperWorks Industries Inc.'s former plant property on the island's northern tip for what's slated to eventually encompass three million square feet of commercial space, about three times as much development as now exists in the South Philadelphia Navy Yard's central office park, according to an application submitted for the support last month.

Potential tenants that have been identified include two out-of-town tech firms seeking locations in Philadelphia and a community college satellite science campus, according to the application.

"The Venice Innovation Island project aims to attract innovative businesses across a variety of industries and entertainment/leisure opportunities to the site, with the goal to further bolster Manayunk as a regional destination," ESmith wrote in a project prospectus included with the application, which was provided to the Inquirer.

The support is being sought through a state program called Business in Our Sites, which funds site-preparation and environmental-remediation work required for development projects. The requested $14 million would be in addition to $1 million that the project has already been awarded this year through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.

ESmith Properties is a unit of ESmith Legacy Holdings, where Emmitt Smith serves as chairman. A spokesperson for the companies did not respond to multiple requests for details.

ESmith's plan would mark a shift from the past residential development on Venice Island, a thin land mass between the Schuylkill and the Manayunk Canal that spans most of Manayunk's waterfront. The most recent such project is a complex of 63 high-end rowhouses now under development on 4.5 acres between the Venice Lofts condo building and the Green Lane bridge, where the once-bustling Carmella's Restaurant used to operate.

The addition of new workspaces in Manayunk could be a boon to neighborhood businesses, which now see little daytime activity. But some community members wonder whether the massive project would draw enough tenant interest to be financially feasible, said Kevin Smith, president of the Manayunk Neighborhood Council.

"It's an extremely ambitious project," Kevin Smith said. "It's really interesting and exciting, if it's true."

Neighbors also have concerns about traffic that the project would draw and about flooding on the island, he said.

Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., whose district includes the proposed development site, said in a message sent with the application that he plans "to work with all stakeholders to ensure the development of a multifaceted project that will increase commerce and could serve as an anchor of my district."

A spokesperson for Jones said the councilman was not immediately available to comment on whether he would support a change to the area's industrial zoning so offices and homes could be built there.

ESmith is under contract to buy the property for $12.5 million, according to a January purchase agreement that's copied with the application.

The application, which is also accompanied by a letter of support from U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D., Pa.) requests a $10 million loan and a $4 million grant to help finance expenses that include the acquisition and the cost of heaping 8½ feet of material onto an eight-acre section of the property to lift it out of the floodplain.

ESmith proposes spending $72 million to renovate plant buildings spared from demolition for offices and labs in the project's initial phase after the site-preparation work is completed, ESmith chief executive Brian Morris wrote in an email included in the application. More buildings would be constructed in later phases, Morris wrote.

Plans call for the project's first 100,000 square feet of commercial space to be ready for occupancy in 2020, with more development occurring in each subsequent year. The complex would eventually support more than 750 permanent jobs.

The proposal also includes a mid-rise apartment complex with 300 units, hydroelectric and solar power-production facilities, waterfront trails, and a new bridge over the Manayunk Canal to connect the island complex with SEPTA's Ivy Ridge Regional Rail station.

SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said that ESmith has discussed the rail-station link with the transit agency, along with the possibility of extending the Route 61 bus route between Center City and Manayunk to serve the island directly.

ESmith is also in discussions with a community college to locate its science, technology, engineering, and math campus in the proposed development as it markets the those offerings "to foreign students that they are attracting," Morris said in an application email.

Community College of Philadelphia spokesperson Linda Wallace said the school has discussed expanding its capacity in those academic fields but has made no commitments regarding Venice Island.

ESmith also has letters of intent from two firms that each are interested in leasing 50,000 square feet each at the project, Morris wrote in his email. One is a Danish company that has devised a technology for fertilizing hydroponic crops with algae. The other is an internet company based in the South that's seeking to expand.

Philadelphia officials, meanwhile, have begun marketing the site to large potential tenants and have connected ESmith to one user that could anchor the development by occupying as much as 450,000 square feet, Morris wrote.

While Philadelphia Commerce Department spokesperson Lauren Cox declined in an email to identify that prospective tenant, she said economic development officials are "encouraged by projects like Venice Island and the potential impact they could bring to the city."