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Chester mayor prods PPL officials for greater economic input

Inside the gates of PPL Park on game days, nearly 18,500 fans bustle around the $122 million Major League Soccer stadium on the Chester waterfront.

The new park in June 2010. FIve years later, there are few signs of economic life nearby.
The new park in June 2010. FIve years later, there are few signs of economic life nearby.Read moreRON CORTES / File Photo

Inside the gates of PPL Park on game days, nearly 18,500 fans bustle around the $122 million Major League Soccer stadium on the Chester waterfront.

They cheer the Union, they relax, they buy drinks and food. For a few hours, it's an image from Chester that few might recognize.

But by the day's end, those visitors abruptly leave - returning to homes far outside Chester's city limits - without ever venturing beyond the I-95 ramp leading to the complex.

It's been nearly five years since PPL Park opened with high expectations: The stadium would become a hub for economic development, the centerpiece of a waterfront stretch that would include housing, corporate offices, and a convention center.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell predicted it would transform Chester into a "first-class Pennsylvania city" and "a great place to work, to live and to play."

Yet with that June anniversary nearing, Chester remains one of the state's most violent and impoverished cities - on Thursday, nearly 30 shots were fired just a mile from PPL Park, killing one man.

The stadium has added training fields and an annex building, but it's still flanked by nearly two dozen acres of undeveloped land - and few signs of economic life.

Chester Mayor John Linder says the park and its owners have not done enough to boost the city's economy or residents. "These are big people with big ties, and they should be influencing corporations to come and build," he said Friday.

State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, who ousted Linder in the Democratic mayoral primary, has gone as far as calling the relationship between the park and the city "hostile."

Owners of the Union said that they "wouldn't characterize the relationship as outstanding," but that they have worked through many issues - including Linder's tax on the stadium's parking lots and the team's late payments to the city - that once created tension.

And as Chester faces a leadership change in the fall, both mayoral candidates - Kirkland and Republican Wendell Butler - say that if elected, they are confident they can work with PPL Park, one of the only large businesses in Chester.

"There seems to be bones of contention," Butler said. "We can fix that."

When Nick Sakiewicz envisioned a home for the team, he looked at locations across the country. He settled on Chester, bypassing cities including Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., because he "saw this was a great place to be."

"Revitalizing the city isn't what we ever promised," said Sakiewicz, the team's chief executive and operating partner. "One business doesn't fix decades of economic mismanagement in a city."

To sweeten the deal, the state kicked in $47 million, the Delaware River Port Authority gave $10 million, and Delaware County committed $30 million in the form of a bond.

For Chester's benefit, a 30-year lease was arranged, which stipulated that in lieu of property taxes, PPL Park would pay the city $500,000 a year through 2014. After that, payments would drop to $150,000 through 2040.

Linder said those payments - in a financially distressed city with $5 million in debt - are not sufficient. He said Chester owes the county more than $400,000 annually to pay off the $30 million bond. Chester is responsible for paying one-fourth of the bond, said John McBlain of the Delaware County Council.

"We're only getting $150,000 now, but we still have to make that $400,000 payment," Linder said. "That's a deficit - the economic value of the stadium has not been realized."

Not only has the team fulfilled its agreement, Sakiewicz said, but it's directly benefited residents.

In the stadium alone, the team has created 388 jobs - 162 of which are filled by Chester residents.

Many of those jobs are part time, Sakiewicz said, but because all employees are contracted through a larger management company, many can work events at other Philadelphia venues.

In the community itself, Sakiewicz said, numerous ventures have progressed under the Philadelphia Union Foundation, the team's nonprofit group.

Those include collecting and distributing about 20,000 coats and donating $15,000 to the Chester police. Soon, the team is launching a Big Brothers/Big Sisters mentoring program with the Chester Upland School District.

But most notable is the creation of a youth recreational soccer program at a local park, said Rick Jacobs, the Union's senior vice president of club development.

"This past Saturday we had parents on the sidelines, in their chairs, watching their kids play soccer on a Saturday morning in Chester," Jacobs said.

Yet under the overhang of the Commodore Barry Bridge, PPL Park and its surrounding fields stand isolated along a stretch of land once blighted by manufacturing buildings that were there decades ago.

Twenty-two acres of developable land remain, said Mike Hare, senior vice president for development at the Buccini/Pollin Group, which owns the adjacent land.

Hare said plans for an economic boom to the waterfront were always in the works but were stymied by the recession.

"It was devastating for the region," he said.

Since the stadium's opening, Hare said, the group has helped oversee the construction of $7.5 million in projects, including the team's training fields and an annex building that he said "shows some signs of progress" on the site.

Buccini/Pollin remains bullish on building, he said, but no projects are planned.

For Linder, PPL Park has been important for Chester: The soccer team's presence has given the small city an international spotlight, he said, and "shined a light on the city's many opportunities and capabilities."

Yet he said the stadium, and its owners, can still do more. "One food drive, one playground, that's just one thing," Linder said.

Sakiewicz said that his relations with Butler and Kirkland were strong and that he's excited to see what partnerships are ahead.

"Mayors come and go, City Council members come and go," Sakiewicz said. "We're not going anywhere - we are working our tails off to make a better Chester."