In the perennially struggling city of Chester, which went 12 years without a supermarket, a burgeoning renaissance is on the menu along a strip of Providence Avenue near Widener University.
The neighborhood now has a Mediterranean-theme diner, and will soon have a full-service Pizzeria Uno and possibly a trendy taco bar.
Along with a morale boost, the developments are expected to add to the city's coffers with as many as 100 jobs at the pizzeria alone, and potentially valuable acreage entering the tax rolls.
The recent development has flanked University Crossings, a $50 million Widener project that started in 2007 with the objective of bringing businesses, services, and jobs to the areas bordering the campus and Crozer-Chester Medical Center.
"We look forward to seeing this corridor become a vibrant area that brings in not only people from the city [of Chester] but people from outside the city," said Dan Hanson, the school spokesman. Students, faculty, and staff are excited about the new dining options, he said.
Pizzeria Uno, which will occupy 1.64 acres of university-owned land at Providence and 15th Street, is to open in May.
It will include an outside dining area with a fire pit, said Buz Harris, vice president of the construction company Ernest Bock & Sons. The restaurant, which will hold about 200 customers and have a liquor license and bar, will be overseen by the Bock Group, he said.
"It really brings something that the city needs and that the city can enjoy," Harris said.
Three parcels owned by the university were consolidated for the restaurant space, Hanson said, and the land was converted from nontaxable to taxable.
That would be a boost to the city's tax base, which has lagged the rest of the Delaware County in adding ratables. From 2002 through 2014, according to state data, the total property-tax base increased less than 4 percent in the city, compared with 17 percent for all of the county.
The university, which will lease the facility to Pizzeria Uno, will maintain ownership of the property and the building, collecting rent that will offset the taxes, he said.
The University Crossings project included a 57-unit apartment complex for students, a 60-room Best Western hotel, a 7-Eleven, and a police substation. That property, now taxable, is owned by the university and leased to Pinnacle Hospitality Group, which runs the hotel and other businesses, Hanson said.
"The whole initiative is to help build up that corridor," Hanson said. Among the university's priorities are civic engagement and economic development, he said.
The school has an enrollment of 6,600 and is at the northern end of a city of 34,000 where about 28 percent of the families live below the poverty line, according to census figures. "This is just another part of the Widener partnership with private business to move along economic development in the city of Chester," Hanson said.
The neighborhood rally hasn't gone unnoticed by other entrepreneurs.
Rejep Sayin Jr. was investing in a house in Chester when he saw that Dawn's Diner, just south of University Crossings, had gone out of business. He approached the owner, who operates the adjacent Days Inn, rented the location, and opened the Grape Leaves Diner just before January's snowstorm.
Sayin said he plans to attract local families, students, hotel guests, and Widener and Crozer employees. He said his menu caters to that diversity. The diner is serving all-day breakfast; Mediterranean cuisine, including kebabs and falafel; halal food; and a full page of options for wings. "We are taking a little risk for an area like this; Chester is low-income," said Sayin, who lives in Palmyra and owns a diner in Kensington. "The location is really good for us."
He has already hired some workers from Chester. As his business grows, so will his staff, he said.
Across the street from University Crossings, new tenants are expected to occupy two now-vacant locations.
Chet Patel, one of the partners in Pinnacle Hospitality Group, said the group purchased the location in a distressed state.
"It was the right opportunity at the right time for us," Patel said.
The group is still in the planning stages for the location and has teamed with local restaurateur Phil Ferro, who owns Vida and Edgewood Cafe in Haverford Township. "It will be a full-service restaurant," said Ferro, who will manage the restaurant operations in one of the smaller retail spaces.
Ferro said that the group is thinking of opening a taco-themed eatery and that he hopes to tap into the food and beer scene.
Patel said he does not view Pizzeria Uno as competition, saying that if anything, it will draw foot traffic to the area. "A Chicago pizza place in Chester is huge," he said.
Patel cautioned, however, that the city's fortunes will not turn around on one effort.
He said that will require involvement by residents, police, and city and county officials, as well as training programs for workers. "People will start believing in Chester," Patel said. "It is the beginning."