When the $500 million stadium complex for the region's new pro soccer team gets built, it's supposed to include an amenity that vanished from Chester nearly a decade ago:

A supermarket.

So, people must be pretty excited, right?

"I'll believe it when I see it," snapped Joan Broadfield, a longtime city resident.

In downtrodden Chester, the absence of so elemental an enterprise as a supermarket rankles. People want a well-stocked store not only because of the convenience but also because supermarkets can help transform the health and welfare of entire communities - offering nutritious vegetables, fruits and meats; increasing the tax base; and, not least, providing jobs for young people.

When many Chester residents need groceries, they shop at mini-marts or bodegas. Some travel to Eddystone, which has a ShopRite and a Wal-Mart. Some drive to Delaware. Others can't, because they don't have a car.

It's maddening, because Chester is not some out-of-the-way boondocks. It's a city of 36,000 people, every one of whom needs to eat.

The frustration helps explain why the prospect of a grocery store emerged as a small but important element of the deal that secured the soccer team and its stadium to anchor a riverside colonnade of shops, taverns and condos.

Democratic State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, who represents Chester, insisted that a market be included. His support was key to the team owners' ability to snare $47 million in state funding. That money was crucial in persuading Major League Soccer to award a club to the Philadelphia region.

From the start, team chief executive officer Nick Sakiewicz has said the project is about more than a soccer stadium - it's about changing a community. With groundbreaking only months away, the owners are careful to say they definitely, absolutely want and intend to build a supermarket eventually -

if

they can.

The $10 million supermarket constitutes just 2 percent of the development, but may prove to be its most challenging component. The ragged economies of communities like Chester make poor fits with the demanding margins of big grocery chains.

"I could give away the land, and at this stage they still wouldn't come," said Rob Buccini, a co-owner of the team and cofounder of the Buccini/Pollin Group developers.

Scarce groceries

In 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan documented what has long been obvious to residents of places like Chester: Poor, minority neighborhoods have fewer supermarkets than wealthier, whiter suburbs. And that inequality has repercussions.

"There's a correlation between food access and public health," said John Talmage, head of Social Compact, a Washington coalition that promotes inner-city investment.

Food is a essential purchase for everyone, regardless of income. People in poor South Central Los Angeles spend $1 billion a year on food. So why aren't markets flocking to poorer areas?

Many reasons, experts say.

Grocery stores operate on incredibly low margins, as small as 1 percent. But a store in a rough neighborhood may have more goods stolen - the industry calls it "shrink" - so its operating costs are higher. It may have to hire security guards, an extra cost. The store may spend more for insurance and struggle to find skilled workers.

"The labor pool for qualified employees, especially at the manager level, is smaller," said David Fields, managing director of Ascendant Consulting in Connecticut.

Former Pathmark vice president Harvey Gutman agreed that urban stores could be harder to run, but said most arguments against them were myths. Pathmarks in poor neighborhoods tend to have higher profits and better prospects for growth. The shrinkage in those stores is similar to that of suburban locales.

"Some of the myths are based on old information, or faulty information, or some form of conscious or subconscious prejudice," he said. Still, said Gutman, head of Brookside Advisors in Marlboro, N.J., not every town can support a supermarket. A typical store needs a customer base of 40,000 to 50,000 - more than the population of Chester.

Talmage, of Social Compact, doesn't deny the challenge of running urban markets. But it's also true, he said, that the industry is risk-averse, and the efforts of less-affluent areas to lure stores are hurt by government surveys that underestimate their population and purchasing power.

In Chester, official figures show the number of city residents has dropped nearly in half since 1950, from 66,039 to 36,854. Per-capita income is $13,000 a year, half the Delaware County average.

The impact?

"We've been told that chains just will not come in," resident Broadfield said.

Co-op alternative

Chester had plenty of grocery stores as recently as the 1960s. More than a dozen family operations competed with big boys such as Acme, Food Fair and A&P. But stores closed as manufacturing jobs disappeared and people, mostly white, moved out.

The Penn Fruit store was sold in the 1970s, became a Shop 'n Bag in the 1980s, and changed to the West End Food Center in the 1990s. It was the city's last supermarket when it closed in 2001.

Today, many people who want fresh vegetables and fruits shop once a week at Fifth Street and Edgmont Avenue downtown. That's where the Community Co-op sets up on Saturdays.

For more than a year, Tina Johnson has poured her heart into the co-op, an alternative to a traditional grocery store. In April, Congregation Beth Israel in Media honored her with its 2008 Friend of the Community Award, citing her "vision, creativity and tireless efforts" to bring healthy food to Chester.

Yet Johnson, too, is frustrated - for a different reason.

"When I hear, 'We're going to get a supermarket in Chester,' I say, 'You have a supermarket in Chester. You just don't want to support it.' "

She seeks a larger permanent home for the co-op so it can open more days and offer more foods. Johnson said that she needed city help in the form of an affordable building, but that government leaders didn't like the co-op model.

"People think co-ops are hippy-dippy," she said.

Mayor Wendell Butler Jr. said that was inaccurate. "It's so easy to say that we're not interested in helping, and that's not true," he said.

Public-private partnerships require enormous exploration and vetting. It's not just handing over a building.

"I want to do things that are going to be sustainable," the mayor said. "There's no sense putting money and time in, and two years later it's failed."

Not-so-fast food

The stadium complex sounds like a dream. Boat docks. Restaurants. A waterside promenade. Stadium construction starts this fall, though the earliest a supermarket would be built is two years from now. The latest, 41/2 years.

"You need to be able to sell a supermarket chain, Acme or Pathmark or any of the others, on the future growth as well as the current growth," Buccini said. "That's hard to do."

He has done it before. At his firm's Christina Crossing development in Wilmington, steel is being laid for a ShopRite. Buccini is starting to market the Chester project to grocery chains now, knowing it could take years.

Johnson, the co-op leader, was asked if she believed the developers would build a grocery store in Chester.

"I believe that they believe it," she said. "Is it going to happen right now? Probably not. And probably not for another five years."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.