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Soccer stadium is still up in the air

Its benefits will sway lawmakers, backer says

State Sen. Dominic Pileggi, among the most powerful politicians in Pennsylvania and a key to whether pro soccer will come to the Philadelphia region, leaned forward and considered the question:

Will the state provide a crucial $45 million to help build a stadium and secure a team?

"Undetermined," he said last week. "We're not at a yes or a no."

Pileggi spoke during an interview at his office in Chester, not far from the proposed riverfront stadium site, as the 21/2-year effort to capture a Major League Soccer expansion club rushes toward a conclusion. The support of the Republican Senate majority leader is vital to the endeavor's chances - and not without complication.

GOP legislators have pledged to avoid new spending, and it's unclear whether they will want to provide millions of dollars for a sports stadium when roads, bridges and schools need help.

Pileggi said, however, that he didn't think Republicans would be reluctant to back the project, because it's sure to create jobs, roads and infrastructure. In fact, the majority leader said his personal support would be predicated on a view of the project as a broad, multifaceted development.

"I'm not interested in simply facilitating the development of a soccer stadium," he said. "I am interested in a comprehensive rebuilding of the Chester waterfront."

And, he said, in the impact that would have on the region.

Philadelphia is battling St. Louis for Major League Soccer's 16th team. The investors who would own the team want to build a $115 million stadium surrounded by $385 million worth of stores, restaurants, offices and housing. They say $45 million from the state would be the final piece of stadium funding, as Delaware County officials already promised $30 million for construction.

Several MLS teams play outside the cities they represent, building stadiums where land is cheaper. By putting the stadium in Chester - a leader in crime, a laggard in schools - political leaders can cite government funding as a needed public-works project, not a tax-money giveaway.

Indeed, Pileggi said an award of state money would be contingent on assurances that the housing, restaurants, and other facilities would be built, and that job-creation projections would be met.

The Republican leader, relaxed in a blue-striped oxford shirt and blue blazer, sat down to talk on Wednesday, a week before MLS' Jan. 31 deadline - a deadline Commissioner Don Garber seems to have extended. At the Jan. 18 player draft in Baltimore, Garber said the league was intent on choosing an expansion city this month, but that the process could take another 30 to 45 days.

That could push a decision into early March.

At the moment, the plans of organizers in Philadelphia and St. Louis lack critical elements. Philadelphia has strong ownership but no agreement to build a stadium. St. Louis has a stadium deal, but lacks wealthy investors.

Pileggi, a former Chester mayor, said it was possible funding could be arranged by Jan. 31, the original deadline. But if talks with league officials go beyond that, "I don't think they're going to set up any artificial deadlines as long as there continues to be positive discussion."

In fact, he said, the longer the process continues, the greater the odds of success. "If this was a short conversation, it would indicate to me that the parties . . . don't have much to talk about."

Gov. Rendell supports the project, and as early as February 2007 he wrote to a leader of the investment group, outlining how he would try to produce money for a stadium.

The arena would sit just south of the Commodore Barry Bridge, near the new Harrah's casino and the Wharf at Rivertown, an office complex in the restored Philadelphia Electric Co. station. Pileggi cited both projects as "proof these large-scale developments can work in the city of Chester."

Exactly how stadium money would be authorized, by vote of the legislature, by gathering grants, or by other means, "is part of the discussion," he said.

"There's some work being done every day on this project," Pileggi said. "But it's not a marathon, around-the-clock negotiation."

The effort to bring a team to Philadelphia emerged publicly last summer, not quite a year after plans to build a pro stadium at Rowan University fell through. By then the Philadelphia group had been at work for two years. In Baltimore, Garber offered details that clarified where MLS expansion is headed, whether in St. Louis or Philadelphia:

The new team probably won't start play until 2010. That allows almost two and a half years for construction, and gives the team the added boost of starting out in a new stadium. But it's sure to disappoint fans who hoped to see a team take the field sooner, playing at a temporary home.

The team won't necessarily go to the city that's first to deliver two major components of an expansion team: Solid ownership and a stadium deal. If both cities qualify, officials will consider which proposal better serves MLS' long-term interest.

Garber had kind words for expansion efforts in cities such as Miami and New York, which is seeking a second team, but said none was far enough along to challenge Philadelphia or St. Louis. At the same time, he said, MLS can't wait forever for the two towns to finalize their plans.

Pileggi cited the competitive nature of the process as something that could scuttle Philadelphia's bid. Other cities want teams, and it's possible all the work in Pennsylvania could come to naught, he said.

Still, Pileggi said, he remained optimistic about obtaining state funding. He declined to put a percentage on his level of confidence, saying, "Harrah's is down the street."

In his office, three shovels lean against a wall, souvenirs from ceremonial groundbreakings at Harrah's and elsewhere. He says there's always room for another. While he's not a soccer fan, "I may develop into one."