The last time a big-name hotel went up in Chester, Richard Nixon was president. But today, a week after the city broke ground for a professional soccer stadium, Best Western will open a 60-room "green" facility, the city's first new hotel in 35 years.

Best Western Widener Hotel & Suites is part of a three-phase, $50 million project spearheaded by Widener University to bring commercial and residential development to Providence Avenue near the school. The land, owned by the college and previously tax exempt, will be added to the city tax rolls, bringing an estimated $1.8 million in real estate tax revenue to the city in the next 10 years, university officials said.

"I think we're in a very good position moving forward," said Widener University President James T. Harris 3d. "We're seeing this economic renaissance that is quite exciting."

Along with the hotel, the first phase of the development includes 57 energy efficient apartments and 15,000 square feet of retail space. A 7-Eleven is set to open at the end of the month, and a bank and a restaurant are expected to follow, said developer Ahsan Nasratullah, who has developed similar projects near Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Nasratullah hopes the second and third phases, expected to begin in fall 2009 and 2010 respectively, will include a coffee shop, hair salon, medical offices and more housing.

Chester, once a booming, industrial city, has been in financial distress since 1995 and has struggled with violent crime and strapped budgets.

City and state officials also have sought to develop Chester's waterfront: a Harrah's casino was built along the Delaware River two years ago, and the soccer stadium is expected to anchor a $500 million development that backers say will help revive Chester.

With businesses like Harrah's injecting at least $10 million into the budget each year and the new hotel opening, Chester officials are optimistic about the city's future, even in the current recession.

"To develop in places where there is existing infrastructure is the right way to go," said State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), Chester's mayor from 1998 to 2002. "Even in this economic downturn, the upward progress of the city continues. Private investment continues to come to the city,he city's tax base continues to grow."

The hotel, originally planned for 48 rooms, was upgraded to 60 when a market study revealed stronger demand. Visitors to Widener and Crozer-Chester Medical Center, along with airport traffic, are expected to fill rooms, Nasratullah said.

For the enterprise to succeed, Chester officials must combat a perception that the city is unsafe, so the Providence Avenue development will include a police substation, offered rent-free by the developer, to ensure new residents feel secure, Nasratullah said.

Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at 610-627-0352 or jfarrell@phillynews.com

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