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Dreams continue of developing Flats in Coatesville

In the center of Coatesville, the poorest community in a county flush with wealth, is an overgrown tract where development dreams blossom, then wither.

In the center of Coatesville, the poorest community in a county flush with wealth, is an overgrown tract where development dreams blossom, then wither.

People have proposed condos, a lumberyard, a power plant and a park. Most recently, plans for a velodrome - a cycling center billed as a breeding ground for Olympics stars - fizzled without funding.

Now, the city is again seeking pitches for the property they call the Flats, and Chester County officials are watching closely. That's because Coatesville - showing signs of life after years of decline - is a rare urban center with room left to grow in one of the state's fastest growing counties.

"We're not talking about a piece of farmland in rural western Chester County," said Ryan Costello, chair of the county commissioners. "It's the signature revitalization project that could potentially happen in this county."

The city's redevelopment authority bought the Flats - 22 acres below the arresting brick arches of an Amtrak line - when the G.O. Carlson steel plant closed in 2004.

Bordered on one side by a metal fence blanketed in weeds and on the other by a new riverwalk that curves along the Brandywine, the property is emblematic of the decline and burgeoning recovery of Coatesville.

Across Lincoln Highway is the 800-employee ArcelorMittal, a steel mill that as the headquarters of Lukens Steel once employed 6,000.

The location, at the gateway to the business district and about two miles from the Route 30 Bypass, made the Flats an easy addition to the redevelopment effort already underway when the authority bought it.

That effort is about a decade behind pace, City Council President Joseph Hamrick said.

Progress has been slowed by economic struggles and also, some say, by fallout from a 2003 plan to build a city-owned golf course on land taken through eminent domain. Authority vice president Jack Burkholder said the failed project ended in a prolonged legal battle and left an environment unfriendly to development.

Building momentum

Coatesville is home to about 13,000 people.

The city's average household income is about $48,000 - lowest in a county where the average household makes well over twice as much.

Some hoped the velodrome, when proposed by Olympic cyclist and West Chester resident David Chauner in 2010, would bring jobs and an economic lift. Chauner, who still hopes to see the project move forward, said it would cater to the thriving cycling community in the Philadelphia area.

After four years of waiting, though, the council voted in March to seek new proposals.

"Their stated goal was to get an Olympic champion out of Coatesville," Burkholder said. "It sounded good. But I think we probably did hold on too long."

The delay could have a payoff.

Hamrick and others say recent successes in Coatesville - such as a $20 million state investment in the city's Amtrak station, a 125-room Courtyard Marriott that opened in 2012, and a 40,000-square foot office building slated for construction off the bypass - might make developers take a fresh look at the Flats.

"Before it was always a stand-alone aspect, just develop the Flats," Burkholder said. "Now . . . we have some momentum going."

Proposals are expected this summer.

Some see potential uses for the Flats ranging from mixed retail and apartments to a small entertainment center for concerts and sporting events. The county's conference and visitors bureau has highlighted the need for such a venue, which would bring overnight visitors to the county, said Costello.

Nearly 475,000 people live within a 30-minute drive of the site, and within an hour, that number jumps to 3.2 million, according to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

Brett Fusco, a senior transportation planner at the DVRPC, said the commission was pushing urban growth over suburban sprawl, making developing the Flats ideal. "It's a large parcel of land, and it's right near an existing downtown area," he said. "So it really is a great opportunity to do something big."

Holding out hope

Chauner still thinks a velodrome could be that big-ticket item.

And he's preparing to make a new push to developers interested in the Flats. A selling point: He thinks up to $10 million can be shaved off the initial $25 million price tag.

The lower projection, Chauner said, is based on the cost of an indoor velodrome under construction near Pittsburgh, a project in which he is also involved. That track will be the second indoor velodrome in the country and the first in the East (a title Coatesville was hoping to claim). The rest of the approximately 30 velodromes in the United States are outdoors.

Some, including an outdoor velodrome near Allentown, are owned by municipalities and run by nonprofits. Other velodromes, such as the one near Pittsburgh, are financed by bicycling enthusiasts with deep pockets. Bob Gottlieb, owner of an aluminum recycling plant, is providing $15 million, including the property, for that project.

"It takes an angel and a true believer," Chauner said.

He hasn't found that angel for Coatesville, a dilemma that's indicative of a public relations challenge facing the sport, according to David Mitchell, president of the state's cycling association.

"You can't turn on ESPN and see a cycling track race," he said.

Investors who don't see an existing interest in the sport, Mitchell said, often are wary of signing on.

Marty Nothstein, executive director of the track near Allentown, said community awareness can come over time. The track he runs - which was built in 1976 and later gifted to Trexlertown - started as a concrete oval. Concession stands, bleachers, and other facilities were added as interest grew.

"People that have dreams of building velodromes, they want the state of the art, best thing that's possible," he said. "And that might not necessarily be the best way to start."

The Trexlertown velodrome, which offers free or low-cost classes, has turned out nine Olympic athletes, including Nothstein, who won gold in Sydney in 2000. On Friday nights in the summer, hundreds of people pack the track to watch the races.

Chauner hopes to help build a similar culture around cycling in Coatesville, an idea members of the authority and council said they could still get behind if it is financed properly.

In the meantime, Costello said, the Flats is too prime a property to hold.

"It's not worth crossing our fingers," he said, "and hoping that it might one day happen."