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Daring to dream of soccer stadium

Can you hear it, that sound coming off the Chester waterfront? It may be the faint sound of cheering. Or, perhaps, the chime of cash registers. Or, it could be just the winter wind, rippling through the weeds and ruins.

Can you hear it, that sound coming off the Chester waterfront?

It may be the faint sound of cheering. Or, perhaps, the chime of cash registers. Or, it could be just the winter wind, rippling through the weeds and ruins.

Part of the answer could come soon, when Pennsylvania officials decide whether to spend $45 million on what developers say will be the final piece of a plan to build a stadium and secure a Major League Soccer team for the Philadelphia area.

"This is the stadium site, right back in here," says Nick Sakiewicz, president of sports promoter AEG New York, who is helping local investors navigate the soccer league application process. He is standing with his back to the Delaware River, pointing toward a copse of trees. Tall piles of weed-choked earth stand beside wide brown pools of rainwater, and chunks of concrete dot the land.

This spot, just about under the steel superstructure of the Commodore Barry Bridge, is where investors want to erect a $115 million soccer stadium. They say the stadium would lure restaurants, bars and stores and would be the anchor of a $500 million housing and retail development that would help revive this impoverished city.

"It is the perfect location," said Wilmington developer Robert Buccini, who with his brother Christopher and David Pollin owns Buccini/Pollin Group Inc. "You're right at the center of the demographic that will be attending the games."

The Buccinis and Pollin are part of the private investment group that includes iStar Financial CEO Jay Sugarman and Swarthmore Group chairman James Nevels. The stadium and team would be financed with $30 million promised by Delaware County leaders, $45 million from the state, and the remainder from the investors group.

Soccer league officials say Philadelphia is running second to St. Louis for the remaining expansion slot, its chances contingent on a stadium deal. The league plans to announce the winning city by the end of January.

For decades, Chester has been notable mostly for poverty, with failing schools, high crime rates and a shrinking tax base. Between 1950 and 2000 the population dropped from 66,000 to 37,000, and the impact continues to resonate. Chester's rates of home-ownership, income, retail sales and housing value rank well below state averages.

To reach the stadium site from Philadelphia, you drive south on Interstate 95, take Exit 8, and turn onto Route 291. You roll past the sprawling Boeing Co. complex, the Eddystone Industrial Park, billboards that advertise Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack, and then past Harrah's itself.

Driving on, Route 291 becomes the Rosa Parks Memorial Highway, and the foreboding stone walls and wiretopped fences of the state correctional institution come into view. You turn left on Flower Street, then right on Seaport Drive to the waterfront.

The view is striking.

On this morning, the river is a flowing expanse of brown chop, rushing toward a blue-and-silver horizon. Across the water rise the gray woodlands of Gloucester County. Far overhead, a plane climbs into the clouds after departing Philadelphia International Airport, eight miles north.

Nearby looms the brick-and-stone edifice of what was once the Philadelphia Electric Co.'s Chester station, now restored as a gorgeous, neoclassical office complex called the Wharf at Rivertown. Two years ago, the Buccini/Pollin Group bought the Wharf from Preferred Real Estate Investments Inc.

Except for cars moving in and out of the wharf's parking lot, the riverside is quiet. A few construction workers install a fence along the riverwalk.

Stadium supporters say that will change, that the site is at the epicenter of the regional soccer universe, an easy drive for fans from the Main Line, South Jersey, Philadelphia and Delaware. A SEPTA rail station is eight blocks away at Highland Avenue. On game days, the plan is to run shuttles along with river ferries from local ports.

Despite Chester's poverty, Buccini said, he believes the stadium area will draw single people, young families and empty-nesters to rent and buy homes.

Others aren't so sure people will come to Chester for even the soccer games because of the city's reputation.

"All of their studies are going to indicate there's this great target demographic, and all they have to do is plop this thing down and they're all going to come," Tom Ikeler, a passionate soccer fan in Berwyn, said. "But I don't think I would go. . . . There's going to be a large percentage of soccer fans that will never go to that stadium, because they don't feel comfortable."

The investors believe fans - and renewal - will follow a stadium.

"Imagine this place in the summer, with the bridge all lit up," Sakiewicz says, pointing to where the entertainment plaza will go. "It could be a special place."