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Chester soccer stadium in works?

Two waterfront sites are being considered for a pro franchise. Public funding is sought.

A group of investors is interested in building a $100 million Major League Soccer stadium along the waterfront in the city of Chester, legislators confirmed yesterday.

The group has been working on the project for two years and hopes to have a meeting soon with Gov. Rendell, Major League Soccer commissioner Donald P. Garber, and key legislators to talk about securing some public funding, a source told The Inquirer yesterday.

They hope to open the stadium and start an MLS franchise in 2009 or 2010, but one local legislator cautioned that negotiations were in the early stages.

Last September, negotiations to build a professional soccer stadium at Rowan University collapsed when New Jersey declined to provide aid.

Whether the effort to get public funding for the Pennsylvania project will be any more successful is uncertain.

Two sites along the waterfront are being considered, but officials declined to name them yesterday.

New York City-based Major League Soccer confirmed that it was in negotiations with the group, with "no specific timetable" for a conclusion. The league remains highly interested in locating a franchise in the Philadelphia region.

"Philadelphia has the potential to be a tremendous market for professional soccer," said Dan Courtemanche, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the league.

Investors are asking the City of Chester, Delaware County and Pennsylvania for funding to support the project, said Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware). He said he was not sure how much money they were seeking.

"We're talking about what is the appropriate level of participation," he said.

Pileggi described the investor group as "substantial" in its "ability to raise capital."

Pileggi and others who have talked with the investors declined to identify them.

Attempts to include funding for the project in the recent state budget failed, but State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said yesterday that it was still possible that funding could come from the state's capital budget.

"It's still very much alive," Evans said. "I'm supportive of it. I think it would be good for the region. I think it would put Philadelphia in the ball park somewhere down the line to compete for the Olympics."

Pileggi said it was also possible that funding could come from gaming revenue. A stadium for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team is in line to receive gaming revenue, he pointed out.

A soccer stadium and franchise certainly would be a boon to the struggling, impoverished city, which recently got a boost from the addition of a major gambling facility.

"It would increase job opportunities. It would increase revenues coming in and folks coming into the city to see a professional soccer team," said State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Delaware).

It also could further heighten interest in youth soccer in the region.

Rendell's office said the governor has participated in some general discussion about the project, but was not ready to take a position on it.

"All discussions have been conceptual in nature, and additional details need to be flushed out," said Doug Rohanna, director of communications for Rendell.

The project is in the early stages, said David Sciocchetti, executive director of the Chester Economic Development Authority. "A deal like this is extremely complicated, and it goes through ups and downs. It's important that we don't all get too caught up and excited until it's real."

Major League Soccer was founded in 1996. With 13 teams, the league is hoping to capitalize on the highly publicized signing of David Beckham by the Los Angeles Galaxy and make a major expansion.

The league is in discussion with more than a dozen sites competing to start franchises in the United States, the league's Courtemanche said. It wants to grow to 16 teams by 2010, he said.

On Wednesday, the league announced that San Jose would become the 14th team, in 2008.

A couple of fans at the Dark Horse Pub at Second and Pine Streets, a well-known gathering place for soccer aficionados, welcomed the idea.

"I've been waiting for almost 10 years for a professional soccer team to come here," said Chris Harris, 33, of Barrington, N.J. "It would be nice if it would be in the city. But if that is the only place they can build a first-class stadium, then it would be OK."

Alan Cahill, 42, moved from Leicester, England, to Philadelphia in 1992.

"Mostly fans come here to see the English Premier League teams," Cahill said. "Americans support them because that's what they see on TV, and it's a higher standard [of play] than the MLS. But if they had an MLS team on their doorstep, you'd get crowds."

The MLS season begins in early April and runs through October.

Details on the size of the proposed stadium were not available yesterday, but MLS facilities tend to hold between 20,000 and 30,000 people, according to the group's Web site.

Sciocchetti said the project could help the city, adding to the recent Harrah's Race Track & Casino and a 400,000-square-foot office complex on the waterfront.

"It is exciting that MLS and a potential investor group might find Chester attractive," he said. "Having said that, we want to have a lot more information before we would be in a position to make any real decisions."

Staff writer Bill Iezzi contributed to this report.