In a struggling city like Chester, the plan seemed almost too good to be true.
After it had languished for decades as one of the nation’s poorest and most violent cities, local lawmakers and private investors in 2008 handed Chester a sweet deal: a nearly $500 million development that would rise along the barren waterfront, transforming a Delaware County brownfield into a glitzy destination. A Major League Soccer stadium would be the project’s centerpiece — the region’s first professional team — surrounded within five years by housing, restaurants, a supermarket and stores, plus a convention center.
“It’s going to change the face of Chester forever,” said then-Gov. Ed Rendell, as he pledged $47 million in state help for the stadium. “This development will, I absolutely believe, guarantee that Chester will become one of the first-class cities in Pennsylvania.”
By 2010 — after at least $87 million in public subsidies had been awarded — an 18,500-seat stadium opened for the Philadelphia Union with a sellout first game. It was a mixed first season for the new soccer team, and an equally mixed year for Chester.
Though thousands of fans poured into the city for games, most left immediately after, exiting Chester on the new I-95 ramps built for the area of Talen Energy Stadium. There was no eating at local restaurants on game days, and no waterfront shopping. The supermarket — one that would have eliminated Chester’s then food-desert status — never materialized next door.
Beyond the stadium, Chester’s waterfront that year looked largely the same as it always had — just as it does today.
Now, however, the Philadelphia Union’s parent company is launching development plans again. Keystone Sports & Entertainment, in partnership with the Riverfront Alliance of Delaware County, asked nearly 20 architectural firms in April to submit ideas and analysis for a “Chester Waterfront Master Plan.” Specifically, the groups are aiming to create a sports-and-entertainment and health-and-wellness campus, said Tim McDermott, the Union’s chief business officer, one that could include anything from a rock-climbing gym to “destination retail" to a youth sportsplex.
The goal is to have a master plan within three months.
“A few years ago we started this idea of trying to really retain or acquire the land around our stadium so that we could create a true waterfront campus and do something that no other sports team in Philadelphia would have,” McDermott said. “We often hear from our fans that they would like to see more down here next to the stadium. ... By stepping in and controlling the area around us, we have a much better opportunity to do those things and bring that to life.”
The revived potential for the waterfront comes at a pivotal time for Chester, as the city of 34,000 is scrambling to emerge from Act 47, a Pennsylvania program that oversees financially distressed cities. Chester has been in the program since 1995, but the city’s debt still ballooned over the years. Last year, as the deadline to exit Act 47 loomed, the city was granted a one-time, three-year extension as a result of its progress. Yet if the city fails to better improve its finances by 2021, the state could declare a fiscal emergency and take control over Chester.
To avoid that, the city’s Act 47 recovery coordinator, Econsult Solutions, has stressed that Chester must intensify economic development.
Which is why, Econsult’s president said, a waterfront development is more important than ever.
“Any development that results in big investment, that is more of a destination-type thing, [will have] benefits that spread to the nearby areas and make them more attractive for further investment,” said Steve Mullin, the president of the Philadelphia consulting group. Chester needs “increased employment opportunities, business opportunities, and increased tax bases ... and not by increasing tax rates but by having more activity out there.”
“I’m very bullish on the potential down there,” Mullin continued. “My read is that there are a lot of people who are rowing and rowing in the same direction.”
That harmony between city officials and Union leaders marks a stark difference from years ago, when accusations and legal battles plagued the relationship. After Rendell’s promises in 2008, a lot changed: The recession started. Chester elected a Democratic mayor, John Linder, for the first time in 16 years. And when Linder began pushing for new parking and amusement taxes, Union officials resisted, saying the taxes would put the team “out of business.”
From Linder’s perspective, he told The Inquirer in 2015, the Union should have been doing more for Chester — where 36 percent of residents live in poverty — particularly after getting $87 million in subsidies. Nick Sakiewicz, the Union’s now-departed CEO, told The Inquirer that year that “one business doesn’t fix decades of economic mismanagement in a city.”
Since 2010, the Union have made payments in lieu of property taxes to Chester — because the team only leases the stadium from Delaware County. The Union paid $500,000 annually through 2014 and will pay $150,000 each year until 2040.
The team also pays taxes on parking, payroll, and other items, a Union spokesperson said. More than 500 part-time stadium jobs have been created — half of which are filled by Chester residents. The team also employs residents in the Wharf, the old Delaware County Electric Co. building that has been redeveloped into offices, including for the team’s headquarters.
In addition, the spokesperson said, the Union have provided donations to organizations including the Chester School District and the Fare & Square supermarket, which opened in 2013. Among other initiatives, the Union have provided soccer equipment and built safe places to play in Chester.
Linder often argued that the payments-in-lieu-of-taxes were not sufficient — especially because Chester owes $445,000 annually to pay down a $30 million bond that the county issued for the stadium in 2009. County Council Chairman John McBlain said Chester must pay off a quarter of the bond. The rest comes from gaming revenue collected from Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack, which opened in Chester in 2007.
Today, however, new leadership exists within Chester and the Union — and both say they are committed to collaboration. Democratic Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, who unseated Linder in 2015 and is running unopposed this year, in April launched a 17-member economic development committee. The Union’s McDermott, who describes the current relationship with Chester as “fantastic,” is a member.
“In this type of gutsy, real estate development, it takes at least two to tango, if not three or four,” said Sakiewicz, who was ousted as CEO in 2015 and now serves as the National Lacrosse League commissioner. “That development can never happen if there isn’t collaboration with all of the constituencies.”
“It’s good that they are finally moving forward … but you can’t really get excited until you see shovels go in the ground,” Sakiewicz continued. “But it was always our vision that it would be more than parking lots.”
When the waterfront development was announced in 2008, the Buccini/Pollin Group owned and was the developer of the surrounding land. But when the economy soured, the Wilmington company stalled. Years later, it helped oversee the construction of new training fields at the site.
By 2017, however, Keystone Sports, the Union’s parent company, purchased Buccini’s nearly one-mile stretch of land. (The Buccini brothers remain partial owners of Keystone.)
Soon after, McDermott said, Keystone completed $8 million in renovations at the Wharf, building a new lobby, food options, and fitness centers. Keystone also redeveloped another building, the Wharf’s old machine shop, making that a training complex.
And while that was happening, last year, the team encountered some luck: The Chester waterfront was designated as a Qualified Opportunity Zone, a new federal initiative that gives investors tax breaks for backing development projects in low-income communities. The designation enables the Union to create or join an Opportunity Fund, which can be tapped for projects. The company is still weighing its options, a spokesperson said.
“We really believe that we can create a fantastic campus here,” McDermott said. “... The ability to jump-start Chester through the stadium is part one. Now we need the second part.”
Chester officials are hopeful, too, that Keystone’s investment could spur more. Already, a new brewery from Larimer Beer Co. is planned next to the stadium — an initiative the Union are not involved in — and multiple land owners nearby have parcels for sale.
“The good thing about our location ... is that we’re in the prime position for new development,” Kirkland said. “The rest of the county is filled with new development — there’s no place else to go. There is now the opportunity for Chester.”