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African American clergy announce support for Sixers arena project, citing jobs and economics

Sixers say 40% of food, drink and concessions operations will be run by Black-owned businesses.

Pastor Carl Day of Culture Changing Christians Worship Center, surrounded by Black pastors and other leaders, spoke in support of a new Sixers arena in Center City Philadelphia.
Pastor Carl Day of Culture Changing Christians Worship Center, surrounded by Black pastors and other leaders, spoke in support of a new Sixers arena in Center City Philadelphia.Read moreMonica Herndon / Staff Photographer

Pastors of prominent African American churches endorsed the construction of a new Sixers arena on Thursday, joined by Chamber of Commerce officials who said the project promised jobs and opportunity to the Black community.

Nearly two dozen church leaders, business officials and team supporters gathered at the South Restaurant & Jazz Club on Broad Street for a news conference to announce their support.

“The Black community is ready, and it is excited to play a significant role in this project,” said Regina Hairston, president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of PA, NJ & DE.

The Sixers announced they would devote $2 million to preparing Black-owned businesses to be ready to take jobs in the planned $1.3 billion arena, which they intend to build with private money in the shadow of City Hall, on the block from 10th to 11th and Market to Filbert.

Forty percent of the food, drink and concessions operations in the arena will be run by African American businesses, said David Gould, the chief diversity and impact officer of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, which owns and operates the Sixers.

That $2 million is part of a $50 million community benefits agreement — money that the team says it will make available to those impacted by the project. The majority of that money is expected to go to Chinatown, which is adjacent to the proposed construction site.

Gould said most residents of Philadelphia are people of color, but too often they are shut out of the opportunities and benefits of big development projects. The team intends to make sure that Black Philadelphians and Black-owned businesses benefit from this one, he said.

Several speakers said the arena plans offer a chance for Black workers and contractors to be involved from the start.

“I stand in full support,” said the Rev. Donald Moore of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia. “It’s what I like to call ‘Philly for Philly.’”

People and organizations in nearby Chinatown have denounced the project, saying it would wreck the neighborhood and destroy a historic community of color.

Last week, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. formally announced its opposition. Other pushback has come from RICE, the Restaurant Industry for Chinatown’s Existence; the Chinatown Coalition to Oppose the Arena; Save Chinatown; No Arena in Chinatown Solidarity, and Students for the Preservation of Chinatown, which includes students at the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College.

The team says it can build and operate an arena without harming Chinatown.

The Sixers describe the project as a big win for the city, saying a downtown arena would move Philadelphia into the future while driving foot traffic, business, and spending in a downtrodden stretch of the Market East corridor.

But decades of academic inquiry have cast doubt on arenas and stadiums as economic drivers for cities.

Last year, economists John Charles Bradbury, Dennis Coates, and Brad Humphreys reviewed more than 130 studies conducted over 30 years, finding “clear and unambiguous evidence” that sports stadiums and arenas do not generate strong economic benefits for host communities.

The dollars that people spend on tickets and concessions is money they would have spent elsewhere, at restaurants, movie theaters, and retail stores — not new, additional spending, they wrote in a paper for the Journal of Economic Surveys. Game-day purchases can benefit some nearby businesses, the economists wrote, but the arrival and departure of thousands of fans generally leads to crowding, traffic, and crime.

By the team’s own reckoning, the arena would be empty about 60% of the time.

The Sixers are unhappy at the Wells Fargo Center, in South Philadelphia, where they have played since 1996. There, the team is a tenant in a building owned by Comcast Spectacor, which also owns the Flyers.

Owning their own arena would allow the Sixers to set their own schedule, dictate the use of the space, and capture virtually all the spending that would go on in and around the venue.

Groundbreaking is scheduled for 2028. The team plans to move in when its lease expires at the Wells Fargo Center in 2031.

The project also has been endorsed by the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, composed of 50 different unions, and by the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, a 42,000-member union that called the project a “rare opportunity.”

The team says the development would create 9,000 construction jobs, including for contractors of color.

The new arena would sit atop Jefferson Station, the transit gateway to Market East.

At Wednesday’s announcement, Gould directly acknowledged the concerns raised by Chinatown, adding that the Sixers want to ensure a project that benefits all of Philadelphia.

“We know there’s a lot of concern about the project in Chinatown, but today is really about the city as a whole,” Gould said.

The message was one that resonated with Pastor Lonnie Herndon of the Church of Christian Compassion in West Philadelphia, who echoed other champions of the proposed arena.

“We support the 76ers and 76 Place,” Herndon said. “We’re excited about what is to be built here in Philadelphia. … The project will serve as an extraordinary catalyst.”