Major hurdle cleared for Philly expansion

Pennsylvania Gov. Rendell announces plans for funding

By Andy Jasner / Special to CHESTER, Pa. -- A major hurdle has been cleared in an effort to attract the 16th Major League Soccer club to the Philadelphia suburb of Chester.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell announced plans on Thursday for $47 million in state funding to assist in the construction of an expected 18,500-seat stadium on Chester's waterfront. Rendell attended the press conference along with state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Chester), developer Robert Buccini of the Wilmington, Del.-based Buccini/Pollin Group, Chester Mayor Wendell Butler Jr. and Delaware County Council Chairman Linda Cartisano, along with several other high-profile businesses executives and council members.

Of that money in the state funding, $25 million will be directed toward the stadium if the city receives an MLS expansion team. Delaware County has also committed $30 million. Private investors are expected to donate about $80 million.

Jay Sugarman, chief executive officer of the New York-based iStar Financial, is another key private investor in the project as well as James Nevels, founder of the Swarthmore Group.

"All you had at first was a dream and a vision," Rendell said. "This was a big step to realizing that vision and that dream."

Chester is still competing with St. Louis for the potential expansion club. MLS currently features 14 teams with San Jose's team beginning play this season and a team in Seattle starting in 2009.

"This area of Chester would thrive with a pro soccer team," Rendell said. "It will be great for the area, just like the Harrah's Casino has been great since it was built."

Pileggi, who was once Chester's mayor, was excited about the potential of the project -- yet not nearly as enthralled as the current mayor of the city.

"This is utterly amazing being born and raised here, to be here and see this come to fruition for the city of Chester," Butler said. "To me, this is like the people of Publisher's Clearing House knocking on your door. They say, 'You've just won a half-billion in prizes.'"

Following the announcement, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the Philadelphia area received a major boost in its bid to receive the league's 16th team.

"Governor Rendell's announcement today is another very positive development toward bringing Major League Soccer to the Philadelphia area," Garber said in a statement. "The Philadelphia market just took a big step forward and is now well positioned to receive an MLS expansion team. The opportunity to be part of a large-scale urban-renewal project along the historic Chester waterfront remains extremely appealing to us. We are eager to continue our conversations with the potential ownership group to finalize an agreement and we will provide more details shortly."

The multi-purpose stadium is just part of the development in the works in the area surrounding the Delaware River.

An initial phase, expected to begin in the fall, will include the stadium, 186 townhouses, 25 apartments, 335,000 square feet of office space, a 200,000-square-foot convention center, more than 20,000 square feet of retail space and a parking structure to house 1,350 cars.

Then in phase two, another 200 apartments will be built, along with 100,000 square feet of office space and 22,000 square feet of retail space.

Investors are hopeful the stadium can debut in the spring of 2010.

"We've been in talks for a couple of years with the planning of this whole project," said Buccini, whose company was instrumental in the building of Daniel S. Frawley Stadium in Wilmington, Del., home of the Class A Wilmington Blue Rocks in minor league baseball. "This is a very dynamic project with a lot of detail. It was a risk, but it's paid off already. We're very, very excited about it. Timing is everything and our timing is working out on this project."

Rendell said that the project would add about 360 permanent jobs to the city of Chester.

"Revitalizing this city is a great feeling," Rendell said. "Creating job opportunities for the people here is only part of this exciting project."

According to the Buccini/Pollin Group, construction of the mixed use development is estimated to cost more than $400 million while pumping $325 million into the local economy. Over an extended amount of time, the project is scheduled to generate more than $1.7 billion in total economic activity, $670 million in personal earnings and $335 million in tax revenue. On an annual basis, the project will generate $19 million in total tax revenue with 65 percent accruing to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

"We think we have a terrific plan in place," Buccini said.

As the business executives were preparing to take a walk outside to view where the stadium would sit, Butler wiped his forehead.

"I can't believe it," Butler said. "This is like a dream come true."

Andy Jasner is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.

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