Power: Can Soccer Save Chester?

After deals and political connections brought pro soccer to Pennsylvania, hopes are high for the Philadelphia Union. But how much can a sport really do?

The Nevels-Sugarman group looked at a number of sites in Philly, but Nevels knew from his School Reform Commission experience how unlikely it was that the state legislature would agree to pay for another playground in Rendell’s hometown. Still, Nevels, who spent three years on the -Chester-Upland school board, also knew there was some land along the Delaware that just might work for a stadium.

Sakiewicz and Sugarman fired up Google Earth for a look at the two sites Nevels proposed, on the Chester waterfront. “We said, ‘You’re out of your mind,’” recalls Sakiewicz. “All we saw was the smoke-belching factories and blown-out apartment buildings.” They saw much of the same in person while driving to the first site — an abandoned Ford Motor plant.

Then they approached the empty brownfield near the Commodore Barry Bridge, where the access ramps to 95, first proposed in the 1960s, had yet to take shape. Sakiewicz knew Harrah’s through his work with AEG. The company didn’t make real estate mistakes, he thought, and here it was, in Chester. Neither did the Buccini/Pollin Group (BPG), the Wilmington developers who helped remake that city’s waterfront beginning in 2003, and turned an old PECO plant into the $60 million Wharf at Rivertown, right next to the stadium site.

A multibillion-dollar casino company, a multimillion-dollar developer, and one of the most connected men in Philadelphia all believed Chester was worth a shot. Sugarman and Sakiewicz were in. All they needed was a little help from Nevels’s Rolodex.

POLITICALLY, THE TIMING for the new ownership group, Keystone Sports and Entertainment LLC, couldn’t have been better. The Governor was a sports fan who’d already helped secure funding for arenas and ballparks in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Allentown, spending more state money on sports than his three predecessors combined. Better yet, Dominic Pileggi, the state senator representing Delaware County, was a Republican, like Nevels, and happened to be both a lifelong Chester resident and its former mayor. Still, Pileggi wasn’t prepared to give away the land — and his constituents’ money — for a stadium alone.

“If someone proposed to relocate the Eagles stadium to that site, everyone would know it would be successful,” Pileggi says. “Here, you’re dealing with a business model, professional soccer, that doesn’t have that kind of track record of success. I was not at all interested in supporting a soccer stadium surrounded by an asphalt parking lot. But a soccer stadium as a complement to the office building there, and proposed retail and residential to transform the waterfront — that made sense.”

Keystone and BPG pledged to create an adjacent project that would draw a combination of residential, office and commercial tenants — perhaps even that elusive supermarket. State Representative Dwight Evans signed on, and suddenly, this wasn’t a bunch of middle-aged white guys dropping a predominantly white and Latino sport into a city that’s 78 percent African-American.