Mention naysayers like Eckstein and you’ll get eye-rolls or chuckles from those involved in the Chester stadium. “Someone who writes books and is a professor, my question is, how many developments has he built?” says Sakiewicz. “The answer is none.” True, but it doesn’t take a developer or a sports-management executive to evaluate the numbers. In fact, the most damning evidence seems to be in plain view. Take the $375 million Prudential Center in downtown Newark, home to the New Jersey Devils since 2007, where there’s now talk of a ticket surcharge to resolve a dispute between the team and city. If you’ve been to the Rock, you know there’s no sightseeing after a hockey game, no money pumped into local businesses before a Bon Jovi -concert — fans park as close to the arena as possible, then hightail it out of there. The same goes for Camden. On event nights, police direct traffic back to the highways, lest some stoner take a wrong turn after a Dave Matthews show and wind up getting shot. The entertainment district hasn’t put a dent in Camden’s intractable economic problems.
Pileggi and the other Chester stadium supporters say the difference with their plan is integration. Camden dropped three buildings into one corner of an 8.8-square-mile city that was governed by the state. Chester is working with the soccer team, BPG, the county and state agencies to create a new centerpiece for a city that’s half as large. Chester has heavy hitters in its corner, and some deep-pocketed folks, like BPG, who have a financial stake in seeing the entire waterfront district thrive.
Pileggi adds that the deal’s greatest strengths simply don’t fit into an analyst’s spreadsheet or an academic’s quantifiable study. “Some of the benefits are intangible,” the senator says. “The way the people in the community feel about the community. Does the stadium attract people? Does it raise the stature of the community in the larger region? All of those things are harder to put dollars on. But they have an impact.”
The most unexpected twist in the story of Chester and the $120 million soccer stadium came about 12 months after the ink dried on the deal, when the nation’s economy collapsed. Last March, Keystone’s lead investor, Jay Sugarman, saw his company’s stock drop 90 percent from the summer of 2007, when the stadium deal was nearing completion. (Sugarman declined interview requests for this story.) While the I-95 off-ramps will be finished, the bad economy has halted certain aspects of the project. (Cue the “I told you so” from Professor Eckstein.) “We’re committed to delivering residential and commercial development to the site,” says Mike Hare, a BPG senior VP. As for a timeline? “There’s nothing concrete.”