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?

THERE’S A FRIGID wind blowing as Wendell Butler stands at the Chester waterfront, looking out across the Delaware River on a cloudless winter morning. Here, beneath the Commodore Barry Bridge, his city’s past and future overlap like a rusty freighter run aground — or a luxury cruise liner preparing for launch, depending on your perspective. For Butler, Chester’s mayor, this is a champagne-across-the-bow moment. He remembers growing up in the projects, thinking his hometown would always be a blue-collar factory town. Years later, as a Chester cop and then chief of police, he watched his birthplace crumble. The plants closed. People fled. It seemed the only things that went up in Chester were crime and unemployment.

But now, at the water’s edge in a dying city, something is rising — a $120 million Major League Soccer stadium on 50 acres of what was contaminated land. Along with it, two ramps that will serve as arteries between I-95 and the Chester waterfront, a project stalled for decades, are slated for completion in the summer. As the gusts pick up, Butler should be looking for cover. Instead, he’s smiling.

“It’s just unbelievable,” he says of the buzz surrounding the Philadelphia Union, which begins its inaugural MLS season on March 25th, and PPL Park, set to open on June 27th. “You try to see way out into the future. But once you stand here, you can see the steel rising up, see the bricks and mortar. It’s real.”

All of this promise didn’t come cheap. Some $85 million in public funds were pledged to bring the Union to a die-hard basketball city that’s never even had a soccer program in its schools. A sports culture clash is the least of Chester’s worries, though: Half of its households earn less than $25,000 a year, and the city’s first headline in 2010 was about a body found near the stadium site. Chester doesn’t even have its own supermarket.

Yet in August 2007, there was the Governor, fresh out of a meeting in Philly, doing what he did so well when he was mayor — selling big ideas to a skeptical public, with an optimist’s charm and an ear for a sound bite. The soccer stadium, he said, “could transform the city of Chester,” which he called “the hardest-hit municipality in our Commonwealth.” The arrival of Harrah’s casino earlier that year helped boost Chester’s employment and tax revenues. “But,” Rendell said, “they need at least one other big thing to begin the process where they can draw people back into the city to live.”