Before Major League Soccer and the Philadelphia Union decided on Chester as a location for PPL Park, Rowan University was the front-runner to land the team in South Jersey on its undeveloped 600-acre campus in Harrison Township off Routes 322 and 55.
I was a higher education reporter for a daily newspaper at the time in South Jersey, so I ended up writing a lot about a proposal that was real enough for a press conference with MLS and Mark Abbott (MLS President & Deputy Commissioner) on the campus of Rowan in March 2006.
The New Jersey legislature, unlike their fellow officials in Pennsylvania and Delaware County, was the major roadblock that stopped the plan from progressing. Without infrastructure costs being pitched in for the peach farm property, Rowan University simply couldn't make the numbers enticing enough to complete the deal and bring South Jersey a professional franchise.
The proposed location for the plan was on 600 acres of peach farm property in Harrison Township off the interchange of Route 55 and Route 322. Rowan had been acquiring the land over time to move their athletic facilities from the main campus in nearby Glassboro and build additional housing and a technology park.
The Technology Park is all that's on the land now, but the master plan still calls for similar expansion plans the university was dangling to MLS, including a multi-purpose stadium on the south side of Route 322. The location is about 20 miles from Center City Philadelphia and not that much different of a trip than the one presently for PPL Park. For Pennsylvanians, you simply keep going on the Commodore Barry Bridge and follow 322 another 16 miles.
For New Jersey supporters, of which there are plenty, the location would save a $5 toll and be a source of pride for the area. The Chivas USA playing at the Stub Hub Center on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills comparison though is hard to escape in my imagination. Sure, the Union would be the LA Galaxy of that stadium scenario, but they'd also be sharing the stadium with a Division III football team and the beautiful view of the river and the bridge would be replaced by rotting peach trees and an interstate. Only Sporting Park in Kansas would rival this site for the if-I-was-here-alone-would-anyone-hear-me-scream remoteness of the property.
Nearby Glassboro, where a transformation has been underway to its downtown over the past decade (look up Rowan Boulevard), would provide a much better place to eat, drink, and socialize before or after the game scenario than Chester. But then again, in the months that school is in session, you'd be drinking and eating mostly with fraternity bros and sorority sisters.
Rowan's biggest asset was the 600 acres of prime real estate that would have been provided at no cost (make that $1). The infrastructure costs in turning virgin farmland into a property that supports a 25,000-seat stadium is another story and is essentially why we aren't spending our spring, summer and fall Saturdays hanging out in Glassboro.
It's also the reason why the land is still not developed beyond the technology park on the north side of Route 322.
Rowan University would have been a huge backer of the club given the relationship and would have taken advantage of as much cross promotion and sponsorship as possible. Cooper University Health Care, which is affiliated with Rowan's medical school, would be a potential sponsor and as Barry talked in his article about Camden, Campbell's Soup might be involved in some way. Beyond that, I don't know that the sponsorship picture would look any different in Glassboro than it looks now, 16 miles northwest.
Public transportation to the site would be a bit of nightmare, though the presence of the university's nearby main campus would probably soften the blow. It's basically bus or nothing currently, but there is a proposed 18-mile Glassboro-Camden line that if ever completed will make Glassboro a much more attractive location.
Parking and Traffic
Considering the 600 acres available, parking would not be an issue.
Traffic on the other hand would be a bit of a nightmare at times. Given the poor choices for public transportation and the congestion that is common on Route 322, particularly in the summer shore season, traffic would be quite tricky since there is basically one road (Route 322) to the property.
At the same time - and this was part of the infrastructure cost rub - plenty of additional roads would have to have been constructed to direct traffic and relieve congestion before and after games.
Where there's a parking lot there's ample opportunity for tailgating so that would be no different from PPL Park. The college bar scene though would certainly mix things up and the presence of some 10,000-plus coeds living a hop, skip and a jump away would definitely add to the party atmosphere.
Local Links and Fundraising
The connection with Rowan University would have been huge for both the club and the state university. The possibilities would really have been endless as far as the partnerships go. The connection with South Jersey, a soccer mad area in its own right would have been even greater than it is now simply because of the proximity and the pride those of us who grew up in South Jersey are always lacking.
The Ocean City Nor'easters would be the more likely PDL link than Reading United AC and Camden would provide a perfect place to stage a USL PRO team if it would ever come to that. Links to Division III soccer programs at Rowan, Stockton and Rutgers-Camden would be stronger, and the cross promotion possibilities with tourism given the proximity of the Jersey Shore would be quite enticing. I for one can imagine the promotional opportunities the team would have with a giant billboard on the Rowan property advertising to everyone driving Route 55 south to the shore.
Glassboro isn't what you would call a safe suburban town - it has its fair share of crime and problems not related to the university - but the location would be removed from downtown Glassboro and all of the population centers of nearby towns, so the main safety concern would probably be drunk college students.
The Union take some slack now for not playing in the city limits of Philadelphia like the other professional teams do, but playing in South Jersey would welcome even more ridicule and would make a large part of its target market in Pennsylvania further from the stadium. As it is now, there are parts of South Jersey that wouldn't be that much closer to the stadium than they are already to the stadium in the other Harrison (Red Bull Arena) and the Lancaster, Harrisburg, Reading, York and Lehigh Valley markets would be another 16 miles further away.
I live in northern Delaware County now and I hate dealing with shore traffic when I drive to my parents' house in East Greenwich Township (a township that borders Harrison Township) in the summer so I would be even more grumpy if that traffic kept me from getting to see the start of a match.
Unlike Camden, which is an incredible site on the river with a view of the skyline and great public transportation options, this South Jersey location would showcase none of the qualities of the region. Peach farms are wonderful and a part of the heritage of the area, but they don't really provide the natural resources and advantages that a river, a bridge or a city skyline provide for a professional sports stadium.
Still, the proud South Jersey native in me can't help but dream of what it would be like if the deal I wrote about extensively nearly a decade ago would have come to fruition.