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Chester's woes fall at feet of Union and others

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The economic development that was supposed to come to Chester with the Philadelphia Union looks no closer to arriving now than it did back in 2007.

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The past few decades were not kind to the City of Chester. The manufacturing jobs all went elsewhere, the shipyard closed in 1989, and a city that once had over 66,000 people now has less than half of that. When the Philadelphia Union selected Chester to be their home, it was seen as being a way for the long-impoverished city to begin down the road to economic recovery. There were to be hotels, offices, and other construction projects meant to spur development akin to the Riverfront in Wilmington (which was developed mostly by the Buccini/Pollin Group, who are also part-owners of the Philadelphia Union). Predictably none of that has happened, and the blame game is being played well by Chester's mayoral candidates.

Who is really to blame though? It's easy to simply blame the Union's ownership for not doing more, and that criticism is warranted. No one is blameless here. But in all fairness, Chester's issues go back much further than 2007. You can't blame the Union for the mass exodus of both jobs and residents that started in the 1960's. You can't blame them for the poverty and crime that is at epidemic levels. And you certainly should not blame the club for taking a deal that benefitted them and left the City of Chester footing the lion's share of the tax payments. That deal was negotiated by the Union and city and state officials. If the deal was that bad (and it really is that bad), the city officials should have said no to it and negotiated better terms. The blame for that should fall solely on ex-Chester mayor Wendell Butler and ex-Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell

That being said, the club's ownership group should be doing more to develop the area surrounding PPL Park. Those town homes and apartments may have fallen into the proverbial memory hole over the past few years, however with the economy all but recovered from the Great Recession of 2009 there are really no excuses anymore. These things were promised to the community, and they should be delivered upon. In a 2010 interview with Philadelphia Magazine, Mike Hare of the Buccini/Pollin Group gave this quote:

"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." - Philadelphia Magazine

Unfortunately, that timeline seems as far away as it did in 2010 - especially when contrasted against comments like this from club CEO Nick Sakiewicz:

"Philadelphia was a no-brainer," Sakiewicz says. "We have a shot at making some money here."- Philadelphia Magazine

Right now, it seems as though there's no money to be made in a convention center, offices, apartments and townhouses, retail space and a parking garage or any of the other amenities that were promised to be coming to the Chester waterfront. It looks the same as it did in 2010 when PPL Park opened, save for the new training fields adjacent to the stadium.

Bear in mind, the club does plenty of good things for the city of Chester. Between things like Cocktails and Cleats and the 50/50 raffle at games, the Union donates a good deal of money toward charitable causes, but perhaps they should also do more to reach out directly to the community. It will help the people who live there understand that the people who come into their community - players, fans, stadium employees, etc. - are there for good reasons. I'm reminded of a story from opening day when a group of Sons of Ben went into a local bar by the stadium with the intent of having a few drinks, and in turn living up to the group's promise to not just watch matches and leave but to be good representatives of the group to the community. They were told by the owner that they weren't welcome and asked to leave after ordering one beer. The group left and never returned.

There has to be a fundamental change in how the Union and the City of Chester interact with one another. Separately they will survive, however only when they work together will they be able to thrive.