In a crowded auditorium in February 2016, Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland stood before hundreds of city residents, one of the first times since taking office a few weeks earlier.
It was miserably cold, but a standing-room-only crowd had turned out anyway. Kirkland, a longtime Democratic state representative, had campaigned on a pledge to reel this beleaguered city in from crisis, when years of government infighting had produced little change. After weeks of huddling with his administration, the new mayor came prepared to offer a blueprint for change.
Certainly, problems needed tackling: Chester was confronting the highest homicide rate of any city in America. One in three residents lived in poverty. For decades, there had been little economic development within the four-square-mile city. And its well-situated waterfront still had acres sitting largely untapped.
“Read it, study it,” Kirkland said, pointing to his transition report. “And make sure that we are held accountable.”
Nearly 15 months later, much of Chester seems the same. Nearly a dozen people have been killed since January. Only a few of the cases have been solved. The city remains in the throes of the state’s Act 47 program, a last-resort option for communities on the brink of disaster. And a key provision of the transition report’s economic-development plan ― waterfront housing on the Delaware River ― has yet to show any signs of progress.
Yet at the same time, slowly and quietly, small signs of economic life have been sprouting throughout the city. A deal has been finalized so that this summer a Hilton-brand extended-stay hotel will break ground next to City Hall, the first massive commercial-development project in years.
The new hotel comes alongside a trickle of residential and commercial tenants in Chester’s downtown stretch. Soon, a footwear store is expected to become the next tenant at the prominent McCrory Building on Edgemont Avenue, one of the city’s main drags. A nightclub opened nearby recently. And just last month, a well-known real estate developer finalized leases on four one-bedroom, loft-style apartments on that same block, fetching prices as high as $950 a month.
It’s a big change for downtown Chester, which just a decade ago was consumed by boarded-up buildings, crime, and loitering on the streets. And for the first time in recent history, developer Linda Braceland said, there are “people in suits walking down the street … looking at properties.”
“People are coming into my buildings asking if I want to sell,” said Braceland, president of Star Vista Enterprises, a redevelopment company. “In just the last couple of years, a lot of stuff has happened.”
But with all that new development, one big question lingers: Why won’t anyone build on Chester’s waterfront?
The city’s location on the Delaware was an economic driver during the mid-20th century. Home to shipyards and manufacturing plants, including Ford Motor Co. and Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., this Delaware County city was known for economic prosperity — a hub for jobs, shopping and entertainment.
The decline of manufacturing in the region spurred a period of massive disinvestment in Chester. Its wealthier residents moved out, and its population plummeted. The economy soured, the waterfront became vacant, and suddenly Chester was confronted with a jobless population, escalating crime, and a local government that — as hard as it tried — could not dig the city out of distress.
Then, nearly a decade ago, state, county, and city officials had an idea: If they could attract big development projects to the waterfront, then perhaps Chester could be saved.
First, 2007 delivered Harrah’s casino, which was attracted to the troubled city by the Keystone Opportunity Zone that gave tax incentives for businesses that settled in distressed communities. One year later, then-Gov. Ed Rendell offered up $47 million from the state to help build a $122 million, 20,000-seat Major League Soccer stadium along the waterfront, now home to the Philadelphia Union. To sweeten the deal, the Delaware River Port Authority gave $10 million, and Delaware County committed $30 million in the form of a bond.
In announcing the deal at the time, Rendell predicted the project, now known as Talen Energy Stadium, would transform Chester into a “first-class Pennsylvania city” and “a great place to work, to live and to play.”
It seemed likely, too: In 2006 and 2007, property records show, Wilmington- based development group Buccini/Pollin had been purchasing acres alongside the stadium.
The plan, Buccini/Pollin and politicians said at the time, was for a massive economic renaissance: a $500 million mixed-use makeover, according to published reports, that would bring townhouses, apartments, retail space, restaurants, even a convention center.
“It will give birth to hundreds of new jobs, new shops, new places to live and new things for people to do,” Rendell said in 2008. “There will be countless opportunities and a positive, long-lasting impact throughout the region.”
Nearly 10 years after that announcement, however, waterfront development, beyond the casino and the stadium, remains sparse.
In a 2015 interview with the Inquirer, Mike Hare, senior vice president for development at the Buccini/Pollin Group, said that an economic boon to the waterfront was always in the works, but that the company was stymied by the recession. In the ensuing years, Hare said then, the development group helped oversee construction of smaller projects along the waterfront, including training fields and the leasing of the old Delaware County Electric Co. generating station, called “the Wharf.” Power Home Remodeling, ranked by Glassdoor as one of the Top 10 companies to work for, is located there today.
Buccini/Pollin did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comments for this article. But property records show it still holds the land.
“We’ve had some very fruitful conversations with different developers about doing work on the waterfront, which does include the Buccini brothers,” said Nafis Nichols, chief financial officer of Chester. “… There are other developers looking at [waterfront] land that the city owns or that the [Chester Economic Development Authority] owns.”
“They’ve been very fruitful,” Nichols said. “But there are things I can’t disclose because we haven’t solidified any deals.”
For Chester to truly revitalize itself, revival of the waterfront and nearby Route 291 is crucial, said Stephen Mullin, director of Econsult Solutions, whose economic-consulting firm is helping to steer the city out of Act 47.
“I think Route 291 is the first step,” Mullin said. “It’s one block away from the stadium there — and I think there’s a lot of potential for smaller business deals to generate some economic activity.”
As for Braceland, she believes it would take only one big developer for the riverfront to see new life.
“It takes guts to be the first one,” she said. “And I think that’s all it is. Who is going to be the one to make the first major development down there?”