Funding moves Phila. closer to soccer goal

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Artist's rendering of a proposed soccer stadium for Chester.

Pennsylvania officials will announce today that they have taken a huge step toward bringing a pro soccer team to the Philadelphia region - arranging an estimated $45 million in funding to help build a stadium and other projects on the Chester waterfront.

The formal announcement is scheduled for 2 p.m. in Chester, at a news conference to be attended by Gov. Rendell and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi. The two political leaders, a Democrat and a Republican, will join local and state politicians at the Wharf at Rivertown, a riverside office complex not far from where the stadium would be built.

Word of the pending announcement triggered jubilation in local soccer circles.

"We're so excited," said Bryan James, president of the Sons of Ben, a 1,100-member fan club for a team that doesn't exist. "We're really hopeful this is the final turn, and we might have a team to cheer for soon."

For months, a group of local investors seeking to secure a Major League Soccer club has sought $45 million in state money as a final piece of the financing needed to win what has become a two-city contest for a single expansion team. Yesterday, an official familiar with the funding package said the state action all but assured that Philadelphia would be awarded the team over rival St. Louis, and an announcement by the league could come soon.

"It's imminent," said the official, who declined to be identified because the announcement had not been made.

Others familiar with the trials of MLS expansion and stadium construction urged caution, having seen other can't-miss projects fall apart at the last minute. Last summer in Washington, three years of work to secure a stadium for DC United collapsed, and now the team is being courted by Maryland.

Reached out west yesterday, the leader of the St. Louis expansion effort had only kind words for Philadelphia's rising chances to become MLS's 16th team, even as he acknowledged his bid was likely to fail.

St. Louis fought to become the 15th team, and then the 16th team, "and now we're chasing team 17," said Jeff Cooper, a millionaire lawyer who leads St. Louis Soccer United.

"Philadelphia is a great market," he said. "I think it's a great decision by the state. . . . The only competition I'm interested in with Philadelphia is the one that will happen on the field. We are so close here to the finish line that we'll be able to get team 17."

Rendell, in Philadelphia yesterday, confirmed that the state was poised to provide millions for the stadium complex. The money, which he estimated "in the low 40s," would be gathered from six or seven state accounts and not require legislative approval, he said.

He praised the project and the impact it would have on Chester, calling it "the biggest redevelopment in history."

Pileggi, whose district includes Chester, declined to discuss specifics in Harrisburg yesterday.

"There will be an announcement tomorrow outlining the terms," he said. "It will be a positive announcement. . . . I think that professional soccer as part of a comprehensive waterfront development is a positive development for the city, county and state."

MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche declined to comment, saying news of state funding should come from state officials.

"We're continuing our discussions with the potential ownership group," he said, "and remain hopeful we will have an MLS team in Philadelphia."

Officials in Pennsylvania who are familiar with the funding arrangement said the original $45 million figure has actually increased - to perhaps as high as $50 million. It includes low-interest loans to the investors, as opposed to a strict state subsidy. The funding increased because new projects were added to an already planned $385 million in offices, stores and housing at the stadium site.

The new development included facilities for educational programs for young people and a supermarket, an amenity common in other cities but long absent from Chester. The impoverished city of 37,000 is known for crime and poor schools, a place with plenty of bars but no movie theater or bowling alley.

Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, said he was part of the negotiations to craft a funding agreement. Political leaders met for the past several weeks, he said, wanting to maintain momentum and send a message to MLS that "this will happen."

He estimated state funding would be close to $50 million.

"This is long overdue for the city of Chester," he said.

The stadium complex would sit just south of the Commodore Barry Bridge, not far from the new Harrah's casino. MLS officials, who won't attend today's announcement, expect a new team to begin play in 2010.

MLS has long maintained that an expansion team must have two assets: stable, deep-pocketed ownership, and either a soccer stadium or a commitment to build one. Organizers in St. Louis have a stadium deal, but lack enough rich investors. The group in Philadelphia has had the money, but no stadium agreement - until, apparently, now.

Once stadium funding is secured, the next step would be for the ownership group to turn to the league and negotiate the terms for a team. The $30 million entry fee is not negotiable, but other matters, such as Philadelphia's desire to host an MLS Cup championship, could be discussed.

State Rep. Bryan Lentz of Delaware County said yesterday he initially had qualms about spending public money on a stadium project, but concluded that "this is a unique sport in a unique location."

"The government," he said, "should make smart investments to encourage smart developments."


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Mario F. Cattabiani, Amy Worden and Bob Fernandez.