The first rule of putting a stadium in a neighborhood wary of development is to talk to the community — immediately, frequently, and patiently, public relations professionals will tell you.
So the Temple University town hall meeting about a planned football stadium in North Philadelphia might have been doomed before it began. Protesters Tuesday night interrupted university president Richard Englert 10 minutes into his remarks, as chants of “No stadium, no deal” echoed through ornate Mitten Hall. The event was quickly canceled.
The forum was the first public meeting Temple had held since announcing plans to build a 35,000-seat stadium on campus two years ago. Since then, Temple has spent $1.25 million on a feasibility study it hasn’t released, published a preliminary design, and signaled its intent to send the proposal to the city Planning Commission for review.
“You’ve got to talk to the community early,” said Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based communications consultant. “Have giant town hall meetings and small group meetings, invite community leaders to coffee, talk until no one has anything more to say.”
Wait, Nevins said, and there’s no open line of communication. “Everyone bunkers down, digs into their position, and they no longer hear what anybody has to say. … All possibility of conversation goes out the window.”
That’s how things played out Tuesday night when a packed-house audience, both for and against the stadium, gathered to hear from the university, only to see the event taken over by protesters from the Stadium Stompers, a well-organized opposition group created two years ago.
For months the group had been asking the university to host the very meeting some of its members shut down. But after the meeting, leaders defended the outbursts, saying they had felt disrespected the week before, when university officials didn’t show up for an anti-stadium gathering.
“Maybe if they’d come to our meeting, we wouldn’t have busted this out,” said Stadium Stomper and North Philadelphia resident Ruth Birchett. “We’re tired of being ignored.”
Temple has held small-group listening sessions with members of the community. Officials won’t say who attended those but insist there is a quieter community group that supports the proposal and what it could mean for the neighborhood.
“There’s no secret plan to try to win people over,” said Kevin Feeley, a communications consultant working with Temple. “Despite the efforts of a small group of highly organized protesters, there were lots of people in the audience — most not willing to be shouted at or to engage with the protesters — who were interested in hearing what Temple had to say, and the university intends to pursue those discussions going forward.”
Until Tuesday, the university had announced few details on what the neighborhood stood to gain from the $130 million stadium, proposed for 15th Street between Norris Street and Montgomery Avenue. Englert was interrupted before he could get through all of the offerings, which include investing in workforce development and a nearby recreation center, and creating an early childhood learning center.
The university would also fund a special services district, run by a community board. Trash in the neighborhood would be picked up twice a week instead of once a week, and police coverage would expand.
Barbara Capozzi, who founded the Sports Complex Special Services District, which covers the neighborhoods near the stadiums in South Philadelphia, said Temple would be wise to press “reset” on its deliberations with the community.
“I am sure the community is feeling this is a done deal and no one, nowhere, likes that feeling,” Capozzi said. “This serious, community-altering project needs a serious reset before any hope of meaningful dialogue degenerates further. … There are a multitude of good things that could be negotiated for the community, but there needs to be a willingness by Temple to do so.”
Capozzi, a Temple Law alumnus, said she was against “a little-used but much-hyped stadium,” but thinks a Special Services District could benefit the neighborhood, stadium or no stadium.
“It is the best way to protect the many aspects of the community from being fractured, lied to, bought off and, worst of all, turned against each other by ‘outsiders,'” she said.
What happens next?
Englert said plans for a stadium will continue to move forward, as will talks with the community, likely in smaller groups.
“I’ve met with a number of people in that room already in smaller groups, and we always have courteous and productive conversations,” Englert said Tuesday night. “This will not stop the conversation.”
Temple owns the land it wants to build on. It has said no residents would be displaced due to the construction. Neighbors provide input considered by the Planning Commission, which makes its recommendations to City Council. Council has final say on the plan. Legislators in Harrisburg would likely be looked to for funding.
Politicians have largely taken a wait-and-see-what-the-community-wants approach. Council President Darrell L. Clarke didn’t attend either meeting and has said he will only support a stadium if the majority of the community is behind it.
State Sen. Sharif Street, who lives two blocks from the proposed site, said he’s still waiting for “a real dialogue” to take place between community members and the university. “I don’t think this is the end of it,” Street said. “I, like many in the community, am waiting to see what comes next.”
State Rep. Curtis Thomas, whose district includes Temple, is not seeking reelection, but said last week his sense is that “it’s a no from the community.”
The stadium is sure to come up in the race to fill Thomas’ seat. Two candidates running in the 181st District attended Tuesday’s meeting, one who opposes the stadium, one who supports it.
Malcolm Kenyatta, a former Democratic National Convention delegate and community organizer running for the seat, opposes the stadium and said the university would be wise not to give up on public forums. “No-talking got us here,” Kenyatta said. “If the takeaway this evening for Temple is that all public forums are bad, that’s a bad takeaway.”
The Rev. Lewis Nash, who is also running for the seat and supports the stadium, said the most important thing Temple needs to do is clear up misinformation.
“You have people who think they are going to tear down people’s homes to build this,” Nash said. “Given Temple’s history with the neighbors, you can understand people have concerns, but if we could dialogue and hear all the facts, I think we’d see a better outcome, one they can benefit from.”