Nearly three years ago, the bustling Philadelphia Regional Produce Market spurned a $90 million invitation to move to Camden. Some now wonder if that was a good idea.

After nearly three years of frequent meetings, the details of a new $150 million terminal promised by Gov. Rendell, Mayor Street, and State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo remain unresolved. One-third of the South Philadelphia terminal's 1,500 jobs may again be at risk of moving to New Jersey.

Their departure would weaken a busy hub prized by chefs, merchants, and neighborhood food-buying cooperatives. It is a place where they taste and buy a vast array of domestic and imported fruit, produce and spices - and haggle over price with 35 businesses.

Meanwhile, a new controversy threatens to extend the delay.

Plans to put two casinos on the waterfront have seaport terminal operators and union leaders worried about losing active paper and cocoa-bean terminals south of Penn's Landing at a time when port business has picked up dramatically.

The Navy Yard produce terminal site favored by Rendell and Fumo blocks port expansion that port officials say could generate 75,000 new direct and indirect jobs.

"There isn't any other project on any drawing board that can claim that kind of economic growth," said an angry State Rep. William F. Keller (D., Phila.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee and chairman of the Delaware River Maritime Enterprise Council.

"An onslaught of business is headed this way, and Philadelphia is ideally suited to accept it if we'll just start planning and stop jamming round pegs into square holes," said Keller, a former longshoreman.

With many new ships too large to pass under the Walt Whitman Bridge, the port must expand southward from the big Packer Avenue Marine Terminal into the Navy Yard, Keller said.

This late-developing opposition from the port is causing heartburn at the produce terminal. The 35 small businesses that rent space from the city in the dilapidated terminal, built in 1959, have been working since 2002 to get a new terminal.

The old facility does not meet requirements for some big contracts. So several operators are feeling pressure to move much of their business elsewhere, and the best sites are in New Jersey, Sonny DiCrecchio, the terminal manager, said this week when asked for an update.

"We need to speed the process up. I'm getting pressure daily," he said, adding that welding crews are busy every Saturday repairing heavy steel plates that patch crumbling floors.

The association that runs the terminal warned the city, its landlord, in 2002 of sweeping post-9/11 changes in food-transportation regulations that could not be met at the present site. It also said it needed more space to handle a rising volume of business and access to rail service because truck shipping costs were skyrocketing.

Frustrated by a slow response, the association turned to nearby Camden and got immediate attention from Gov. James E. McGreevey and other officials.

To counter New Jersey, Fumo, whose state Senate district includes the terminal, summoned state and local officials to his South Philadelphia office for a series of meetings. The terminal association eventually agreed to decline Camden's offer when it reached a deadline imposed by New Jersey, even though details of Pennsylvania's proposal remained unresolved.

For a time, the terminal was told to develop plans for a site just north of the Walt Whitman Bridge, called the Pier 98 annex, where a California company had recently abandoned a long effort to build a car-importing business. When an option from a group that wanted to put a racetrack at the Navy Yard expired, Rendell decided that was where the produce terminal should go.

The Navy Yard site was next to port property and a planned Norfolk Southern railroad yard.

Rendell's announcement in September 2005 of the Navy Yard site aroused worries over 1,500 to 2,000 big trucks bound daily for the produce terminal through the Navy Yard entrance on Broad Street, snarling traffic at the South Philadelphia Sports Complex.

Engineers initially thought this problem could be solved with a long-discussed new road from the Navy Yard to Delaware Avenue, across tracks of a busy rail yard. Traffic engineers evaluated each rail crossing and determined that some would be frequently blocked long enough to back up trucks for great distances.

This discovery led to plans for a new four-lane bridge from Pattison Avenue over the railroad tracks to the Navy Yard.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia's port was rebounding from a decade of decline, stirring talk of expansion. It already employs 8,500 people directly, and it creates an additional 35,000 ancillary jobs, Keller said.

Consultants hired by terminal operators and the International Longshoremen's Association say major growth is now possible. If the port expands, they say, the number of containers handled, for example, could swell to three million a year from the present 800,000 within five or six years. (By comparison, New York now handles four million containers annually.)

With West Coast ports jammed, more ships will come to the East Coast with Asian cargo bound for the populous Northeast, said Boise Butler III, president of ILA Local 1291 and a member of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority board.

Philadelphia is the only North Atlantic seaport served by three major railroads, including direct rail access to Canada. "We've got major shippers that would put a ton of their own money into expanding the port," Butler said.

With rising opposition from port interests, Fumo has called a meeting for today with representatives of the governor and others involved in the project, his press secretary, Gary Tuma, said yesterday. "As far as Sen. Fumo is concerned," Tuma said, "the project is going forward . . . at the Navy Yard."

Contact staff writer Henry J. Holcomb at 215-854-2614 or hholcomb@phillynews.com.