The Sins of Chester City
By Desire Grover
*Transcript of A Ghetto Print Minute Podcast
On December 30th a final proposal was put in around 7 am asking for the Chester Upland School District to sign over 40 acres of their property. The deadline for the sign off was December 31st so the pressure was on. The Soccer Stadium Developers were in need of a kind gesture from the same school district that had been horrifically starved financially and left to die a slow death. A school district deserted by its State, County and City all for the sake of a tax-free city development incentive called the Keystone Opportunity Zone. But on December 30th the tables would turn. And the Developers would pay the largest price for the Sins of Chester City.
What the Stadium Developers were asking for was tremendous. They wanted the School District to just hand the land over so that they could continue development according to their tax-free terms. Say what? That’s right you heard me correctly. You would think this were an 80’s Disney film. The once nerdy and ignored school district suddenly had the upper hand. The ball was in their court and they had only a few hours to make the shot. Would they be forgiving of Chester City who had left the school district in the cold after the infamous Harrah’s Casino Deal? The Soccer Stadium Developers were the friends of Chester City who had been welcomed into the City’s prosperity plans all while the school district received not one invitation to the party. Would the School District forget all of this and simply sign over their 40 acres and the mule to the City’s friends?
“The proposal is that the education empowerment board agree to the inclusion of one additional property. That known as the Barry Bridge Park into the exiting Keystone Opportunity Zone along the City of Chester Waterfront.”-CUSD Lawyer Bush
The atmosphere was tense, a deadline was looming and a last minute proposal was hot off the press. The Chester Upland School District Empowerment Board would soon prove itself to be very much empowered. Stadium Developers present at the meeting periodically gave pensive stares into the air, thinking hard about the case they would deliver.
The Senior Vice President of the Buccini Pollin Group, Mike Hare, was the first of the development team to take the floor. He tried clarifying any miscommunications from previous meetings with the School Board about the importance of the request.
“…Some of the concerns we have, which we communicated… maybe it’s important for me to make a few points. At our last meeting… Mr. Woolley asked what the benefit of the Keystone Opportunity Zone was to this project. I used a number, approximately, two million dollars in savings, obviously that number was used in the press. I want to clarify that term and what that meant.”
He continued on explaining the complexity of the project’s financial burdens and the number of stakeholders and their need for the sign off in order to meet all of their planned goals. Again the atmosphere was tense. It was the kind of tension that demanded clear answers and candid dialogue from all present. Convoluted explanations would not be tolerated.
“I think for better or for worst when you say it is a collective enterprise … I think for a number of people this whole process is a tad bit confusing. Because there’s so many entities, there’s so many layers and so when you the developer come… you are for all intents and purposes everybody… people can’t sift through the layers.”-Woolley
No one wanted to sift through layers early in the morning when they could be back home on a holiday vacation. Members of the Empowerment Board were not going to make it easy for the developers. School District Treasurer Juan Buaghn put a little fire under the developer’s feet when he laid out one of the community’s key concerns about the stadium project.
“There’s a concern that entities come into Chester, they build these wonderful places and then Chester folks don’t…get the benefits from it ‘cause they don’t get to work there.”
There would be no pulling of the punches today. On a number of occasions Harrah’s came up as the poster child for the deal that the community would not let happen again. Chester City’s Casino abomination tarnished the atmosphere making it hard for the board and community to be open to any more vague promises. School Board Chairman Marc Woolley made it clear that he had no confidence in the “trickle down” economics philosophy towards the school district. There was no need to wait and hope that the stadium’s success could turn into a benefit for the school district. The district needed a clear and real deal now not later.
“ Given that other relationships have been made. Harrah’s is giving 12 million dollars a year to the County and to the City and nothing to the District…why hasn’t the group, whatever the group is that is putting this stadium deal together why haven’t they made a financial commitment to the District?”-Woolley
“I think probably we just haven’t gotten that far into the project with the Master Plan.”-Hare
From the groans and moans at Hare’s response to the question it was clear that the community was not pleased. Would the city and county get away with carving the school district out of the financial benefits of the development yet again? Were the Stadium Developers going to be another repeat of Harrah’s?
Harrah’s Casino seemed to just happen to the community from the viewpoint of many Chester residents. But for City insiders it was not a sudden surprise because the development of the waterfront had been a long prepared goal. These development negotiations were often quiet and swift. Once all deals and transactions were made the announcements and promotions of the casino began.
During an interview with Bill Baldini on the Chester Today show Senator Pileggi described the Harrah’s deal as “...sort of behind the scenes and out of the eye of most people...” Being the Pioneer of the Chester City Development the Senator didn’t seem at all troubled with the knowledge that Chester Residents were left out of the dialogue.
Leaving “The People” out has often been the practice of the State, County and City so sometimes politicians here began to behave as if this is the rule and not so much the exception. Unfortunately, leaving “The People” out involved ignoring the needs of the Chester Upland School District. Although, Chester community leaders pushed hard for a school tax from Harrah’s neither the State, County or City would support the cause. The cold shoulder from Senator Pileggi towards the school district is surprising, being that he once sat on the Chester Upland School Board as he worked his way up the ladder to Chester Mayor and then State Senator. But on December 30th 2008 the decision to ignore “The People” had caught up with them all. Leaving developer’s frustrated and stupefied and some might even say unfairly duped by the states men who courted them to the waterfront.
Finally, after about two hours of hearing the disappointments and lack of trust coming from the empowerment board and the community the CEO of Keystone Sports & Entertainment Nick Sakiewicz came to the floor in hopes of reassuring the alert school district and community that they had nothing to fear.
“We’re taking a big risk building the stadium here... We’ve sunk roughly 15 million dollars into the ground on testing, development and predevelopment and in this whole economic environment a lot of people are lookin’ at us and sayin’ ‘are you nuts?’ But we say no…we’re committed to this. We made commitments and we’re gonna fulfill those commitments and part of those commitments are to look out for the kids in this city.”
But the grind did not stop. The developers were not prepared for the steep incline of interrogation that they were going to have to climb.
At some point the distrust of the school board and community became too much for them to ignore. The dark shadow of Chester City’s Casino deal would not leave the room so at last the developers withdrew their request. They would have to pay for the sin of Chester City’s Casino deal. A sin not easily purged by a gamble on a stack of promises.
Tags: Chester , Casino , Harrahs , Deal , Bpg , Stadium , Mls , Soccer , Community , Politics
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