Commentary

How the 2011 election affected Philadelphia Union

Wouldn’t it be great to have a super Wawa next door to PPL Park?

You could pop in for a shorti or a soda, maybe snag some tailgate supplies, or fill up your gas tank before heading home. The place would employ Chester residents and serve as a nice cornerstone for other retailers that might consider building along the waterfront.

It’s now been four years since the stadium was built, and there is nothing but private parking lots in the immediate vicinity. There’s no retail, no housing, and no entertainment, all of which were part of the original plans that came packaged with the stadium deal.

The latest update to the Union/Chester business saga comes in the form of this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Laura McCrystal. In the piece, she talks about the seven million dollar project to build senior team practice fields and renovate an office building for Union front office staff. Right now, personnel work out of the nearby wharf building next to Lot C and the team still practices at Chester Park, which is in a residential area about 15 minutes from PPL Park.

As it stands, the Union front office has its hands tied.

A changing political scene

Whenever you read stories about Union/Chester business relationship, one of the things that always gets overlooked is the political turnover that has swept through the city in the past few years.

But in order to understand it, we have to go back to the beginning.

wendell butler

Republican Wendell Butler was mayor of Chester when Gov. Ed Rendell (D) created the stadium and entertainment package for the city

When Philadelphia Union was founded in 2008, Democrat Ed Rendell was Pennsylvania Governor, and Republican Wendell Butler was the mayor of Chester. Butler took over in 2002 when former mayor Dominic Pileggi (R) won a seat in the Pennsylvania state Senate. Chester has a history of GOP control and elected Republican mayors from 1995 to 2011. Even before that, the city was predominantly run by Republicans.

Pileggi is currently the Republican leader in the Senate, and he’s been in office for the last 12 years. He represents the 9th district, which extends from Chester all the way to Kennett Square. Pileggi was active in team affairs back in 2008, and he worked closely with Rendell to unveil the original construction plans that set aside millions of dollars for retail, housing, and other waterfront development. In 2014, due to his status in Harrisburg and his relatively diverse and large district, his name doesn’t come up too often in regard to Philadelphia Union-related issues.

On the House side, you’ve got Thaddeus Kirkland, a Democrat who has represented the state’s 159th district since 1993. Kirkland has generally supported development in Chester and most recently spoke about the Union in this article from the Delco Times. Both Kirkland and Pileggi have comfortably won reelection over the past two decades and remain influential behind the scenes.

The whole point of the backstory is this:

Chester city council is currently comprised of five Democrats, including mayor John Linder (center)

Chester city council is currently comprised of five Democrats, including mayor John Linder (center)

In 2008, when Governor Rendell picked Chester as the location for a soccer stadium, residents there were represented by a bipartisan group of politicians. The stadium deal was done under the leadership of Rendell (D), Butler (R), Pileggi (R), and Kirkland (D).

Midway through the last decade, one of the challengers that Pileggi defeated in a reelection campaign was Democrat John Linder. Linder was a rising star in the local political scene, and he teamed up with Portia West in 2009 to unseat two Republicans on Chester city council. He then beat Butler in 2011 and took over as Chester mayor, ending 16 years of GOP city control. Other Democrats also won election that year, and there is no longer a single Republican on the Chester city council.

With that majority in place, Chester’s new government immediately set out to correct the issues they say were brought on by the former GOP regime.

So where does the Union fit in?

One thing is clear: The Union front office found itself in the middle of a huge political turnaround in Chester.

Whatever relationship the team had with the former Republican government, that obviously had to be revisited when Linder and the Democrats were sworn in two years ago.

For starters, there was the whole issue of the Union’s overdue payments to the city. As part of the agreement that brought the franchise to Chester, the team would pay a $500,000 flat annual fee in lieu of taxes. Last March, the team paid off the overdue 2012 payment, and PSP’s Dan Walsh summarized those developments in a short writeup.

The city also decided to revisit the idea of increasing taxes on the team. Linder and city council proposed a new 10 percent tax on Union tickets and a 20 percent tax on parking spots at PPL Park.

Nick Sakiewicz described in the McCrystal piece the whole fiasco:

“And Sakiewicz said that other attempts by the city to gain revenue have hurt the team.

“Private parking lots have opened near the stadium, and the Union unsuccessfully fought zoning changes in court that allowed the lots. Sakiewicz said the private lots have meant about $1 million in lost revenue to the team annually. The city also instituted a new tax on parking facilities last year.

“Linder defended the tax, noting that the city has been declared financially distressed by the state and needs to consider all revenue options.”

In addition to battling the city in court, the team provided free parking to season ticket holders in an effort to push owners of the private lots out of the market. Still, with existing fees for non-season ticket holders, the private lots retain the ability to undercut team prices and compete for their business. Not only do the private lots take up space around the stadium that could be properly developed, but it’s believed that they are not subject to the same taxes levied against the Union.

It’s been clear from day one that the Union and John Linder got off to a rocky start. It’s not anyone’s fault really. Linder is doing what he feels is best for his city, which is in serious financial trouble. Nick Sakiewicz and Union officials are trying to navigate terrible economic and geographic factors to help the city and improve the gameday experience at the same time.

Back in July of 2012, I spoke with Linder during the Chester playground build that was part of the All-Star Game festivities. When I asked about immediate priorities with the Union, this was his response:

“Basically, we’re in the process right now of clarifying our financial relationship and looking forward to these investments — how can the Union and Major League Soccer invest in the community and get the return on their investment? That’s what me as a mayor, and city council have to do, is to make sure we help to guide those people, like Major League Soccer, and investors who have a concern for the community. We have to help guide them, and to help build a collective mission, and that is to get products into the community, to help produce producers, get our educational system better, and get all of these other people participating in that.”

At the time of that quote, Linder had been Chester mayor for about six months. He inherited a mess, and the Union had to build a new relationship with a new city council.

Summary: Resolving the situation

The issue is simple, and there are two different ways for John Linder to approach the situation.

  1. Chester allows the private lots to stay, continues to tax the team, and maximizes immediate revenue while still trying to attract waterfront investors in a difficult business environment.
  2. Chester removes the private lots, eases taxes on the team, and then relies on the Union and investors to turn short-term losses into longterm development and job creation.

The second plan would benefit the Union immensely, but Linder would be taking a risk in following that course. There’s never a guarantee that private investors will pull through. Still, you can provide Nick Sakiewicz and Jay Sugarman with the “keys to the car” in hopes that the franchise will be able to start new projects that offset the concessions given by the new regime.

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