By Pat Martin, MLS Editor
Chester, PA (Sports Network) - The city of Chester became the birthplace of Pennsylvania when William Penn landed on its Delaware River shore on Oct. 27, 1682. Then, more than 325 years later on Feb. 28, 2008, when Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber landed in town, it became the birthplace of Pennsylvania's first MLS team.
Garber officially announced at a press conference in Chester on Thursday that the Philadelphia market would be the home of the 16th MLS franchise, with a $115 million soccer-specific stadium anchoring a $500 million redevelopment project in the struggling river town to be completed for the 2010 season, when the Philadelphia franchise will join the league. The project will also include housing, retail stores, a convention center and riverfront promenade.
"It's a big market, it's the nation's fourth largest market, and it's the largest city in North America that hasn't had an MLS team," Garber said of the Philadelphia market.
But for the downtrodden city of Chester, Thursday's announcement was about more than a sports team.
"As excited as we are about the sports team and the stadium, they are just a catalyst to a broader development," Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell said. "They are a catalyst to a project that I believe will revitalize the city of Chester and bring it to heights that it hasn't been to ever."
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber officially announced that the Philadelphia market would be the home of the 16th MLS franchise.
The city of Chester is currently in dire need of development and the ensuing revenues that will come with it. Unemployment and crime are high and money to fix these problems, among many others, is low. And until the project came to fruition this year, there was no relief in sight.
"This is more than just about a soccer team, this is about an opportunity for the people of Chester," said Nick Sakiewicz, CEO and operating partner of Keystone Sports and Entertainment, which owns the yet-to-be-named Philadelphia franchise.
"The time is right today to bring soccer to the city of Philadelphia. It started with this league 13 years ago, it started out of a small office in Los Angeles. We always had the Philadelphia market on that list of cities that we wanted to bring a team to. For 12 years we tried to figure out a way to, but we never could until today," added Sakiewicz, who is also one of the founding fathers of MLS.
To bring an MLS franchise to Philadelphia, countless people had to come together, working long hours to make it happen.
"Without the right ownership group, without the perfect stadium solution, this simply was not a place that Major League Soccer could come to," Garber said. "So we are here today because of the vision and perseverance of a world class ownership group and the incredible commitment and support of Governor Ed Rendell, (Senator) Dominic Pileggi, the mayor, the county commissioners, and a wide variety of upstanding public officials who have helped put together Major League Soccer in Philadelphia."
The ownership group was formed when iStar Financial CEO Jay Sugarman, Swarthmore Group Chairman James Nevels, Philadelphia attorney William Doran, veteran sports executive Sakiewicz and Christopher and Robert Buccini, founding partners of The Buccini/Pollin Group, combined their efforts.
Next, a stadium deal needed to be formed, with public money supplementing the hundreds of millions of private dollars going into the project.
Enter the Sons of Ben.
The Sons of Ben (SOB) are a Philadelphia soccer supporters group, whose sole focus has been to bring Major League Soccer to the Philadelphia area. Through the use of petitions, e-mails, raucous showings at public events - including the 2008 MLS SuperDraft in Washington, D.C. - etc, the SOB were able to help the ownership group and MLS convince local, state and federal politicians that Philly was a place MLS needed to be.
"It is good to know that there is real support here in the Philadelphia region," Garber said. "(The SOB) were actively involved in lobbying and the public sector listened to the fans and that matters."
Because of the lobbying efforts of many, about $87 million in public money is going in to the project, with the state pledging $47 million, Chester and Delaware Counties agreeing to add $30 million and the Delaware River Port Authority throwing in $10 million.
A lot of taxpayer money is being spent, but not when you consider the total cost of the project and its possible impact on the community.
"Our goal across Pennsylvania is to support efforts that can drive the economy for years to come," State Representative and Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations Dwight Evans said. "This is a terrific economic opportunity for Chester and for the Commonwealth. It shows that when government and private sector work together, everybody's a winner."
A GREAT DAY FOR COMMUNITY PRIDE
The biggest winner could be Chester with the much-needed revenue streams scheduled to come into the city, if everything goes according to plan.
"There is something about professional sports that has an intangible power to stir people's emotions and get people excited," Pileggi said. "That kind of energy has impact on communities. It would certainly be hard to find any community that could be as positively impacted than the city of Chester by this franchise being located here. I think when we look back and see the ripple effect on the city, it will be as dramatic a transformation as any city in the United States."
MLS also figures to cash in, both figuratively and financially, if bold statements like the following one by Sugarman are realized:
"We have had one simple, guided thought from the start of this process, and that was, let's build something we can all be proud of. Let's build something that Major League Soccer can be proud of. Let's build something that the city of Chester can be proud of. Let's build something that the fans of Philadelphia and all the surrounding communities can be proud of. Let's build something the Sons of Ben can be proud of."
And for the pure sports fans of Philadelphia, Garber has one more statement for you to chew on.
"This is not just about a stadium and a redevelopment, it is about a sports team."
More specifically, Philadelphia's rebirth into the world's game.