Add Philadelphia to the list of MLS stadiums surrounded by vacant lots

David Beckham’s proposed Miami MLS expansion franchise not only faces opposition to its stadium plans, but also an uncertain soccer fan base in South Florida, with mixed opinions on whether a team would be a success — hold on, we interrupt this speculation by talking heads to see how an actual MLS stadium has worked out in another city:

In announcing $47 million in state funding for the project in 2008, Gov. Ed Rendell went so far as to say it would “change the face of Chester forever,” the axis for development that would include housing, a convention center, office and retail space, and a riverside promenade on the city’s historic waterfront.

Today, with the Philadelphia Union in their fifth season, PPL Park, in the shadow of the Commodore Barry Bridge, remains an island among vacant land and dilapidated buildings.

This is a problem, the Philadelphia Inquirer notes, because “more than 18,000 fans pack PPL Park during games — and most immediately leave town when the games are over.” This is a common problem for the smaller cities that have built MLS stadium in recent years — see also Harrison, N.J. — and though Chester Mayor John Linder says he hopes that someone will build restaurants or something that will encourage fans to stick around after the game, it’s tough to see anyone wanting to open major retail businesses just to get the foot traffic from a league that only plays 17 home games a year.

Miami, obviously, isn’t Chester, and has plenty of restaurants. But it’s a worthy reminder that even MLS teams that sell lots of tickets may not necessarily bring an economic windfall for their cities.

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13 comments on “Add Philadelphia to the list of MLS stadiums surrounded by vacant lots

  1. It seems that they would have been wise to actually find at least one person who stays in Chester postgame before claiming merely “most” immediately leave town. Sounds like the starting assumption should be that no one stays unless it’s proven otherwise.

  2. Same can be said of Bridgeview, the suburban home of the Chicago Fire. And I’m guessing that something (or a lack of something) similar can be said for Frisco/FC Dallas.

    Putting MLS stadia in the hinterlands of metro areas isn’t going to do much for those areas. And it might even curb attendance. The Union apparently draw pretty well, but I have almost no desire to schlep out to Bridgeview for a game. Traffic sucks, parking is more expensive than tickets, etc.

  3. Because we needed new cell phones, my family and I went to the AT&T store in Sacramento downtown plaza on Saturday. The store closed for good on Sunday. Why?

    Because the terms the DTP owners were giving AT&T to move to a different spot in the mall — one farther from the arena-site — were so bad that AT&T decided to close their store; now they have none in downtown Sacramento. And the plan is that, moving forward, there will be no AT&T store in downtown Sacramento.

    I think they’re creating a “no-business zone” around Sacramento’s arena-site too. There may be a story here which, not surprisingly, the Bee is ignoring.

  4. “more than 18,000 fans pack PPL Park during games — and most immediately leave town when the games are over.”

    And how is this different from ANY entertainment venue?

  5. “And how is this different from ANY entertainment venue?”

    That is the point. There are some exceptions though honestly.

  6. I’ve been to PPL Park for several games and from what I’ve seen, there’s nowhere to go after the game except back into the city. The stadium itself sits in the middle of an industrial zone, so I’m not sure what the problem is. It’s not like they built an entertainment district that sat empty- they didn’t build an entertainment district at all.

  7. MrDot:

    The idea behind the stadium deal was that the public money poured into the facility would “inspire” or “catalyze” private development around the stadium in Chester, not that tax dollars would be used to fund that too.

    That didn’t happen, in fact most people could see it was never going to happen given the location the stadium was built in and the fact that it was a soccer stadium used maybe 20 times per year. The general concept Rendell (and others) put forward was that sinking public money into what is now PPL park would bring economic windfall to Chester through spin off developments… you know, the old saw about public money seeding private development and earning a 4-5-8 or even 10:1 multiplier for the city and state.

    As noted, it didn’t happen. The public money put into that stadium is earning closer to 0.05:1, if not a straight 0:1.

    As Michael said above, Bridgeview made the same mistake in luring the Fire to their community. They are losing money hand over fist on that deal as well. If a city is going to use an MLS stadium as a lure, there better be a hook to keep the fish spending in the area… there isn’t.

  8. And really, you’re not going to be able to do it with a soccer stadium, which just doesn’t have the dates to generate enough foot traffic. With an arena that’s busy 200 nights a year, in the right neighborhood that is easy to get to but hasn’t quite taken off yet, in a city where you wouldn’t be cannibalizing too much spending from elsewhere within city limits … maybe. But that’s going to be a really short list.

  9. I think MLS stadiums do more for gentrifying downtowns than suburban tax havens, but it’s a classic chicken/egg situation. Would those dive bars have popped up anyway due to population demographics? We may never know.

  10. Over the past year, there has actually been a huge amount of development on the other side of the Harrison PATH train station with a few fast-food restaurants and I think a bar. I never went over there because I was covering the team as credentialed media and we had food provided but as a fan if I arrived early enough I definitely would have grabbed some food beforehand.

    That being said, I’m not surprised that there’s been little growth around entertainment venues that are only used sparingly. If you build something out in the middle of no where with few purposes, there’s little incentive to build anything else nearby. Wrigley Field will always be amazing because it’s in a neighborhood so people will always come to the area regardless of if there’s a game or not.

  11. That’s true Dan. I think the one exception to the “boonies” stadium rule would be an NFL facility. Precisely because they are used so sparingly, it actually makes sense for them to be built in the middle of nowhere (relatively speaking). There won’t be much in the way of ancillary development (other than what the team wants to put inside the facility walls/boundaries), but then, it isn’t really needed given the 10-15 days per year the facility will be fully used.

    Such a facility then does not eat up prime tax earning property in downtown cores, and that land is generally available at very attractive prices from it’s owners (assuming it is not a city owned facility on city owned land, of course). Certainly infrastructure needs for a 70,000 seat facility are significant, as are transportation corridors. Balanced against the loss of many acres of prime real e$tate in a downtown setting, I’d suggest those costs are relatively affordable.

    That type of infrastructure development also tends to lead to easier and more cost effective future private development around the stadium… though as many aging stadia from the 60’s/70’s prove, that development does not always occur despite this advantage.

  12. They probably could have used a “culture of caution!”

    Chester has had problems for a long time, only worsened by the loss of shipbuilding and other jobs in the area. A lot of politicians in Pennsylvania and other places think that a “big splash” is what turns a town around. In reality, it really has more to do with patient wealth accumulation in a community, supported by a good housing stock, improvements in public safety, schooling, employers with above-average wages, etc. These take time and don’t have a “ribbon cutting” associated with them, so its more fun to have a soccer stadium.

    It would seem that if a stadium would “turn a neighborhood around” a lot of other, much cheaper venues could probably do the same thing.

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