The Fight to Bring Chester Back From the Brink
By Jim Waltzer, Main Line Today
Can this former industrial hub ever restore luster to its long-sullied image and prosperity to its people?
“Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky / Stormy weather …”
The great jazz/blues vocalist Ethel Waters, a native of Chester, may have been the first to sing this classic song in public, doing so in a 1933 nightclub performance. About four decades later, the sun disappeared from her hometown’s sky. Once an industrial power-house, the city lost its bearings, a victim of urban upheaval and the changing economy. The tax base shrank, the crime rate spiked, and survival became the order of the day.
In the depth and swiftness of its decline, Chester had—and has—plenty of company across America. This city by the river, whose shipbuilding muscle had seen the country through a couple of world wars, fell into the clutches of receivership.
Recently, though, commitment and creative thinking from many quarters have begun to tug Chester from the bog. The trick will be not to backslide. “It will take everybody at the table to help turn things around,” says Mike McGee, executive director of the Riverfront Alliance of Delaware County, which promotes economic development.
“We have to harness our human capital,” adds the city’s mayor, John Linder.
As a youth, Linder learned how to swim at the long-gone Chester YMCA. In the years since, city leaders and residents have become accustomed to swimming upstream. With its economy under siege, the impediments to progress in Chester—neighborhood violence, schools in disarray, deteriorating housing, financial woes—have been intractable. That’s all the more distressing, given the city’s rich history.
In fact, there is a Chester of myth and memory. Pennsylvania-bound William Penn stepped ashore here—not at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia—on his inaugural visit in 1682, renaming the Swedish settlement for an English city that also lay by a river and would become an industrial heavyweight. The American version was a county seat for nearly 170 years. The compact stone courthouse, built in 1724, served the county before becoming Chester City Hall. It’s still in use, though not as a courthouse.
From the Civil War through World War II and beyond, shipyards on the Chester waterfront were go-to suppliers for the U.S. Navy and the merchant marine. Sun Shipbuilding was the country’s largest. Ford Motor Company and Scott Paper joined the river lineup, their assembly lines churning out cars and Cottonelle as ships rolled off the slipways.
It’s hard to believe now, but Chester was once a city of downtown shopping and movie theaters, of new and expanding businesses, of professionals hanging out fresh shingles. Chester’s population grew from less than 1,000 in 1820 to 66,000 in 1950.
Following decreases—some of them sharp—every decade since, the number has stabilized. It’s estimated to be around 34,000 today.
There are reasons for this. People in and out of government have been working to improve living conditions in Chester and draw people back to the city. They often operate below the radar, but their efforts are yielding visible results.
One is Steve Fischer, executive director of the Chester Housing Authority. Fischer came to Chester from New York a decade ago to run an authority badly in need of an overhaul. It had been taken over in 1994 by a federal judge responding to a tenant lawsuit protesting decayed buildings and rampant crime. On Fischer’s watch, Chester’s public housing has done a 180. The authority was released from receivership earlier this year. “I hope that what we’ve accomplished can serve as a message,” he says. “Things can be transformed.”
The authority now has its own police force and has revamped its housing stock. As for the latter, the most noticeable change has been the replacement of the two Chester Towers with four four-story structures—three federally subsidized apartment buildings, plus a commercial building that accommodates a pharmacy, a dental practice and the authority offices. As federal funding from HUD has shrunk, Fischer has sought other revenue sources—like a childcare center (at the Ruth L. Bennett Homes, one of the authority’s nine communities) and a mini-farm that sells its surplus.
The authority currently oversees 100 owned residences and 2,366 rentals, and there’s a waiting list of applicants. Fischer welcomes partners in his efforts. He’s also looking for private developers who “stick around for the long haul.”
Developer Debbie DeSimone subscribes to that kind of thinking. Her Best Homes has rehabbed more than 150 properties, most of them in Chester. She has a waiting list of 65. Founded by DeSimone and her home-remodeler husband less than four years ago, the business entails more than just nails and drywall. “If you’re home, you’ll be with me for a long time,” she says.
Long-term tenants are good for both business and the community. To create genuine homes, rather than stopovers, DeSimone installs large pantries, washer-dryers and other amenities in each of her units, and provides landscaping and exterior maintenance services not typically associated with Chester rental properties. She recently transformed an authority-owned lot from drug turf into a little park. The site, located near row houses revived by Best Homes, reinforces the direction of this eastside neighborhood.
Next up for the company: an ambitious conversion of the vacant, vintage Wetherill School—“A stone fortress,” says DeSimone—into upscale apartments ready for occupancy by late summer. And there are other like-minded developers who’ve been renovating abandoned properties and restoring them to the tax rolls.
A nonprofit player in the rehab arena is the Chester Community Improvement Project, which seeks to revitalize deteriorated neighborhoods and streamline the path to home ownership. “We strategically pick neighborhoods [to improve] that most people will not go into,” says CCIP’s executive director, Annette Pyatt, whose office is in the historic 1724 courthouse. “Then we help families maneuver through the chaotic process [of home buying].”
Utilizing $600,000-$700,000 in annual funds from the city, Delaware County, HUD and private foundations, CCIP forges partnerships with builders, government and the public to provide new life to deserted houses and their environs. The focus in recent years has been the so-called East Gateway Triangle—formed by the junction of Edgmont and Providence avenues—situated between Widener University and the city’s main entry point, Crozer-Chester Medical Center. Pyatt reports that eight of nine targeted 1930s houses—which had spawned a high volume of crime—are now renovated and occupied.
Meanwhile, CCIP has established a community center at the neighborhood’s North Chester Baptist Church. In 2008, a new Best Western—Chester’s first hotel in 35 years—opened, courtesy of the $50 million Widener/Crozer joint University Crossings project on previously tax-exempt land.
In that same area, a Bottom Dollar Food closed after just five months last year, when parent company Delhaize sold the regional chain to Aldi. That left Chester with only one food mart: the nonprofit Fare & Square, run by Philabundance. That store has been open for less than two years, following a 12-year absence of grocery stores in the city.
In Chester’s central business district, more than a few slumbering buildings and empty shops await a new start. The area has numerous small storefronts and absentee owners, which slows the process of recovery.
“The goal is to establish a vibrant downtown,” says Drake Nakaishi.
Nakaishi is executive director of the Chester Economic Development Authority, which was created 20 years ago to stimulate new investment. He’s been at his post a little over a year, and he’s been courting a variety of workaday businesses, setting his sights on professional offices, as well.
Chester’s financial incentives are a selling point. Some 1,400 parcels of city land fall within the state’s Keystone Opportunity Zone, affording state and city tax reductions to businesses that locate there. In addition, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s HUBZone (Historically Underutilized Business Zone) designation gives Chester a leg up on federal-government contracting jobs.
While KOZ tracts grab initial attention in most cases, Nakaishi also pitches prospective investors on Chester’s strategic location and access to transportation. He’s been reaching out to Philadelphia’s Asian and black communities in a bid to draw businesses a few miles south on I-95. “We want them to take a look at Chester,” he says.
In return, the city aims to look more appealing. Its Vision 2020 plan calls for reinstating an Amtrak stop, sharpening the cultural profile, and shoring up infrastructure with a decidedly “green” emphasis. Of course, it takes money and will to realize these goals.
Bringing back Amtrak requires expanded parking and structural changes to the ancient transportation center. The green campaign, though, is well underway. To combat flooding from runoff, 1,000 trees have been planted along Route 291 and throughout the city. A state grant funded the work, which was conducted under the canopy of the city’s Shade Tree Commission. “We prefer plants to pipes,” says CEDA’s Lisa Gaffney.
The flood-control strategy also gets points for its affiliation with Pennsylvania Sea Grant, a Penn State University program for watersheds. The city’s planned walking trail to connect Crozer and Eyre parks will rely on that careful judgment, as Chester Creek’s monumental overflow in 1971 wiped out Eyre’s row-house neighborhood.
Just north of Penn’s landing marker, Chester Creek flows into the Delaware River, long the engine of the city’s economy. These days, massive hulls aren’t found at water’s edge, and manufacturers in other industries have also retreated—though the Scott Paper plant now belongs to archrival Kimberly-Clark. Host to two sizable entertainment venues, the evolving riverfront nonetheless plays an important role in shaping the city’s future.
The curving off-ramp from the Commodore Barry Bridge ushers motorists past PPL Park and its twin cantilevers toward the imposing Wharf at Rivertown, a huge WWI-era power station reinvented as a modern office building. The approach is dramatic, the economic promise considerable.
The stadium, home to the Philadelphia Union pro soccer club, was funded by the state and the county. It was completed in 2010. Two years earlier, former Gov. Ed Rendell had predicted that it would turn Chester into a “first-class city.”
But soccer and Chester have been an uneasy mix. Locals aren’t drawn to the sport and charge that the strong police presence at games is at the expense of neighborhoods. The franchise has supported various community programs, but it fell behind on its annual $500,000 “pilot” payment to the city. It has since begun to make up for the shortfall; annual payments drop to $150,000 this year through 2040, as stipulated in the lease agreement. Mayor Linder recommended parking taxes, a proposal that irked the franchise. Nearby private lots have opened since.
The broader plan had been to create a “Rivertown” of offices and townhouses, plus a convention center between the stadium and the retooled Wharf, which opened in 2006. The Wharf was fully leased through the end of last year, but Rivertown has remained on the drawing board, a casualty of the economy’s plunge in 2008.
Development has returned—to a degree. Two practice fields were installed between the stadium and the Wharf, and an old PECO building dubbed the “Annex” is expected to join the Union. “We’re working to redevelop it for their front office, and expect it to be ready by the second quarter of 2016,” says Brendan Kelley, leasing agent for Buccini/Pollin Group, which owns the Wharf and is a minority owner of the soccer club.
A few miles upriver, Harrah’s Philadelphia opened on the Sun Shipbuilding footprint around the same time the Wharf greeted its first tenant. By statute, the casino/racetrack pays an annual $10 million or 4 percent of its gross revenue (whichever is greater) to Chester, whose current budget is $50 million. According to Linder, the Harrah’s money is already spoken for, as the city struggles to pay its debts. The state declared the city “financially distressed” in 1995, limiting Chester’s options. The KOZ designation for the Harrah’s site has expired, obligating the company to pay real-estate taxes, but the amount of the assessment is under appeal.
Senior vice president Ron Baumann estimates that Harrah’s employs 150-200 Chester residents, and he hopes to increase that number as the property expands its non-gaming amenities. “Our initial bet on Chester was $400 million, and we’ve put in more than $70 million [for capital improvements],” says Baumann.
For many of those who glimpse a brighter future for Chester, development on land close to Harrah’s is crucial. The prospect of a hotel next door motivates longtime state Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, who’s challenging incumbent Linder for the Democratic mayoral nomination. “It would be a boon for the city—jobs, career opportunities,” says Kirkland. “To develop a hotel, we have to sell the city in a positive way.”
Salesmanship meets corporate clout within the Riverfront Alliance, whose members include Crozer, Widener, TD Bank, Buccini/Pollin and Harrah’s. The current focus is City Revitalization and Improvement Zone funding, awarded by the state to third-class (distressed) cities. The process is competitive. “We try to use the collective leverage of our members in going after dollars,” says Riverfront Alliance executive director Mike McGee. “We’re working with the county to identify projects that would benefit.”
To smooth the way for future development along the Delaware, the city has rezoned its waterfront to permit residential, office and retail uses in areas once limited to heavy industrial. “We had been doing this piecemeal, but we now have an ordinance that’s more compatible to today,” says planning director Bill Payne.
But long-term planning and financial inducements will go only so far. Chester, many argue, needs an image change. “There’s always the hurdle of overcoming the perception of public safety,” says McGee.
Chester’s reputation as a dangerous city remains a major obstacle to growth. Last year, there were a record 30 homicides. During the first half of 2014, gun violence surged. The mayor’s wife, no less, was carjacked at gunpoint right in front of her home.
Then, law enforcement grabbed the momentum. A September drug bust, orchestrated by a combined FBI-state task force and two local police officers, nabbed 40 high-level dealers. During the summer, Chester’s police commissioner, Joseph Bail, put more officers on the street, resulting in the confiscation of 188 guns for the year.
While the number of violent crimes in Chester remains high, it has dropped each year since 2011, for a total of 13 percent, according to Bail. Shootings last year were about half those in 2011. “We can take any area back but need the help of the community to do it,” he says. “If you see something, say something.”
In any community, dealing with the root causes of crime is the long-term solution. Chester native James Gibbs’ approach is to stem violence by schooling youth in how to use their fists. His Big Cats Last Round Foundation recruits volunteers to train young people at a local gym and go beyond the ring to examine social and psychological issues. “Our mission is to stop kids from killing kids,” says Gibbs. “Boxing is a catalyst.”
The main bodybuilder for youth, of course, is formal education, and the Chester Upland School District has been under fire for two decades. Already intervening for years, the state took the reins in 2000 with the goal of restoring financial stability and reversing poor academic performance. In the wake of new legislation in 2012, Joe Watkins was appointed the district’s chief recovery officer. “We had to get our customers back,” says Watkins, referring to the large number of students lost to alternative charter schools.
He immediately hired superintendent Greg Shannon to lead the turnaround effort, which has met with some success. “Customers” have returned by the thousands. Shannon cites a 78-percent reduction in violent incidents over the 2013-14 school year, and another 55 percent so far in the current school year.
But rebuilding programs takes time. Shannon has instituted honors and advanced placement—and, to improve graduation rates, a “credit recovery” program based at Widener University. In the past two years, three students have been awarded Gates Millennium scholarships. “We’re more than just a basketball team,” Shannon says.
Last year, the state education secretary sought to remove Watkins, who’d been shifted from recovery officer to receiver. A Delaware County judge ruled to keep him in place. The receiver makes the key financial decisions for the school district.
“The biggest misconception is that Chester Upland doesn’t know how to spend its money,” says Watkins. “But the fact is that we have a structural deficit—the challenge is to convince the legislature.”
The deficit arose when Harrisburg stopped reimbursing the district for its required payments to charter schools—which, despite giving back a large share of students, still have a combined enrollment that nearly matches that of the public schools. For Watkins, this means his $118 million budget is automatically $20 million in the hole.
Beyond the classroom, older teens and young adults neither in school nor working are a recipe for trouble in any city. Chester’s Workforce Development Center does what it can to help. “We teach them how to budget, save, gather credit wisely, plan for the future,” says coordinator Robert Wrease.
Wrease reports that the center’s summer-intern program placed 35 youth last year at work sites, including city hall, Fare & Square, Riddle Hospital, Widener and Harrah’s. “You have to train people to be ready to work before the jobs come,” says Linder.
If Chester is to make a genuine comeback, a share of those jobs must emerge in the heart of the city. While CEDA’s Nakaishi pursues new businesses, the Chester Business Association is firming up what’s already in place, prodding the powers-that-be to improve trash collection, fix streetlights, plant trees, and install security cameras—to make downtown “clean, safe and green,” says CBA president Linda Braceland.
The most recent businesses to downtown have a modern or artistic bent: an Internet café, a crafts outlet, galleries. Braceland’s Art on Avenue of the States combines exhibition and performing space. Devon Walls, whose Artist Warehouse provides photography and videography services, has acquired an abandoned property with an eye toward building artists’ lofts. “Art can bring back a city,” says Braceland.
Chester’s finest works have been in the hands of a caretaker, much as the city has been a ward of higher government. The Alfred O. Deshong collection of Asian and Impressionistic art—a gift to the city by the industrialist, who died in 1913—is housed at Widener’s art gallery, and the eponymous museum and surrounding park have been owned by the county since the original trust operating the facilities ran out of money in 1984.
The county has long sought to develop the Deshong land, but the gutted museum still stands in seeming defiance on the Avenue of the States, near the gateway to the city. Now, boosted by a $72,000 state grant, plans are taking shape to create a “cultural corridor,” first referenced in Vision 2020. It would extend from Deshong down the once-grand avenue to the growing artistic community in lower Chester.
It’s quite an image, but it will take substantial investment to make it a reality. “How can we get people to come back here, to stay here?” poses Don Newton, whose quasi-public Chester Arts Alive! is part of this effort. “We can do it through the arts.”
The art of politics, on the other hand, is less inspiring—if just as enduring. Estranged from his fellow Democrats on City Council, Linder faces off against state Rep. Kirkland in the primary, and the last mayor, Republican Wendell Butler, is set to contest the general election. The issues at hand are typical: city finances, community policing, harmony in government.
“Over $2 billion of public and private capital has been pumped into Chester since 1996, but it hasn’t changed the values,” says Paul Bennett, editor of the weekly Chester/Community Spirit newspaper.
Which is to say that, in the end, plans and money and development alone will not carry the day.
It’s a point quite eloquently made in the classic 1955 western Bad Day at Black Rock, which offers this scene:
“Maybe this town can come back,” a local doctor says to a keen-eyed visitor who’s survived a harrowing two-day stay in a depleted western outpost.
“Some do, some don’t,” says the stranger. “It depends on the people.”
In Chester, the hope is that the people and their leaders are equal to the task.