Note: This story won a 2nd place award for Best Sports Feature in the 2020 Keystone Media Awards – Radio Division (5/6/2020.)
There is nothing like a game day at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania, home of the Philadelphia Union soccer team.
“No sport has atmosphere like soccer,” said Dana Denmark. He and his family are longtime season-ticket holders. “Even though, you know, Eagles, Flyers, really great, but there’s something about soccer, worldwide, there’s no passion like it.”
The Sons of Ben, the fan group that pushed Major League Soccer to put a team in Philly, is led into the river end of the stadium by a drumline. Their energy and excitement never fade throughout the entire game.
But this scene happens only 17 times a year, for Union home games.
The MLS franchise is celebrating its 10th season on the field. Since its 2010 debut, it’s attracted a consistent following, as well as bringing thousands of fans to Chester.
Much like the team, the city it calls home has had its challenges in the last decade, which included the Great Recession. But now, both the Union and the City of Chester say they are starting to see rewards for their perseverance.
BU: Before the Union
When the team announced it would make Chester its home, there were high expectations that the stadium would become a destination. Officials at the time touted that there would be residences, shops and restaurants.
“They were saying … `It’s going to bring jobs, it’s going to revitalize the neighborhood,’ ” said Anthony Mayfield, who lives a couple of blocks from the stadium. “A lot of people was like, ‘Nobody in Chester is going to see soccer.’ ”
Chester badly needed a shot in the arm.
“Jobs were not here,” said lifelong resident Patricia Demiranda. “We’ve always had the Scott Paper Company and Boeing, which is in Ridley Park, but the majority of most of the jobs were out of the city.”
She said even longtime residents were leaving.
“People were moving out of the area; moving to buy new homes in different locations because of the conditions of the school and condition of the city as far as safety and things of that sort,” Demiranda said.
Crime in Chester has touched Demiranda’s family. Her son, Will Trippley, was killed in 2004. She co-founded the William Trippley Youth Development Foundation in 2006 in his honor. The organization currently includes the Chester City United soccer academy. Trippley was a soccer star who graduated from the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr.
When it was announced that Chester would be home to Philly’s soccer team, Demiranda decided to get involved.
“They came and helped us in all ways, shapes and fashion as far as coaching, as far as finances,” she said, adding that someone was brought in to make the connection between the community and the team.
The foundation also received support from the Sons of Ben before the Union came into existence.
Krystal Kane, the group’s philanthropy director, said they decided they shouldn’t only go to Chester to see games.
“If we are going to be there, we are going to be part of the community,” she said of the decision. “We should be making it better and helping the people who are already doing that work.”
In addition to the Trippley Foundation, the Sons of Ben also help support the Bernadine Center, a Franciscan organization that provides a food pantry, parenting classes, and other social programs. The group also has worked hand-in-hand with the Union on other community initiatives.
About that location
When the stadium was announced, it was billed as an economic kickstart for Chester.
Anthony Mayfield said more could have been done as the stadium was built.
“Had people [really] believed more in the stadium, I think more could have been done with it,” he said.
Mayfield said soccer hasn’t hurt the city, he’s just looking for evidence it’s changed Chester beyond game days.
Drake Nakaishi, executive director of the Chester Economic Development Authority, said there has been some spinoff growth, and that more is to come.
He said Chester, just like Philadelphia, took some years to recover from the Great Recession, whose impact began to be felt in 2008 — the same year that the MLS awarded a team to Philly and a stadium deal was announced.
“When you start from a Great Recession, it’s taken us a number of years to come out of that,” Nakaishi said, adding that Chester is starting to see some signs of economic growth. “The only part of the commonwealth that’s growing is in the southeast portion of the state. And that includes Delaware County and the City of Chester.”
Patricia Demiranda said she’s seeing some new businesses opening in Chester. “Ten years ago, it was a ghost town,” she recalled. “Nobody even drove down the City of Chester.”
But that’s not the case now.
“Now, you can drive down there; they have businesses that are opening up,” she said.
A winning pitch
One business that has opened in Chester is Power Home Remodeling. It moved from Newark, Delaware, in 2011. Asher Raphael, the company’s co-CEO, said it relocated to Chester because of logistics, but he admitted soccer was also a factor.
“One of the draws was the soccer stadium,” said Raphael, who played the sport while at American University, “It was like it was calling to us.”
Raphael said the company wanted to move to a place where it could be part of the community — it saw Chester as a place on the rise.
“We wanted to be part of building something,” he added. “We thought that Power can be a part – maybe a small part or maybe a large part, but a part of the revitalization of what was going on here in partnering with the Union as well.”
Power recently partnered with the team to restart a high school soccer program for the Chester-Upland School District.
The company also sponsored the team’s training complex, which is part of the Union’s footprint on the Chester waterfront, along with the stadium and the Wharf building, where the team’s front office is based.
All of which will be the centerpiece for future development.
A future destination
The Union, in partnership with the Riverfront Alliance of Delaware County, will look at proposals over the next few months and select a master planner.
“I can imagine a sports-and-entertainment kind of health and wellness hub that does have a multisport facility,” said Tim McDermott, the team’s chief business officer. “That can be a natural first step, where kids can play soccer or lacrosse or volleyball or what have you.”
Though a destination with a health and wellness component is one idea, McDermott said they also want to see what makes the most sense.
The Union, through its nonprofit foundation, is also working to strengthen ties with the community. The team recently hired Paul Howard as the foundation’s executive director.
Howard said he’s looking forward to working with community groups in Chester, as well as in the Philadelphia region as a whole.
“We need the support — and in fact, we’ll rely on the support and the expertise — of the community, of the people that are doing good out there already,” he said.
Big projects are lined up, Howard said. And they’ll use what was done to bring high school soccer back to Chester as a model for how they move forward with interacting with the community.
Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland is happy with the progress Chester has made in the last decade and with the city’s relationship with the soccer team. He said the city is heading in the right direction and termed the work “a labor of love.”
“It didn’t take us overnight to get in bad shape, and we knew it wouldn’t take overnight for us to get back to our heyday,” Kirkland said. “I feel great about our future; I feel great about our today.”
Aired on WHYY-FM Philadelphia and published to whyy.org on July 8, 2019