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Goal for Chester: Supermarket of its Own

Posted on Fri, May 15, 2009
Philadelphia Daily News

SO, MAJOR League Soccer's newest team, Philadelphia Union, is getting an 18,500-seat home on the Chester waterfront. Big deal, says Adrian Singleton. She's not thinking about soccer. She's thinking about dinner. "I'm not going to be out there playing soccer," Singleton, 62, scoffed while puffing on a cigarette outside her 3rd Street home. "But I will eat." Too bad buying a pot roast means an out-of-town trip.

Even though Chester residents can test their luck on Harrah's slot machines and, next year, will be able to take in a soccer match without leaving town, the economically distressed city in Delaware County hasn't had a supermarket since 2001. Last year, the state allocated $47 million for the stadium project. Another $4 million was earmarked for a Chester grocery store, at Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland's insistence. Today, the stadium's being built off Route 291. The proposed site for the supermarket, at 15th Street and Highland Avenue, is a vacant field. Kathy White is tired of waiting - and of politicians' promises. "We need a market up in here!" the 49-year-old crossing guard said. "They should be doing that first." For years, residents have been clamoring for a full-service grocery. They're sick of traveling to Brookhaven or Eddystone - lugging food by bus if they don't have a car - and getting gouged by local mini-marts and bodegas. All we have is these mom-and-pop stores, and they charge us an arm and a leg," said Bob Miller, who lives across from where the supermarket would be built. That could be changing soon.

A Chadds Ford developer has signed an agreement of sale to purchase the 12.4-acre Highland Avenue site from the Chester Housing Authority and plans to build a retail shopping center that would be anchored by a supermarket of up to 40,000 square feet. Similar plans have failed in the past, but there is cautious optimism in Chester that this one will succeed. Michael Milone, managing director for developer Brandywine Financial, said that Collins Markets, which operates local ShopRite stores, is on board with the project. Brandywine is now trying to lock up the state and local funding. Without that, Milone said, the development wouldn't be profitable. "In our opinion, if we're able to secure sufficient funding, we will bring a grocer to Chester," Milone said. "We have an operator, and we need state funding to make it happen." Up to $4 million for the supermarket has been placed on the state's funding authorization list, but Gov. Rendell must ultimately decide whether it will be disbursed. Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said that no decision had been made. Collins Markets did not return a request for comment yesterday. U.S. District Judge Norma Shapiro, who oversees the Chester Housing Authority and has been a strong advocate for building a market in the city, said that she hopes to have some news by the end of next month. "Achieving something like this," Shapiro said, "is evidently infinitely complicated." That's almost an understatement.

Since West End Food Center closed in 2001, developers have been unable to find an operator willing to take a chance on Chester, a city of about 36,000 people with high crime and a per-capita yearly income of only $13,000. The city had several supermarkets decades ago, but it also had a population of 66,000 and plenty of manufacturing jobs on the waterfront. Chester's Community Grocery Co-op was formed in 2006, but it is open only two days a week and doesn't sell meats and other refrigerated goods.

In its current state, a location such as Chester is typically unattractive to grocers because of concerns over staffing and shoplifting. West End, which was at 9th and Booth streets, was plagued by shoplifters. Its owner hired off-duty cops to provide security, and shoppers were greeted by a sign that read "Free Ride in a Police Car If You Shoplift from This Store."

Paying for security raises costs, which could require a grocery store to boost prices, said David Livingston, a supermarket consultant who specializes in site-location analysis. That's a sensitive issue for a company serving a low-income, minority population. "Nobody likes to have to defend that," Livingston said. And closing an unprofitable store makes for bad press. "Operators are making conscious choices not to go there," Livingston said. Besides Rep. Kirkland, the latest proposal has the support of state Rep. Dwight Evans, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and was a driving force behind the state's Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a program to increase the number of supermarkets in underserved communities. "Those folks need and deserve to have a full-service grocery store," Evans spokeswoman Johnna Pro said of Chester residents. "If you build it, they will come." Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, Chester's former mayor, would have liked to see the store built years ago. "Frankly, I'm getting a little bit impatient with the inability of the developers of that site to put together a proposal for a bona fide supermarket," he said. Hang tight, Milone said. "It's very close now. We need to close the gap on funding, and I think we can move forward," he said. "It would be a great story for Chester." If it happens.

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