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Supermarket deal is close, but Pileggi demanding details

November 25-December 1, 2009
Chester Spirit
By Mark J. Miller and Paul A. Bennett

State Representative Thaddeus Kirkland blames Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi for holding up funding for the construction of a Chester supermarket. Pileggi concedes that’s true. According to Erik Arenson, spokesman for Pileggi; the senator requested information from Brandywine Real Estate Management Services Corp, the Chadds Ford-based developer, to address the scope of the project, plans and information about the market’s long term sustainability in order to determine if it is prudent to use taxpayers’ money on the project.

On Monday, the senator’s office in Glen Mills received a partial response to his request from Brandywine, but according to Arneson, it is likely that more information will need to be provided before the senator will sign off.

Arneson acknowledged that Gov. Edward G. Rendell and state House Democrats have allocated money for the project and have said they are willing to release it, but he said the information reached this week was the first substantial information ever sent to Pileggi from Brandywine.

Another source with firsthand information about the closed-door dealings, said Pileggi is concerned about the overall integrity of the deal and “is tired” of these people raping the people of Chester and state taxpayers. He’s concerned about the money and how much is going to whom for what purpose. Nobody’s talking about that.

Bob Rosenberg, president of the Rosenberg Housing Group who serves as the federal court-appointed judicial administrator for the Chester Housing Authority (CHA), told the Chester Spirit from his New York City office this week that the development project on Highland Avenue is estimated to cost approximately $20 million and is too expensive to build without a significant public subsidy. Kirkland said a total of $6.5 million has been approved by the House, the Senate and the governor for the project.

Rosenberg said most of the continued delay has been, in large part, the difficulty Brandywine has had finding a supermarket owner willing to come to Chester because of the project’s location in a low-income area and the continuing picture of a city awash in crime and lawlessness portrayed in the media. He said the worsening condition of the national economy further contributed. Rosenberg said, to make the deal happen, however, and to lessen the financial burden on Brandywine, the CHA has dropped its demand that Brandywine buy the land for $2.8 million and still spend money building the stores. Instead, he said, CHA will give the developer a long term lease for the land with what he said would be “fair rent.” Brandywine would still build the stores, secure the retail tenants and hold the individual leases, but CHA would retain ownership of the land, under contract with Brandywine, provide the security.

Rosenberg said he, too, received the information Pileggi just received from Brandywine and also had some reservations and questions, but felt that any sticking points where “negotiable.”

In a meeting last Friday night at the Chester Fine Arts Center, residents met to hear from Mayor Wendell N. Butler, Jr., CHA Executive Director Steven Fischer, Brandywine Vice President Eric Moore and Kirkland.

Fischer, who has spend the better part of a decade working on this project, told the large gathering that now was the “closest we have ever come to getting this project done. The developer is ready to start, the market is willing to come and the state money is ready and enough to make it work.

Butler also acknowledged Fischer’s assertion and countered accusations that he has not done enough to push the market forward. He said he supported the Keystone Opportunity Zone designation for the sight to attract a developer and the market was one of the reasons he supported the construction of Wellington Heights.

Moore said his sole goal is to bring a full service grocery store to Chester. He said he has worked extensively with Butler, Pileggi, Kirkland, Fischer and the state to make it a reality. He displayed a schematic of the development sight, anchored by the 35,000-40,000 square foot food store accompanied by smaller rental parcels for other retail stores. He named Ross and A.J. Wright as potential tenants, garnering mild applause from the audience. “Brandywine has put a lot of money and time into this project,” he said, but offered no specific or amounts.

“From a timing standpoint we are in final negotiations; we are just waiting on financing,” said Moore.

Kirkland offered copies of a House bill (Act 41 of 2008) as a handout showing allocations of $5 million for downtown revitalization, $45 million for the Chester Waterfront, $18 million additional dollars for the waterfront infrastructure work, $250,000 for University Crossings, an additional $6 million for other related projects and then pointed to the unspent $6.5 million allocated for the supermarket.

“It is going to take the community to get us over the hump,” said Kirkland. “The senator is concerned about whether this is what the taxpayers want,” he continued, “I would never have supported the stadium without the supermarket.”

Before any of the $47 million in public money allocated for the $115 million stadium project was released, the owners of the soccer team spend $20 million of their own funds to clean-up the soil and begin the project.

Moore did not return calls as of press time to respond to specific questions about how much Brandywine has spent to date on the project or to provide a timeline for when the project would be completed once the public money is released.

A source who has been intricately involved in the supermarket project for a number of years indicated that if this project was ever completed, the true nature of how it was accomplished may never be known.