Fixing the Fundamentals in Chester

Think you know where William Penn’s first landing spot was in Pennsylvania? You’re in good company if you guessed the Penn’s Landing site in today’s Center City Philadelphia … and you’d also be wrong. The distinction actually belongs to the City of Chester, on whose shores Pennsylvania’s founder first set foot before taking a barge trip 12 miles up the Delaware River to what would become the City of Brotherly Love.


While Chester can rightly lay claim to this historic first, getting credit is not top of mind for a city facing so many profound challenges. With the city’s population at half its 1950 peak of 66,000, a staggering 37 percent poverty rate, and official unemployment at 13 percent, the current appropriate focus in Chester is on fixing the basics.

As part of last month’s Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange, a group of regional leaders went beyond Chester’s harrowing indicators and witnessed first-hand some of the collaborative work being done to set the stage for the city’s renewal. In contrast with the five other Regional Explorations that took place across the Philadelphia area at the same time, this tour focused more on community fundamentals like access to healthy food, reducing crime, and provision of affordable housing, rather than World Class education and talent developmentbusiness growth, and infrastructure efforts.


A recent significant win in Chester has been the opening of the city’s first full-scale supermarket since 2001 via an innovative partnership between Philabundance and a host of philanthropic, public, and private sector funders. The addition provides a much-needed oasis for a community designated by the US Department of Agriculture as one of 35 “food deserts” across the region due to its poor access to fresh produce and healthy food offerings. The $7 million, 16,000 square foot Fare & Square Market, which offers prices 8 to 10 percent lower than corner stores in the community, has the distinction of being the first nonprofit grocery store of its kind in the U.S., with Philabundance expanding beyond donating food to serving as owner and operator of the store.


During our visit, Chester city officials also discussed their efforts to address other fundamental community needs, including public safety and housing for low-income residents. Mayor John Linder outlined how Chester is investing in better lighting and camera technology to deter crime throughout the city after studying the efforts of similar small cities tackling public safety challenges. Exchange participants also heard from city economic development officials about the challenges of converting an old housing stock dating to Chester’s 19th century shipbuilding heyday to modern-day affordable housing.


With available public and private resources to address Chester’s many challenges in limited supply, in 2011 the federal government selected it as one of six pilot sites for a new model of federal-local collaboration through the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) initiative. Among other efforts, members of the federal SC2 team collaborated with city officials to secure a $1 million Transportation, Community, and System Preservation Program grant from the US Department of Transportation. These funds helped support planning efforts focused on developing the city’s transportation center and renewing its historic central business district.

The hope is that the kind of collaboration encouraged by the SC2 pilot will be lasting. Regardless of whether that truly comes to pass, Chester’s anchor institutions are there for the long haul and, understandably, are front-and-center in planning and investments around the city’s renewal. Widener University and Crozer-Chester Medical Centers have led the way on local anchor institution leadership for a better Chester.


But notably missing from the current leadership mix are major businesses, which in part is indicative of the city’s challenges in rebuilding its economic base. PPL Park and Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino and Racetrack (conspicuously rebranded as Harrah’s Philadelphia a few years back from the original Harrah’s Chester name) have brought some job growth and additional revenue to the city, though a committed business leader in parallel with Widener President Jim Harris and Crozer-Chester President and CEO Patrick Gavin has yet to emerge. Such an addition might round out a core team of leaders who can help bring this historic city to a new era of prosperity.