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By ESPN Staff

Pa. unveils funding plan for Chester soccer stadium

CHESTER, Pa. -- Gov. Ed Rendell unveiled a $47 million state funding package Thursday to aid in the construction of a soccer stadium in this Philadelphia suburb, the latest step in an effort to attract a Major League Soccer franchise.

Rendell and state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, announced the aid package a short distance from the the hilly, barren land that would be transformed by the $414 million project named "Rivertown."

In addition to the stadium, the plan calls for offices, stores and housing in the struggling waterfront city.

"I guarantee that Chester will be one of the first class cities in Pennsylvania," Rendell said.

In the package, $25 million would go toward the stadium and is contingent on MLS awarding a franchise. That money, combined with $30 million committed by Delaware County and the city of Chester, would go toward a planned 18,500-seat stadium on the banks of the Delaware River.

"This project, if done right, is a major league score for Chester," said Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, D-Delaware. "People from all walks of life and government have worked to make this come together.

"This brings a new sense of 'Chester Pride,' "he said.

The next step is to persuade the MLS to award a franchise to the area.

MLS commissioner Don Garber called Rendell's announcement "another very positive development" toward bringing a team to the area.

"The Philadelphia market just took a big step forward and is now well positioned to receive an MLS expansion team," Garber said in a statement. "The opportunity to be part of a large-scale urban renewal project along the historic Chester waterfront remains extremely appealing to us."

Garber said the league is eager to continue conversations with the potential ownership group.

Jay Sugarman, chief executive officer of the New York-based iStar Financial, heads the group of investors hoping to get the MLS to award its 16th team to the Philadelphia market. In addition to Sugarman, the investors include the owners of the Wilmington, Del.-based Buccini/Pollin Group, and James Nevels, founder of the Swarthmore Group and former chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission.

The St. Louis suburb of Collinsville is also in the running for the expansion team. Earlier this week, the Collinsville city council approved a tax-increment financing plan to fund a stadium.

The planned stadium and hoped-for franchise would be the latest boost for the long-downtrodden city of Chester. A slots casino opened in the city in January as part of a harness racing track.

"This announcement today is more exciting for the city, the county and the region," Pileggi, a former Chester mayor, said Thursday.

Major League Soccer, founded in 1996, currently has 14 teams. Its newest franchise in San Jose is scheduled to begin play this year and one in Seattle is expected to start play in 2009.