Strong Cities, Strong Communities City Profile
Janae Ladet and Joseph Schilling
Local Dynamics and Program Overview
Chester is a small city of less than 34,000 in southeastern Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia (US Census 2016). Once a major manufacturing center, Chester experienced significant population decline beginning in the 1960s with the loss of long-standing shipping and manufacturing industries. This population shift led to significant economic decline and increases in poverty and crime. At the time of Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2), Chester’s unemployment rate was 5.9 percent, and the median annual household income was $28,607 in 2010–14.1 The city also had one of the highest homicide rates in Pennsylvania (McCabe 2016).
Before SC2, Chester relied on traditional economic development strategies, such as the recruitment of a Harrah’s casino, a professional soccer stadium, and a major office building on the Delaware River. Chester’s economic past and future have been connected with its two anchor institutions, Widener University and the Crozer-Keystone Medical Center. Despite leveraging these assets, the city struggled to recruit and retain businesses and institutions to provide job opportunities for all of its residents and revitalize the local economy (Abt Associates 2014).
A change in city leadership in 2011 allowed the city to try new approaches to community and economic development. To address the city’s economic and public safety needs, in March 2012, Mayor John Linder shifted the focus of the city’s community revitalization strategy from business recruitment to human and social services.
Considering the city’s economic issues, the Chester Community Solutions Team (CST) was led by John Fleming from the regional office of the Economic Development Administration. Additionally, the Chester SC2 team leveraged its relationships with regional federal agency staff to work more closely with city officials and staff. A few team members continued their work in the region after the initial SC2 pilot (Abt Associates 2014, 65).
The Chester CST included 12 members from 10 federal agencies, including the US Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, and Transportation; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the Small Business Administration. Team members did not work from Chester but from the federal regional offices in Philadelphia or Washington, DC, and on part-time bases (Abt Associates 2014, 70). The team in Chester, the smallest city in the first SC2 cohort, worked directly with the mayor, who was deeply involved and committed to the initiative. The team also worked with other city officials and local partners, such as Temple University, Philabundance, Widener University, and the Healthy Chester Coalition, to address the city’s priority areas.
After the initial scoping phase of SC2, Mayor Linder, the SC2 team, and other city officials identified eight focus areas: “(1) Continuing economic diversification with a focus on retention, attraction, and creation of businesses and industries in the City of Chester; (2) reducing high vacancy rates and exploring opportunities for reuse; (3) reducing and preventing crime; (4) engaging with relevant stakeholders on education reform; (5) engaging with relevant stakeholders on access to health care; (6) supporting neighborhood redevelopment; (7) supporting workforce development to connect Chester residents with job opportunities; and (8) supporting city capacity development and identifying support from key local, regional, and state stakeholders” (Abt Associates 2014, 71).
The SC2 team supported various small-scale projects through technical assistance. For instance, team members helped secure Community Development Block Grant funds to demolish the Chester Arms Hotel, which was a dangerous hazard to residents. The SC2 team also helped connect senior leadership to training. The team also supported the creation of the Healthy Chester Coalition, a collection of nonprofits and faith-based organizations to advance Chester’s health goals (Abt Associates 2014, 73).
The two SC2 fellows were hosted and sponsored by Widener University but were assigned to work directly with the mayor and his team. One fellow developed a grants inventory and revamped the process to streamline the city’s ability to respond to government and philanthropic opportunities. He also developed a higher education strategy to find new ways for the city to engage and strengthen its relationship and partnership with Widener and other local universities. This fellow also worked with representatives from Department of Education to develop an education committee to spearhead local education initiatives.
In addition, he developed a Faith and Neighborhood Coalition to mobilize community members to create a shared vision and build local capacity by training local leaders. He also began building a coalition of business, government, and local leaders to create a platform for building public-private partnerships. The SC2 fellow also helped launch the Reentry Policy Council in partnership with the city and the state to create a system to support Chester citizens transitioning from incarceration.
The second SC2 fellow developed the plans for and engaged local stakeholders to create a special arts and culture district while revamping the city’s outdated zoning code.
One of the most inspiring privileges of being granted SC2 status in the city of Chester is the kinetic energy of self-governing in conjunction with capacity building and overarching sustainability plans.
—Former Mayor John Linder2
SC2 Projects and Initiatives
Working with the mayor, city officials, and their partners, the Chester CST and SC2 fellows engaged in various capacity-building and technical assistance activities to strengthen federal and local government relationships. These SC2 engagements were driven by the mayor’s identified priorities and collaborative SC2 work plan to facilitate economic growth within constrained local governments, a key goal of SC2. These federal-local collaborations involved trainings, workshops, consultations, and concrete policy and development projects supported with guidance and assistance from the CSTs, federal agencies, and resources. Each activity helped build trust and establish stronger partnerships with and between the city and the federal government and provided the city additional short-term capacities. Below, we highlight a few projects and products from the SC2 initiative in Chester.
- Downtown revitalization. The SC2 team worked with Temple University to create a downtown redevelopment plan in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency. The team coordinated pro bono services with graduate students at Temple’s planning program to help the city create a comprehensive plan for downtown redevelopment.
- General Services Administration and acquisition program. General Services Administration team members introduced the city to the agency’s acquisition program, allowing it to acquire new school equipment for Chester schools (including 60 low-cost computers for students) and four-wheel-drive vehicles for the city (Abt Associates 2014, 37).
- Technical assistance for a Department of Transportation grant. SC2 provided technical support to the city when it applied for a Transportation, Community, and System Preservation grant from the Department of Transportation. The city awarded $1 million to support planning, land-use, and green-building assessment activities for developing the transportation center and the historic central business district.
- Chester’s first local grocery store. SC2 teams worked with Philabundance, a nonprofit hunger relief organization, to open a large food bank with two local community development financial institutions: the Reinvestment Fund and the Nonprofit Finance Fund. The food bank opened in September 2012 and was a $4.5 million project (Abt Associates 2014, 37).
- Demolition of Chester Arms Hotel and redevelopment of surrounding area. SC2 mobilized policy experts and resources to fund the demolition of the long-abandoned Chester Arms Hotel to clear space for redevelopment of the downtown business corridor. In addition, the SC2 team coordinated no-cost urban planning services for Chester from the Temple University Center for Sustainable Communities to help the city plan for future development.
- Framework for the Chester Cultural Corridor. One of the SC2 fellows worked with the mayor to create an arts and cultural district linked to Deshong Park, an underutilized county-owned park. He also convened the Chester Cultural Corridor partnership that advocated for a cultural district. Finally, this SC2 fellow developed a new citywide zoning ordinance that helped implement a master plan, Chester 2020 Vision, and met the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code.3
- German Marshall Fund SC2 boot camps. As a companion activity through the SC2 Fellowship program, the German Marshall Fund organized two boot camps that focused on how the city could expand partnerships for community development, downtown revitalization strategies and tools, and grant management strategies.
Reports and Media
- HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Development), “White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Accomplishments in Chester, PA” (Washington, DC: HUD, 2014).
- Abt Associates, Evaluation of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Teams Pilot, Final Report (Bethesda, MD: Abt Associates, 2014).
- “SC2 Announcement in Chester, PA,” CCityBlogger, published July 11, 2011, YouTube.
2. HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Development), “White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Accomplishments in Chester, PA (Washington, DC: HUD, 2014).
Abt Associates. 2014. Evaluation of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Teams Pilot, Final Report. Bethesda, MD: Abt Associates.
McCabe, Caitlin, 2016. Chester has the highest homicide rate of any city in America. But only about a third of the killings ever get solved. The Philadelphia Inquirer.