‘Love,’ ‘boo-boos’ and Main Street: Chester Mayor Stefan Roots unveils plan for bankrupt city’s economic resurrection

Mayor Roots said the city must leverage its position as a college town to re-establish its commercial district.

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Stefan Roots

Chester Mayor Stefan Roots walks out of Widener University's Lathem Hall following the state of the city address. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

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Is love enough of a motivator to bring the city of Chester’s economy back from the dead?

First-term Chester Mayor Stefan Roots seems to think so.

Roots used the words 16 times Tuesday morning when relaying his vision for the city to regional business leaders.

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“I love to see what Chester is becoming and today when I’m finished,” Roots said. “My objective is that you all love it, too.

With Chester trudging through bankruptcy proceedings, Roots took to Widener University’s campus to deliver his state of the city address to the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re looking to further develop ‘Main Street’ or what we call Avenue of the States and the waterfront district,” Roots said. “We’re attracting businesses and increasing workforce development and improving our housing stock and green spaces.”

Roots said Chester must leverage its positions as a college town, host city for the Philadelphia Union and hub for regional medicine at Crozer Health to attract visitors to its downtown businesses.

“They need to be able to stop downtown, get something to eat, let their hair down, relax and get to know the community,” Roots said.

Nearly 75% of Chester households are renters, according to Roots. He said building and renovating an attainable housing stock is key to fiscal recovery.

Roots pledged to clean up the city, address a longstanding illegal dumping problem, and grow out Chester’s street tree canopy. He said businesses should look to get in on the ground floor.

“Believe me. Trust me. Write this down,” Roots said. “Chester has brighter days ahead. But we need your partnership to make it happen.”

‘It hasn’t been a perfect six months’: Acknowledging ‘boo-boos’ and ‘mistakes’

Roots took the chamber of commerce through a history lesson, breaking down the city’s decades-long fiscal emergency, subsequent receivership and ongoing bankruptcy.

Chester’s state-appointed receiver Michael Doweary is currently determining a plan to repay the city’s debtors. While the process is underway, Roots said he’s spent the past six months reorganizing city government — and making it more transparent.

“We’ve created council committees, something we’ve never had before, and what those committees do is like they do in most municipalities: they focus on particular interests,” Roots said. “It’s a refreshing new opportunity to get council people and residents and stakeholders more engaged in the legislative process.”

Roots said his new focus is now on the authorities that work quasi-independently from city hall. In recent months, both the Chester Housing Authority and the Stormwater Authority for the City of Chester have been embroiled in controversy.

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Roots said the problems also extend to his own administration. He also acknowledged that despite the high temperatures, the city pool is still not open.

“It hasn’t been a perfect six months,” Roots said. “We’ve made some boo-boos. We’ve made some mistakes.”

In terms of specific projects, Roots was light on dates and details. However, his vision of working in tandem with Widener was well received by University President Dr. Stacey Robertson.

“We are so delighted to work with the mayor, his entire council and all of Chester,” Robertson said. “And we will continue that relationship, because we understand that we will all rise together. And we all have so much pride in this city.”

Leonard Lightner, Stefan Roots and Trish McFarland answer questions in an auditorium
Chester Chief of Staff Leonard Lightner, Chester Mayor Stefan Roots and Delaware County Chamber of Commerce President Trish McFarland answer questions from the audience. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

Delaware County Chamber of Commerce president: ‘Success looks like us working hand-in-hand together’

The Delaware County Chamber of Commerce has hosted Chester’s annual mayoral address for over 20 years.

Trish McFarland, president of the organization, said she enjoyed Roots’ commitment to transparency.

“Stefan and his team really have an energy and a passion for bringing business back here in the city of Chester,” McFarland said.

Moving forward, McFarland hopes the relationship becomes more coordinated.

“We don’t want to make it hard for the city to find the businesses that are coming here, and we don’t want to make it hard for the businesses to get the opportunity to knock on the door and say ‘I have this great great plan,’” McFarland said. “So, success looks like us working hand-in-hand together to really make this city great.”

Both McFarland and Roots likened Chester’s pathway to success to Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. She said relying on the waterfront is a key ingredient for success.

“I really just hope that people are hearing that the mayor and his team are open to new opportunities, and they want to hear from the businesses that are ready and willing to invest,” McFarland said.

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