Politicians start picking sides on a controversial Germantown development

The $14 million Chelten Plaza development under construction at Chelten and Pulaski avenues has split parts of the community into separate camps. Now, local politicians are beginning to fall in line.

Developer Pat Burns, who is also the president of the Fresh Grocer supermarket chain, is known for his strong political ties. Late last year he even met First Lady Michelle Obama who toured one of his new markets near Temple University and called it an ally in the fight against childhood obesity because it provides fresh foods to inner city families.

At the 2009 opening of Burns’ development across from LaSalle University in East Germantown, local politicians lined up in the pristine produce section of the Fresh Grocer there to highlight their connections to the project and speak about the battle for inner city food access.

State Representatives Dwight Evans (D., 203rd) and John Myers (D., 201st), state Senators Shirley Kitchen (D., 3rd) and Leanna Washington (D., 4th) and Eighth District City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller expressed strong support for the La Salle Fresh Grocer.

So far, the Chelten Plaza project does not seem to have quite so many endorsements.

“[Burns], he deviated from the original purpose of the project,” said state Representative Rosita Youngblood (D., 198th) about Chelten Plaza. Youngblood is convinced Burns got state funding for the development in part by selling the idea of a full service Fresh Grocer on the site, like at Temple and La Salle. “And now to say all he can do is Save-A-Lot is not okay.”

The Chelten Plaza plan calls for using $3 million in state funds plus $11 million in private  investment to build a strip mall anchored by two discount, limited service chain stores – a Save-A-Lot and a Dollar Tree, in addition to several other stores.

Many local residents are deeply opposed to the project believing that with the state funds should come higher quality stores – like a new Fresh Grocer, some have suggested. Many people have also strongly opposed the dollar store.

Youngblood says she was never made aware of the project, which sits squarely in her district, until the day in February an old Fresh Grocer market closed on the site. And that state approval of $3 million in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funds for Chelten Plaza went through behind her back, she has said.

Learning lessons

Youngblood has pledged to stop the development, and she is working on legislation to tighten oversight on RACP funds for future pojects.

“My concern is that we want to make sure our tax dollars are appropriated properly,” she said.

In an effort to prevent misuse of RACP funding in the future, Rep Youngblood says she plans on introducing legislation this fall. Some provisions could include giving legislators access to a list of past projects by the developer during the application stage, and additional regulations to ensure community support for the project.

Bill Thomas, executive director of the Gaming Oversight Committee, and one of Youngblood’s staff explained the point is not to punish developers.

“We don’t want to hamstring developers who are doing good in communities,” he said. Thomas said the goal is for more accountability in the process before and after funds are approved.

In RACP regulations, once the money has been released to an applicant, there are few clear “clawback” provisions to retrieve the funds, according to Susan Hooper, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Office of the Budget. Though Hooper said funds can be denied if there is no construction, lack of matching funds, or lack of tenants.

As of July 6, the Pennsylvania State Treasury Department confirmed that no payments of the $3 million dollar grant have been released to the Chelten Plaza project.

Pat Burns has maintained that his development was never a bait and switch. He said he looked at the possibility of a Fresh Grocer for the site, but a market study convinced him the store would not make money there. And the RACP grants never required him to build a new Fresh Grocer on the site – just some form of economic development, he has said.

Poly politicians

One of Burns’ biggest supporters over the years has been former Chair of the Pennsylvania House Appropriations Committee, Dwight Evans. Burns has made significant financial campaign contributions to Evans over the past five years. Evans shepherded funding for both Germantown projects through the state House.

In 2009 other local politicians characterized Evans as the “spark plug” for the La Salle Fresh Grocer project. Evans did not respond to requests for comment on Chelten Plaza.

Outgoing Eighth District City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller has also had an unclear role in the Chelten Plaza project. Miller met with Burns about the development last summer, and through a spokesperson, she admitted knowing that the old Fresh Grocer on the site would be closing, though many community members and other local politicians say to them the Fresh Grocer closing, and the whole Chelten Plaza project was a surprise.

In that meeting Burns has said Miller knew about his plans to replace a Fresh Grocer with a Save-A-Lot. Miller spokesperson Michael Quintero Moore said Miller told Burns it was a “bad idea.” Miller has apparently taken no steps to oppose the development, however.

“She played NO part in this,” said Moore in a recent email to NewsWorks.  Miller has not responded to requests for further comment.

Negotiations

Most politicians in the area support the neighborhood group, Germantown Community Connection, in its ongoing negotiations with Burns.

Miller’s likely successor, Cindy Bass, the Democratic nominee for the Eighth District City Council seat said in a recent phone interview that she was not happy with the first architectural renderings of the project but she plans to be a part of the negotiation process between the community and Burns. She attended GCC’s Ad Hoc committee meeting on June 15 as an invited guest.

After that meeting Bass said she felt positive about a recent GCC proposal to develop a community agreement contract with Burns, but maintains that nothing had been decided yet.

“It’s not a done deal, just some movement forward,” she said “Based on my observations he [Burns] and GCC have a good working relationship.”

Bass said the idea of exploring a new Germantown food cooperative on the site similar to Weavers Way was very exciting to her. She said she is willing to “bring any resources I have access to” in support of that effort.

Ideally Bass said she would like to see the Save-A-Lot and coop in the same complex explaining that the combination could be a good fit to Germantown’s diversity.

Despite her presence at the negotiating table, Bass said she is willing to hear concerns from dissenting residents about the project.

For the primary election Bass took a leave of absence from her position as the Senior Policy Advisor on Urban and Domestic Policy to U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah. In the fall she will vacate that position if she wins the Council seat. In a recent interview, Fattah said he has had no role in the Chelten Plaza development.

State Representative John Myers‘ (D., 201st) chief of staff, Stephen Kinsey said his boss’ office is following the issue closely, but it is happy to work primarily through Germantown Community Connection.

For some residents, Kinsey said, he thought there may not be a strong objection to the Save-A-Lot as long as it brings jobs to the neighborhood.

Despite being a supporter of the La Salle Fresh Grocer, Senator Shirley Kitchen says she has not been involved with the Chelten and Pulaski site. When asked about community responses to the project she explained that her office has received only a few communications.

“I received five letters, all not in favor,” she said, during a recent phone interview.

Kitchen continued saying that she would not support a project that residents don’t want to see in Germantown but she doesn’t want to be anti-development.

After the state budget is settled, Kitchen said she would look into Chelten Plaza – she hoped for a compromise.

“If we work hard enough it can be a win-win situation,” she said.

State Senator Leanna Washington could not be reached for comment.

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