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Political Incompetence May Ruin Plans For New Philly Market

If you wake up one day to news that the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market is in New Jersey or that the biggest players gave up on the market all together and built their own facilities in New Jersey, you can blame Philadelphia and Pennsylvania politicians.

They have pulled the rug out from under the Philly produce community so many times they may yet learn that men are not meat; the more you pound them, the tougher they get.

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a piece, Produce Market’s 4th Plan to Expand, which put it this way:

The third time certainly wasn’t charmed.

In May, after two years of strong support from Gov. Rendell and State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.), the governor canceled plans to move the market to the Navy Yard in the face of rising costs and protests from labor unions eager for that land to be used for port expansion….

Three times, the busy market, fed by a steady stream of 18-wheelers from farms across the nation, has developed plans for a new site, only to be told by public officials to try another site.

Now, time truly is running out, said Sonny DiCrecchio, the market’s general manager. The big merchants in the market are losing business because they cannot expand. Another long delay could force these members to break away from the market.

An increasing number of the market’s customers are already insisting that new post-9/11 security and cold-storage standards be met. At some point, DiCrecchio said, these standards will be imposed by the federal government.

The larger members of the market would probably move to New Jersey, DiCrecchio said, because most sites that could meet their needs are there.

Losing the biggest members could lead to the breakup of the market, he added….

The chronic delays in building new quarters have left members of the market fuming. “If there were other options, the members would probably say ‘explore them first,’ but there aren’t,” DiCrecchio said.

As politicians have moved the project from site to site, a package of tax breaks designed to help defray the cost has expired, and construction costs have risen….

When its need for a larger and more modern terminal became critical five years ago, city and state officials proposed a series of expansion sites — two at the old Philadelphia Naval Base, now called the Navy Yard, and the Pier 98 annex on Columbus Boulevard. Each time the market got close to building, officials moved the discussion to a different site.

Now the latest plan involves getting Sysco to move its facility to a new location and have the terminal market expand.

It is a solution fraught with problems. The proposed new site for Sysco is coveted by port operations and meeting fierce resistance from the longshoreman’s union which means it could get tied up in litigation or politics for years.

Besides the Sysco facility is too small:

The new proposed plan is smaller than what was envisioned at the three other sites. The first feature to get cut was a wide central concourse to let customers more conveniently visit all 35 merchants. Under the latest plan, customers would have to shop around the perimeter of the market. Also, some products will have to be shuttled from cold storage at the nearby existing site.

It smacks of the development practice for the Hunts Point Market in New York, it opened in 1967 after a half century of planning and the joke whispered at the opening was that it was “The newest antiquated market in the world.”

In an age in which politicians hyperventilate about global warming how can they propose a solution that will require shuttling produce?

The political incompetence may lead to the loss of Sysco as well, as another piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer, with the title Regional Produce Market, Sysco May Have to Leave Philadelphia to Grow details:

The Philadelphia Regional Produce Market has been trying for six years to get growing room. Bill Tubb, the local chief executive of Sysco Corp., the big restaurant-supply firm, says he can top that.

His company has been working for nine years to get a larger site in Philadelphia, and is about ready to move to New Jersey if it cannot do so.

Both enterprises have identified South Philadelphia sites that would work, and both are at the mercy of warring political and business forces.

They employ a total of 1,600 people — 500 at Sysco and 1,100 at the produce market. If they were able to expand, they say they would hire several hundred more.

“We want to stay in Philadelphia,” Tubb said, because his employees and customers are used to the South Philadelphia location. In May, it appeared that a new facility would be under construction by now, but a threatened lawsuit from maritime interests could cause a lengthy delay.

Tubb said his bosses in Houston were telling him that, if he could not get a deal soon, he should move to a site that would work in West Deptford, Gloucester County.

Sysco desperately needs a new facility:

Sysco’s space constraints have stunted its growth in Philadelphia, Tubb said.

Its operation on Packer Avenue, near the sports complex, is a 30-acre hodgepodge of temporary structures and old buildings dating back 46 years. It handles 1,000 fewer items than the company’s locations in other cities, and it is costly and inefficient to operate, Tubb said.

But Sysco says there are few options in Philadelphia:

“There’s only one site in Philadelphia that will work,” he said. That is the 50-acre Pier 98 Annex, across Columbus Boulevard from the Delaware River. “The company wants 50 acres. It can’t build one of our modern centers on less than 45 acres,” he said.

Sysco is playing up its importing activities and its role in supplying US troops overseas to persuade opponents that it could add business to the port. It won’t be easy to make the deal happen:

Port interests have told all the parties involved that they will file a lawsuit soon after Labor Day to block putting Sysco on the Pier 98 site, owned by the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, a state agency. Although now used only occasionally, they say it is needed for future port expansion.

We actually understand port interests being territorial, they can’t move the port and once nearby land is taken, it becomes unavailable for port expansion. The problem is why the government doesn’t step up to the plate and make sure this business that wants to expand has a way to do so.

The root of the problem is that the politicians don’t really understand what a terminal market is or what it does. This effort to move the market is not principally about helping 35 produce wholesalers and Sysco, it is really an effort to help boost urban vibrancy and rural prosperity.

What makes a city interesting, pulsing with life are unique shops and restaurants. Whereas large chains can build their own distribution facilities, smaller operations depend on public facilities — such as a terminal market. So building a new market is a way of boosting the vibrancy of Philadelphia. It means that entrepreneurs who operate independent restaurants and retail food stores will have the infrastructure to successfully compete for business. These successful businesses give a city its unique character and maintain it as a destination for tourists, for new urban homesteading and as a desirable locale for office workers.

Simultaneously with maintaining a vibrant urban milieu a strong terminal market helps maintain rural viability by providing an outlet for farmers. As big as supermarkets get, the way supermarket chains interact with growers is fundamentally different from the way a terminal market interacts. Supermarket chains buy what they need — the size, the variety, the quality is all set independently of what growers actually grow.

A terminal market, of course, carries a full range of what buyers need but it also helps growers sell what they need to sell. In many ways the viability of rural areas can depend on the ability of the farmer to maximize returns on what the chains do not want to buy. Mother Nature doesn’t only grow the size, the grade, the variety that big chains like to buy. So a bustling terminal market in downtown Philly is a source of sustenance for rural communities, for open space near urban centers, for family farms and local growers.

To properly serve this role, however, requires a new facility.

The irony is that the root of the current problem is that in 2000 the city and state took 85 acres from the Food Distribution Center to build a new baseball stadium, so all the market is asking for is help getting back a contiguous facility such as what it had before.

The Merchant Community in Philadelphia is dedicated to the city and the state, the merchants seem inclined to try and make this Sysco deal work even though it really leaves them with less space than they need.

The politicos better move fast, we think Camden is looking pretty good right now.

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