Monday, November 1, 2010

Coatesville sees cycle track on parcel

"For six years, a parade of developers has systematically dashed Coatesville's revitalization hopes for a centerpiece tract known as "the flats."

Proposals for the approximately 25-acre property at Lincoln Highway and Route 82 have included condos, a lumberyard, a power plant, and a grocery store, all of which produced dead ends for the struggling former steel hub.

Now on the table is the East Coast's first indoor cycling velodrome.

Last month, the proposal generated an uncommon response from the public at a City Council meeting: hearty applause.

The equally enthusiastic council unanimously approved a 90-day purchase-option agreement for a National Velodrome and Events Center on the tract, part of which hugs Brandywine Creek.

The Velodrome Management Group wants to build a 200-meter, banked track in a 100,000-square-foot arena that would also serve as a cycling training center and a venue for concerts and other sporting events.

The promoters include David Chauner, an Olympic cyclist known for bringing the Philadelphia International Championship to Manayunk's now-famous "Wall."

"The sport is exploding," Chauner told the Coatesville audience.

The closest velodrome is in Lehigh County's Trexlertown; however, because it lacks a roof, it is a seasonal operation.

"I think it is absolutely the coolest thing to come along since I've been involved with the RDA," said Patrick C. O'Donnell, solicitor for the city's Redevelopment Authority.

The authority bought the land in 2004 for $1.7 million when the G.O. Carlson steel plant closed. Across Lincoln Highway, ArcelorMittal, a steel company based in Luxembourg, employs about 800 workers at what was the vast empire of Lukens Steel, whose workforce once exceeded 6,000.

"It doesn't conflict with the steel plant and could give the city international recognition," O'Donnell said. "Who knows? Coatesville could produce the next Tour de France winner."

He cautioned that the proposal was far from a done deal. During the 90 days of the purchase-option agreement, the buyers will need to come up with conditions and a purchase price agreeable to the city. In addition, several of the acres lie in Valley Township, and parts of the plan also require approval there, O'Donnell said.

The velodrome proposal's history reinforces the speed bumps that could lie ahead.

For starters, Coatesville rejected the same project in February 2006, when the city was reeling from a failed golf-course plan. The unpopular proposal was so audacious in its quest to seize a family homestead in a contiguous municipality that it garnered national headlines.

By November 2006, the velodrome's promoters had settled on a location in Montgomery County's Lower Providence Township. But funding woes derailed the project.

In August, the promoters had productive discussions with Caln Township, a Coatesville neighbor, but failed to strike a deal.

In an interview last week, Chauner, who also heads the Pro Cycling Tour, a cycling and marketing event management company, said he was optimistic that an agreement could be negotiated in Coatesville.

"We're a lot further along than we've been before, and we have a solid financial partner," he said. "We don't envision any insurmountable problems."

Chauner credited Crosby Wood, the financial backer, with bringing the project back to the city.

Wood, a principal in Wilson Wood L.L.C., a private equity firm, told the City Council that he also runs a real estate company that has been buying property in the city and is committed to its rebirth.

USA Cycling, the national governing body for the sport, listed 2,611 licensed racers in Pennsylvania in 2010 and 69,000 nationwide, said Andrea Smith, a spokeswoman for the group.

David Mitchell, president of the Pennsylvania Cycling Association, the state affiliate of USA Cycling, said he believed that the Coatesville facility would be welcomed, and that the region could support two velodromes.

Ron Ruggiero, a 25-year cyclist, who heads the Tri-State Velo Cycling Team.

"It's a very good thing," he said, stressing the benefits of youth training. "Really great riders have come out of the track programs in Lehigh County." His only gripe? "I wish it were closer to Philadelphia."

"I think everyone agrees it's a good thing," Mitchell said. "It would continue to grow the sport."

Chauner estimated annual revenue for the projected $15 million project at $3.5 million to $4 million. He said that 50 to 100 jobs would be created in addition to the construction crews, and that the project would draw ancillary businesses such as bike shops and physical-therapy centers.

The center would have 2,200 permanent seats, and could add 1,500 to the infield - the area inside the track - for non-cycling events, Chauner said. Cycling demands would fill 103 evenings a year, leaving plenty of time for other activities, he said.

Unlike the failed proposals for the site, the velodrome would be a "destination" facility, Chauner said. "People will come to Coatesville specifically for this," he said.

Mitchell agreed, saying he continues to be amazed at how far people travel to Trexlertown, citing one group that rode nine hours from North Carolina for a race.

Chauner recalled how publisher Bob Rodale decades ago sought his help in building the Trexlertown facility, which at the time was dubbed Rodale's "white elephant."

Within three years, they created "the best outdoor velodrome in the world," Chauner said. "To this day, Lehigh County points to it as one of their best attractions."

City Council President Ed Simpson said he remembered being excited by the proposal the first time around.

"I'm just as excited now," he said."

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