Will talks bear fruit?

The merchants of the Philadelphia Regional Produce Terminal want to stay in South Philly.

The politicians want the produce market to stay here.

But after months of negotiations, a real possibility lingers that it could skip across the river to New Jersey.

To keep the market here — along with thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue — the city and state will have to spend millions to build a replacement for the 44-year-old facility.

The management and merchants of the market, occupying the area around the 3300 block of South Galloway Street, say not only has their current space become too small, but its buildings are decrepit.

"The market has been falling down for a number of years," said Sonny DiCrecchio, the produce market’s general manager. He points in particular to the loading docks, which never were designed to handle the heavy cargo and traffic the market sees today.

The market was built on an old dump and some of the docks are sinking in the soft soil. Nothing can be done to permanently fix the problem, DiCrecchio said.

Since September, the general manager has participated in regular meetings with state Sen. Vince Fumo, representatives from the mayor’s and governor’s offices, state Rep. Bill Keller and city Commerce Director James Cuorato to discuss a solution that would keep the produce terminal in Philadelphia.

The latest proposal would relocate the fruit and vegetable vendors to a 70-acre site in the eastern portion of the Philadelphia Naval Business Center immediately south of Norfolk Southern’s intermodal property.

New Jersey officials, who have tried to lure away the market on-and-off since 1989, countered with 14 potential sites. The most attractive location, DiCrecchio said, is in Camden.

"This is a necessity for us if we want to stay in business and keep the fabric of the market together," DiCrecchio said. "We’re not saying we’re going to Jersey because your deal isn’t good enough for us. It’s the survival of the marketplace."

The regional produce terminal moved to South Philly from Dock Street in 1959 and became part of the new Food Distribution Center. The center was the first of its kind in the country.

About 80 percent of the market’s original tenants still do business there, DiCrecchio said. And the volume of business they do has grown steadily. Today the merchants collectively record $1 billion in sales annually and employ 1,100 people, added DiCrecchio.

Among the tenants is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which occupies 17 offices in the market, and the produce purchaser for the U.S. Army.

The produce market first sought the city’s help in refurbishing its environs two years ago, DiCrecchio said. The plan then was to rebuild the market on the existing site, but that proved impossible.

"We would have never actually survived the construction phase because of the business interruption," he said.

The produce market would fit perfectly in the old Navy Yard, DiCrecchio said. The access to Norfolk Southern’s rail line is especially attractive.

DiCrecchio envisions trains entering the site, unloading produce in a refrigerated area and then traveling via tunnel directly to the market.

"We get a lot of stuff by rail right now, but it’s not anywhere near what you could do," he said. Produce that arrives by train must be unloaded onto trucks to be taken to the terminal, which is expensive.

The new market would be 70 acres, compared to the current 24-acre site. It would be totally refrigerated, making it compliant with new government regulations. And Columbus Boulevard would be extended into the yard to provide more access.

Trucks would deposit produce at loading docks surrounding the perimeter of the building, while customers would enter the market through a central concourse connecting to each merchant. Shoppers now must share the docks with workers zipping around on motorized jacks. The new setup would be safer for customers. It also would allow for more parking for employees and customers.

A downside to the site is its lack of infrastructure. It would cost millions to build roads and install utility service.

The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. has been helping the produce market find a site. Vice president John Grady on Friday wouldn’t say it was almost a done deal.

"I don’t know that I want to characterize it any way," Grady said, "other than to say that we are continuing to work with them to develop a new terminal somewhere in South Philadelphia."

He did say the market site could coexist with a proposal to build a racetrack and slots casino in the Navy Yard.

A group called Philadelphia Trotters and Pacers Inc., led by Delaware River Port Authority Chairman Manny Stamatakis, has an agreement with PIDC on a 47-acre site southeast of the proposed market.

But plans for a track were dealt a blow last week when legislators drafted a budget that did not include legislation legalizing slot machines in racetracks. In the event the plans completely fall apart, Fumo suggested last week that the space be used for the expansion of the Food Distribution Center’s seafood market.

Fumo supports the plan to move the produce market to the Navy Yard, as does the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, said William B. McLaughlin 3d, PRPA’s director of government and pubic affairs.

DiCrecchio estimated it would take about three years to open a new market here or in New Jersey. Merchants are willing to wait three or four months for the city to finalize its proposal before they begin focusing on their options across the river, he said.

Philadelphia has a chance to build the prototype market for the rest of the country, DiCrecchio said.

"There is no one else who has plans like this in the works," he said. "They are all looking at us for the model."