Fishtown's casino backers

A group in favor of SugarHouse emerges.

Posted: July 16, 2007

The SugarHouse casino is sprinkling sweets all over Fishtown.

Little League baseball players have new jerseys - thanks to SugarHouse.

A struggling Catholic school got $10,000 from the casino company for a "Monte Carlo" night fund-raiser.

Senior citizens heard a swing band concert last month, while the sidewalks around the old Palmer cemetery got a steam cleaning before a parade - compliments of SugarHouse.

"It's great that they want to be a good neighbor, and the way to be a good neighbor is to throw their money around, as far as I'm concerned," said Donna Tomlinson, a Fishtown mother of two who welcomes the casino.

Joanne Sherman couldn't disagree more.

"I sent an e-mail to Cardinal [Justin] Rigali, saying, 'What's going on here?' " said Sherman, a Catholic grandmother who also grew up in Fishtown and is fighting to stop the casino project. "I was boiling inside when I heard the Catholic church accepted money."

Debate over casinos is turning into a rumble in Fishtown, a river ward of about 22,000 people that has long felt ignored by downtown powers.

It's a tight community that has endured a lot - the closing of a beloved parish school; the scourge of drugs, most notably OxyContin; a dearth of good-paying work for young graduates.

Now comes the arrival of one of the city's two casinos - the SugarHouse project planned for 22 acres of derelict waterfront land at Delaware and Frankford Avenues.

Up and down the waterfront - from Pennsport and Whitman in the far end of South Philadelphia, up through Queen Village, Society Hill, Old City and Northern Liberties - most residents are opposed to having casinos built so close to their homes. Earlier this year, an alliance of community groups pledged not to negotiate with casino operators while there was pending litigation to stop the projects.

Meanwhile, City Councilman Frank DiCicco, who represents most of this area, has introduced a bill to keep casinos at least 1,500 feet from houses, churches, schools and playgrounds.

But the people of Fishtown are more at odds over casinos. A group of neighbors has broken from the main community organization and now vocally supports SugarHouse.

"You have a community split right down the middle," said State Rep. Michael O'Brien (D., Phila.), who represents Fishtown.

The neighbors who started Fishtown Action (FACT) earlier this year say they want to see casino jobs, as well as a revitalization of vacant waterfront land. And they welcome the prospect of a powerful corporate neighbor with clout and money to bring to Fishtown.

"The casino would be a big voice to help us get the services we deserve," said Dolores Griffith, a teacher and mother of two who lives a few blocks from the SugarHouse site.

Donna Tomlinson, another cofounder of FACT, said the group has 300 members. She said it was started because there was no way to hear "the other side of the story."

Members of FACT have invited casino executives into their living rooms to answer questions about the project. They have suggested ways for the company to donate money. And they have encouraged a resumption of talks to arrive at an official "Community Benefits Agreement" to establish a special-services district around the casino.

"They've picked up the ball," said Ken Snyder, a spokesman for SugarHouse.

Snyder said the company would donate at least $1 million a year to surrounding neighborhood groups to spend as they please - "no strings attached."

Other community groups now are feeling pressure to resume talks with casino operators - especially with a pending zoning bill in City Council that could pave the way for SugarHouse to begin construction in the fall.

The Fishtown Neighbors Association (FNA) agreed two weeks ago to resume contact with the company, but from a far different starting point.

The number-one "guiding principle" to any talks will still be to relocate the casino, said A.J. Thomson, a Fishtown lawyer and FNA vice president.

"It's an important priority for us," Thomson said. "Let's ask them to move to a place where it won't be so bad."

An alliance of groups from riverfront neighborhoods, including FNA, has a list of 86 concerns - from handling traffic to bolstering public safety. "We want to see each issue addressed by operators," Thomson said.

O'Brien, the state representative, said the SugarHouse casino has to deal with the reality that it's literally moving across the street from where people already live.

Said O'Brien, "You tell me how Charlie Hocker goes to sleep in a dark bedroom and we have no problem."

Hocker is 86 years old - all of them spent in Fishtown. With a house just across the street, he will be eye-to-eye with SugarHouse.

For 33 years, Hocker walked to work at the former Jack Frost sugar refinery. He raised a family on East Allen Street. Today, his daughter, granddaughter and great-grandson live a few doors away.

Hocker and his family bitterly recall what it was like when there were nightclubs next door on Delaware Avenue. His daughter, Joanne Sherman, said nightclub patrons would urinate against walls, fornicate in public view, and park illegally.

"I'm not against casinos," Hocker said. "But I don't want it in front of my house."

So who will speak for Fishtown?

Snyder, the casino's spokesman, said community negotiations could restart in a week or so. He said he "wouldn't presume" to have negotiations without the pro-casino group.

Snyder added that "technically" SugarHouse does not need a Community Benefits Agreement to move forward.

That may be, said Jethro Heiko, an anti-casino activist who belongs to FNA and lives across from the proposed site. "But legally, we're not bound to sit back and take it.

"This isn't about getting from here to groundbreaking," he said. "If they don't address the problems, their business won't be successful."


Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.

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