Ronnie Polaneczky: SugarHouse plan mucked by pols after the FACT

Posted: October 15, 2009

THE MEMBERS of Fishtown Action have one question for Mike O'Brien and Larry Farnese:

"Why are you mucking with our hard work?"

Where's the respect from their state representative and senator for the 14 months that Fishtown Action - FACT, for short - spent hammering out a community-benefits agreement (CBA) with SugarHouse casino?

Members of FACT - a 700-member, pro-casino group comprising Fishtown, Northern Liberties, Port Richmond and New Kensington residents - also wrangled with SugarHouse over the creation of the new Penn Treaty Special Services District. The district's job is to funnel into neighborhood projects the annual up-to-$1.5 million contribution that FACT got from the casino in the CBA.

While anti-casino forces in the city were trying to put the casino genie back in the bottle, FACT regarded (accurately, it turned out) slots as an inevitable reality and believed that SugarHouse eventually would build its gambling mecca on the Fishtown riverfront.

FACT figured that if it didn't extract promises from SugarHouse before construction began, it would have no leverage to get anything for the neighborhood afterward.

Smart thinking.

Too bad that it took 11th-hour anticipation of the SugarHouse groundbreaking to wake O'Brien to the fact that - hey! didja hear? - there was community money to be had in gambling.

In the past week, O'Brien floated an amendment to the state's gaming laws that basically asks for the kind of money and special-services districts that FACT nailed down tight nearly a year ago. Farnese, initially, sure didn't seem to mind.

Problem is, the amendment could a) divert elsewhere the money that FACT worked so hard to score from SugarHouse, and b) add a dangerously Fumo-esque layer of politics over how the money is doled out.

Both O'Brien and Farnese have tinkered in recent days with the amendment's language, in response to backlash that they would've known was coming if they'd kept in closer touch with FACT members (whose pro-Fishtown-casino stance appears to have negated their status as constituents worthy of attention from these guys in the first place).

"It's disgusting," seethes Maggie O'Brien (no relation to Mike), a FACT founder. She says that her group, collectively, spent thousands of man-hours and gallons of sweat meeting with SugarHouse while anti-casino forces kept their heads in the sand.

"We did the work no one else wanted to do," O'Brien said. "Now, after the fact, they're trying to grab money and control. If they really cared about the neighborhood, they would've been working on this all along."

I won't go into the numbing details of the bill that Mike O'Brien and Larry Farnese are mulling - mostly because, by the time you read this, it all will have changed anyway.

"Making law is like making sausage," Mike O'Brien told me when I asked him for an update this week. "You don't want to watch. It's a work in progress."

FACT members tell me that Farnese (whom I could not reach for this column) has been more communicative with them in the past week than he'd been in months.

So, who knows what this will look like when the smoke clears?

I will say, though, that it would be outrageous if any new bill wound up negating the thoughtful work that FACT has put into trying to mitigate the casino's negative impact on the area while also taking advantage of the first big-ass employer to locate in their community in decades.

Their CBA addresses, in detail, how SugarHouse will mitigate traffic; let area businesses know about vending opportunities; offer jobs and internships to neighborhood residents; allow the formation of collective-bargaining units; make alcohol- and gambling-addictions services available; give access to the casino's waterfront; and pick up trash and handle safety.

Whether you're pro-casino or curse the day a coin first clattered down the throat of a garishly blinking slot machine, it's hard to argue with the document's community-minded intent.

Then there's the annual $1.5 million that the CBA promises the Penn Treaty Special Services District. An initial Sugarhouse check for $175,000 now sits in district coffers while the board evaluates grant requests from the community.

"We've got at least 10 we're looking at," says Kevin Kelly, president of the district. "The VFW needs some repair work. The baseball team needs new jerseys. The ball field needs resodding. The money will stay right here in the community."

I'm not saying that FACT has thought of everything, or that SugarHouse will joyously fulfill every promise it has made to be good neighbors. There's only so much you can know before the idea of a casino becomes the reality of one.

Nonetheless, the people of FACT have worked hard to understand what their community needs to adjust to the changes that casino gambling will bring. That's more than any of their elected reps have done - you know, the people they voted for and whose salaries they pay.

Any new bill needs to acknowledge FACT's efforts by not mucking with what they've earned: The right to determine where community money will go and how it will get there.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ronnieblog.

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