A walk down Market East could be a stroll into the future

Posted: April 21, 2010

WE IN PHILADELPHIA may soon have an opportunity to reshape one of our most important streets.

While other parts of Center City were transformed in the last two decades, Philadelphia's main street - Market East - has been painfully slow to rebound from the loss of seven of the eight department stores that thrived there 50 years ago.

At one end, more than a billion dollars has been invested in the Pennsylvania Convention Center and related hotels. At the other, Independence Mall has been transformed by $450 million in new attractions. Collectively, they draw almost 4 million visitors each year, countless locals, and many more are on the way.

Historic landmarks have been converted into first-class hotels; fine restaurants have increased by more than 300 percent; new condos and apartment towers have risen within a block. But on much of Market East, there are still vacant parcels, too many deteriorated facades, rusty signs, barren dead space and underperforming retail establishments that deter visitors and residents alike.

Several developers are working on promising plans that could transform the street, though in this climate, financing is extraordinarily difficult to secure.

BUT SUPPOSE the State Gaming Control Board decides to revoke the license of the floundering casino proposed for South Philadelphia and elects to rebid it?

Gaming opponents may say one casino is enough. But realists will understand that the tax revenues are vital to the state and are essential to Philadelphia's progressive wage-tax reduction - not to mention job growth.

For too long, Philadelphians have believed that casino sites have been foisted upon them. Why not take control of our destiny?

When the formula was slots-only, Philadelphia casinos had little to offer guests. But table games always attract those with more disposable income.

The best casinos built recently in Atlantic City and Las Vegas draw the high-end retail that has long been lacking on Market East, as convention-goers currently take buses to suburban malls. The best casinos globally are no longer giving away hotel rooms. Instead they are making more money from their restaurants, rooms and entertainment offerings than they are on the gaming floor. But it's the gaming revenue that has financed the projects and drawn the customers that make other amenities possible.

In just 11 months, when the ribbon is cut on the Convention Center expansion, we will be several thousand hotel rooms short. A full-service casino on any of the underdeveloped sites on Market East within walking distance of the Convention Center could provide a new - and needed - large hotel.

Through good planning and controls, high-quality retail and restaurants oriented toward the street would generate the foot traffic from out-of-town guests that would make financing other proposed projects a whole lot easier.

The Nutter administration has already released a visionary plan for Market East. Now could be the time to seize control of the reins with a strategy that harnesses casino investment to a broader public purpose: the creation of a first-class destination retail and entertainment district in a setting where out-of-town customers (as well as locals) could have a great experience, just steps from their hotels.

Take a walk down Market East today and we're sure you'll agree:

It's time to take control of our own destiny!

Paul Levy is president & CEO of the Center City District. Tom Muldoon is president of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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