SugarHouse adds finishing touches before opening Sept. 23

Developers have managed to squeeze a lot into a relatively small space without giving it a cramped feeling. Equipment was still being installed this week.
Developers have managed to squeeze a lot into a relatively small space without giving it a cramped feeling. Equipment was still being installed this week.
Posted: September 03, 2010

It is not faint praise to say that the most striking aspect of the interior of the soon-to-open SugarHouse Casino is the spectacularly inventive use of the exceedingly tight 45,000 square feet.

The colors (red, turquoise, and gold) are vivid, the ambience clean and relaxing, and the patterned ceiling origami-like. Walls are oddly but pleasantly angled. But in a space about one-fourth the size of a typical full-service casino, SugarHouse squeezes in 1,602 slot machines and 40 table games and makes it stylish, not cramped.

It even manages a 3,000-square-foot high-limit area with a glass-enclosed lounge for VIPs.

Philadelphia's first casino and the state's 10th opens on the Delaware River waterfront Sept. 23, nearly four years after it was awarded a slots license by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

The project, stalled by legal battles, political wrangling, and community opposition that hasn't completely died down, is nearing showtime, and the finishing touches seem endless.

"We're making decisions quicker these last few weeks," SugarHouse general manager Wendy Hamilton said during a tour of the casino Wednesday afternoon. "Time is moving astonishingly fast."

The new casino doesn't flee from its gritty industrial setting, but celebrates it.

Built on the site of the old Jack Frost Sugar refinery, the interior features "sugar-stick" art - bundled sticks of sugar that hang from the ceiling - a main restaurant called the Refinery, and a grab-and-go eatery named Jack's. There's even a sports bar, Lucky Red, where workers installed wood-laminate flooring this week.

Interior designer Florence "Floss" Barber, based in Center City, worked with Cope Linder Architects to create the look.

"We used the city of Philadelphia as inspiration in creating a series of 'neighborhoods' to divide the room," Barber said. "Because of its urban and riverfront environment, the typical casino interior needed to be reinvented for SugarHouse and updated for a new generation."

At $385 million, SugarHouse will be less than half the cost and a third the size of Rivers Casino, which sits on Pittsburgh's waterfront. Neil Bluhm, the Chicago billionaire developer of Rivers, is responsible for SugarHouse. Barber was the designer for Rivers, and Keating Building Corp. was the contractor for both.

"SugarHouse and Rivers both celebrate waterfront locations by featuring expansive windows and views of the river, with landscaped walkways along the shore," said Greg Carlin, chief executive officer of both casinos.

But the similarities end there. Rivers opened fully with a 10-story parking garage, whereas SugarHouse is being built in phases and will open with surface parking only, for 1,700 vehicles. The garage and other additions will come later.

Hamilton said there were 20,000 job-seekers for 800 positions, half of whom will work the blackjack, craps, roulette, poker, and other table games. Orientation began earlier this week.

At the rear of the complex, just outside the Refinery restaurant, is an outdoor patio and dining area that overlooks the river and offers views of the Ben Franklin Bridge. It is separated from the river's edge by a pedestrian walkway.

"It's spectacular at night," Hamilton said.

SugarHouse sits across Delaware Avenue from a residential rowhouse neighborhood, often called Riverside in Fishtown. A few light-industrial offices and vacant warehouses face the casino.

Just to the north of SugarHouse is Penn Treaty Park, and just to the south are Waterfront Square condo towers and Yards Brewing Co.

Delaware Avenue has been widened moderately and repaved in front of the casino.

Fishtown resident and business owner Jethro Heiko said he remains unconvinced SugarHouse belongs on the waterfront. His family, including two kids, lives just a block from the casino.

"SugarHouse Casino has not addressed any of the concerns that we, as nearby residents, have about their development or business," he said. "Their location on the waterfront is at odds with the vision of a family-friendly, walkable, and sustainable riverfront.

"In the long term, SugarHouse will fail because of continued opposition, regional slots saturation, and various trends," he said, "which will make it the last urban convenience casino to open on the East Coast."

But gaming analysts say SugarHouse, only two miles north of Center City, has some strong market fundamentals, including a large metropolitan population to draw from and, at the moment, no competition within the city.

A second casino proposed for the waterfront, Foxwoods, is hanging in the balance as its owners try to find a developer to replace Steve Wynn, who pulled out in early April.

Carlin said SugarHouse would be a "locals" casino, drawing primarily customers who live within 75 miles, plus some of the 30 million tourists who visit the city annually.

"We don't think there will be a wild influx of people coming in because SugarHouse is here," said Meryl Levitz, head of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., "but people who do come will have another reason to stay longer."

Levitz said her agency was expanding its website, VisitPhilly.com, to have its own dedicated gaming section, much like the museum and dining sections. The website will be launched around the time SugarHouse opens.

"Having three [casinos] in the region - Harrah's Chester, Parx, and SugarHouse - will provide that critical mass, like what you have in Atlantic City or Las Vegas," she said. "People who like to game like to go from one to the other. It's a pretty straight shot up and down the I-95 corridor."

But SugarHouse faces stiff regional competition.

There are 11 casinos in Atlantic City, just 60 miles away. Parx is 15 miles north on I-95, and Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack 15 miles to the south. Both casinos have consistently ranked as the top two grossing venues in the state. The Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem is an hour's drive away.

"With respect to SugarHouse, for a number of people, it will have a convenience aspect," said Bob Green, chairman of Greenwood Gaming & Entertainment Inc., which owns Parx. "At the same time, they will have challenges because of traffic and parking issues that we don't have."

And if Rivers' first-year performance is any indication, a fancy casino on prime waterfront land isn't necessarily a slam-dunk.

The Pittsburgh casino, which celebrated its one-year anniversary Aug. 9, projected $427 million in gross slots revenue during its first 12 months of operation. It took in $217 million.

Still, "it's nice to be the first" in the city, said Hamilton, who was hired away from Parx. "You feel like you're part of something really special."


Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.

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