All bets are on as SugarHouse opens

Valet staff gathers outside SugarHouse Casino (above) as guests arrive (top) to check out new game house.
Valet staff gathers outside SugarHouse Casino (above) as guests arrive (top) to check out new game house.
Posted: September 23, 2010

IT'S EITHER one of the greatest things to happen to the city in years or the scourge that will destroy us all. All depends on whom you talk with.

SugarHouse Casino will officially open its doors on the Delaware waterfront today, straddling the border of Fishtown and Northern Liberties and beginning the era of legalized gambling in Philadelphia.

Casino supporters say the gaming hall will be an economic engine that will revitalize the city. Opponents say introducing gambling into depressed neighborhoods is like putting a match to dried tinder, enflaming existing problems people may have with money, relationships and jobs.

But the debate is over. The casino is here. The two sides will have to live side-by-side.

"There's not a lot of trust from one side to the other," said Harris Sokoloff, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and faculty director for the Penn Project on Civic Engagement. "But if they work to build trust, they could create something very few places have created." 

Opposition view

Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, said his organization's task is the same as always: to work for the community's protection and quality of life. That's why they'll be keeping a close eye on the casino.

"I hope the best predictions about SugarHouse come true and the worst don't, but we have to monitor the situation so negative impacts are minimized," he said. "No one knows how this will play out yet."

Ruben's organization was strongly opposed to the casino opening. He still doesn't believe that gaming will have as positive an economic impact on the area as proponents allege.

"Looking around the country, the one thing that comes out of the reports and the scholarship is that casinos don't deliver what they promise," he said. "I'm not sure if that's negative or not as positive as they say. Only time will tell."

Neighbors like Alana Litwak, 58, of Fishtown, have two primary concerns: Traffic and crime. Traffic's already bad, she said, and notable crimes in recent months - including the June murder a half-block north of Northern Liberties of 20-year-old Sabina Rose O'Donnell by a man who was allegedly first interested in stealing her bicycle - have people on edge.

"The city needs to be more creative with attracting businesses instead of going to the lowest common denominator," she said. "I just can't imagine it being here."

For its part, SugarHouse has bought goodwill with the currency casinos understand best: Cash.

So far, the casino has given $175,000 to the Penn Treaty Special Services District, created to distribute casino money to organizations in the surrounding neighborhoods.

More money is coming, and the district is expected to get $1 million annually from the casino starting in 2012.

Just this week, proceeds from gaming on two days of test runs went to four local charities, including ones that help cancer patients and the families of slain police officers.

"If it generates money and positive things for this community, why not?" asked Northern Liberties resident Thomas Sprott, 29, who has spent most of his life in the neighborhood. "People are afraid of change."

Sprott and two friends were enjoying coffee at an outdoor cafe a few blocks from the casino on Monday, the first day of its soft opening. All three locals said they weren't worried about the increased crime and traffic casino that opponents say are imminent.

"As long as it doesn't draw in a steady stream of crackhead zombie thieves, it's all right," said Jessica Marino, 33, of Fishtown.

Added Alina Wray, 28, another Fishtown resident, "If there's more police, that's a good thing. I wouldn't mind being bored at 3 in the morning and going to throw some dice."

Special police team

Police are responding to the casino opening with a special 10-officer "casino team" that will offer increased patrols of the area.

Mike Cram, captain of the 26th Police District, which includes the casino, said the officers were on the job during this week's soft opening.

"We had zero problems and we really don't anticipate any," he said. "Other than a couple of protesters, there was nothing. It was a normal day with a new building on Delaware Avenue.

"People are going to have a good time and spend money and then leave. If not, we have the people in place to negate that," he said.

Cram said the casino detail will handle everything from 9-1-1 calls to crime prevention to traffic control. The department is working closely with casino security to make sure some of the incidents that have occurred at other casinos - such as children and pets being left alone in cars - don't happen.

SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker said the casino will have its own security force, as well as state troopers, on site to maintain order. Bike patrols will monitor the parking lot, and security will be posted at the building's perimeters, she said.

Neighbors are encouraged to come to the casino management with problems, she said.

"We've said all along our doors are open to our neighbors, and we're here to address their concerns," Whitaker said. "There's nothing we can't resolve as long as we're talking about it."

SugarHouse security and local police will be aided by anti-crime surveillance cameras to the neighborhood, Cram said.

"They're in the works," he said. "They'll cover areas of the street we can't cover."

Not everyone is happy about those cameras. Jethro Heiko, one of the founders of Casino-Free Philadelphia, lives on Allen Street, one of the closer residential blocks.

"I don't know anyone who supports that idea," he said.

"They're talking out of two sides of their mouth. If there's not going to be a crime issue, why invest the money in police in this area?"

Another issue that could test relations between the casino and residents? Parking. Even at the limited, invitation-only opening, Heiko said, spillover from casino parking lots was affecting surrounding neighborhoods.

"Most people in the neighborhoods are going to fight for residential-permit parking in the whole area," Heiko predicted.

Whitaker said the casino was watching to see if parking and traffic problems develop. If so, she said, they'll be addressed. Already in place, she said, is signage directing patrons to the casino via major roadways.

"We certainly don't want traffic backing up in the neighborhood. We don't want our customers parking in front of our neighbors' houses," she said. "It is our goal to be a good neighbor."

More work for group

Casino-Free Philadelphia will not fold with the opening of the casino. First, there's another casino project to oppose farther south. Second, there's SugarHouse to watch and make sure it keeps its promises.

To that end, Casino-Free Philadelphia is launching a "Casino Town Watch" today, a group of citizens that will patrol the area around the casino in much the same way neighborhood watch groups do.

"We'll be watching the casino to make sure the neighborhood is safe and that they're complying with all laws, and to hold them accountable and document their predatory tactics," group spokesman Dan Hajdo said.

Heiko said he was proud of what Casino-Free Philadelphia has accomplished: The finished casino was delayed by months, has a smaller footprint than originally planned, and is now aware that its neighbors will not sit by quietly if it tries to do something they don't like.

"I don't think SugarHouse wants to be known as a bad neighbor," Heiko said.

Some local businesses say SugarHouse is already a good neighbor. Northern Liberties' Darling's Diner at the Piazza at Schmidts reported an increase in customers during the casino's test run.

"We had a little uptick," said Dan Contarino, the diner's general manager. "We're going to get a feel when they really open this weekend."

Darling's is expanding to a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week schedule, effective Oct. 8.

"This gives another option to all the people coming into the casino," Contarino said.

"We're only a block-and-a-half away and we figured the timing was right."

Working on a customer at his Bonnie and Clyde Tattoo Parlour on Girard Avenue, owner Edward Denny stopped inking to describe the positive ways he thinks the casino can transform the strip.

"I'd love to see Girard Avenue become the next South Street, a destination for people when they get off work," Denny said. "I'm very excited and I hope it does great things for this business and the whole area."

Look for Denny tonight at SugarHouse.

"I already got my suit cleaned," he said. 

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