Bart's big deal

Master of all he surveys, developer Bart Blatstein, from the roof of the former State Office Building that he is transforming into residential and retail space, explains his plans for a casino, hotel and parking involving the Daily News/Inquirer building (the white tower at right) and other parcels along Callowhill Street.
Master of all he surveys, developer Bart Blatstein, from the roof of the former State Office Building that he is transforming into residential and retail space, explains his plans for a casino, hotel and parking involving the Daily News/Inquirer building (the white tower at right) and other parcels along Callowhill Street. (DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: April 13, 2012

TWENTY floors above Broad and Spring Garden streets, local developer Bart Blatstein stood on the windy rooftop of the former State Office Building that he owns, gazed southward at the Inquirer/Daily News building, which he also owns, and laid out his plans for a casino/entertainment complex there.

The clock-tower building would become a hotel, he said Thursday.

The casino would occupy the block of Callowhill Street between 15th and 16th, with a commanding view of Center City, and would be connected to parking on both sides by bridges, he said.

The project hinges on Blatstein securing the state casino license that is available because Foxwoods casino failed to develop its riverfront site along Columbus Boulevard near Tasker.

Although getting that license might be difficult, Blatstein expressed confidence that he would realize his vision for North Broad Street just like he built the Piazza at Schmidt's in Northern Liberties when that was considered a risky project in an undeveloped area.

"I guaranteed Northern Liberties and I personally guarantee this project," Blatstein said. "The jury was still out on Northern Liberties five years ago. Now, there's construction on every block. It's as if the recession never hit.

"This will be the pinnacle of my career," Blatstein said. "We're going to spend $500 million and the impact will be over a billion dollars. I'm from Philly. My dad was born and raised in North Philly. This is my town. This is going to happen. I stake my reputation of 35 years on it. And when we go into an area, others will follow and the money will flow."

City Councilman Jim Kenney agreed. "That's a wow," he said of Blatstein's casino proposal. "I think it's a game changer for North Broad Street and for Philadelphia. I know all the 'ills' arguments about gaming and all the crap we went through in City Council over casinos - and I get it. But people got to work. And they need health care.

"If you put a casino, a hotel, retail stores and restaurants there, you create hundreds of construction jobs, and then 900 to 1,000 permanent jobs paying $15 an hour with health benefits," Kenney said.

"To me, that's a no-brainer. SugarHouse Casino has been open well over a year, and the world did not come to an end. I know we're going to get all the anti-gaming people talking about this. But I'm anti-unemployment."

John Dougherty, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, said, "SugarHouse brought in $73 million in tax revenue and created almost 1,100 jobs. Harrah's Chester: $164 million in tax revenue; 1,800 jobs. That North Broad Street neighborhood is ready to roll. Not only are we interested in helping it, we're interested in investing in it."

The casino would be a few blocks from Chinatown, where residents angrily protested a short-lived plan in 2009 to build Foxwoods in the former Strawbridge Building, at 8th and Market streets.

John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., expressed some reservations about Blatstein's proposal.

He said that, like Foxwoods, Blatstein's casino "so close to Chinatown would be a temptation for those individuals that are problem gamblers."

Although Chinatown resistance may be a problem, a definite obstacle is that two state senators and a state representative wrote legislation that would allow investors in other parts of the state to bid for the Philadelphia casino license that Foxwoods lost.

State Rep. Curt Schroder, a Chester County Republican, has pending legislation that would auction off the license for at least $66.5 million - $50 million to operate slot machines and $16.5 million to run table games - and allow the casino to be located anywhere in the state except Pittsburgh.

The Gaming Control Board announced that it wanted to see what happens with that legislation before accepting applications for the license.

"This may be a heavy lift," Dougherty said, "but I don't know any 10 state legislators who can come up with something as viable as the North Broad Street casino, something that creates this kind of tax revenue. This casino will create an economic success corridor on North Broad Street for years to come."

Blatstein said, "This is not a stand-alone in the middle of nowhere. This will be the only downtown casino in a top-five major city in this country. There is no other location in the state of Pennsylvania that will have the economic impact of this casino."

The casino/hotel would be just a block south of Tower Place, Blatstein's development of the former State Office Building into 204 luxury apartments with retail stores, and a 200-apartment tower next to it. Construction is under way, and is expected to be completed by Christmas.

- Staff writer Chris Brennan

contributed to this report.


Contact Dan Geringer at 215-854-5961 or geringd@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @DanGeringer.

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