Six would-be Philadelphia casino operators make their pitches

Bart Blatstein addresses the state Gaming Control Board at the Convention Center. Blatstein, who would put a casino on North Broad Street, is one of six seeking Philadelphia's second casino license.
Bart Blatstein addresses the state Gaming Control Board at the Convention Center. Blatstein, who would put a casino on North Broad Street, is one of six seeking Philadelphia's second casino license. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 14, 2013

The half-dozen applicants for Philadelphia's second casino license touted the merits of their proposals Tuesday before the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

Flashy videos with images of the city's skyline, its iconic attractions, and its smiling residents were standard fare.

The first four groups - led by local developer Ken Goldenberg, South Philadelphia businessman Joseph Procacci, a partnership between regional casino operators Greenwood Gaming and Entertainment Inc. and Cordish Cos., and gaming giant Penn National Gaming Inc. - gave it their best shot. In a 50-minute presentation, each boasted that its project had the best location, that it was the easiest to get to and from, that it would hire the most diverse workforce and generate the most gaming revenue for city and state, and that it had more "real Philadelphians" behind it than the others.

Then Steve Wynn appeared and enraptured the room.

By the time Wynn was set to present at 2:15 p.m, it was standing-room only in Room 103A. Many leaned forward so they would not miss a word from the man who jokes with his inner circle that "it's good to be king."

Wynn was just that during his allotted time. One could hear a pin drop as he spoke in a relaxed, polished manner, as if he were describing what he had for breakfast instead of engaging in a fierce competition.

"Let me start from the beginning," said the son of a bingo hall operator, who went on to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania (Class of 1963). "A slot machine is a slot machine is a slot machine. Damn things all look alike.

"Buildings and stuff matter. But it's people that make people happy. It's about human resource engineering," Wynn said. "It's about giving people the best restaurant, the best hotel, the best experience. That's what it's all about."

He said Wynn Philadelphia, proposed for 70 acres in Fishtown, would deliver that and more. He touted his track record of five-star hotels at casino properties in Las Vegas and Macau. Then he rolled out his own video, showing what one of the 900-square-foot suites at Wynn Philadelphia's all-suites hotel would look like, as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin sang in the background.

The audience cheered. About half the room followed Wynn out the door to his own hospitality suite at the Convention Center.

Local developer Bart Blatstein, whose presentation was the sixth of six, acknowledged that he was a little nervous about presenting his project after Wynn.

"That's just great. I have to follow Frank Sinatra," Blatstein quipped. And gesturing to Wynn, who had just left the room, he said, "You, you, you . . . you got a gift."

Blatstein framed his project, a $700 million, French-style village called the Provence, as the culmination of a career that began more than 30 years ago with the renovation of a rowhouse in Queen Village.

He said he bought the former home of The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com at 400 N. Broad St. in 2011 as a "bookend" to the state office building at Broad and Spring Garden. "I started to dream," Blatstein said. "What if Philadelphia would be the first major city in the country that had a true entertainment complex in its core? This could be the most important project in the city's recent history."

Laid out end to end, the plans seemed to divide into two groups.

On the one side were the three South Philadelphia projects, with projected costs of $367 million to $480 million: Casino Revolution on Pattison Avenue at Front Street, proposed by Procacci; Live! Hotel & Casino, proposed by Greenwood Gaming and Cordish; and Hollywood Casino Philadelphia, proposed by Penn National. Each had a fairly predictable casino-hotel design similar to others in the state.

On the other side were the three most expensive projects: the $500 million Market8, proposed for Eighth and Market Streets by Market East Associates L.P., led by Goldenberg; Blatstein's Provence, and the $900 million Wynn Philadelphia, all of which were billed as "destinations," multi-layered venues of nightlife, dining and lodging that just happen to have casinos.

"We're building a jewel where there is simply a parking lot now," said David Adelman, of Market East Associates.

He described Market8 as "a multi-dimensional urban entertainment center." Seated with his group Tuesday was Iron Chef Jose Garces, one of the committed Market8 restaurateurs.

Penn National Gaming had its own fans as it presented its $480 million plan for 700 Packer Ave. at the sports complex. About 75 members of Earth Day Kids, a youth environmental group, wore bright green T-shirts with the words, "For Pensions. For Schools. Hollywood Casino Philadelphia."

Penn National Gaming would own one third of the casino, and a nonprofit called Philadelphia Casino Benefit Corp. would own the rest and dedicate two-thirds of its cash flow to the city's school district and pension fund.

"We will provide a significant benefit to the city of Philadelphia," said Joe Domenico, director of Philadelphia Casino Benefit Corp. "We're dedicating funds to public education and the pension fund - the two most pressing issues for the city."

Bob Green, chairman of Greenwood Gaming, which owns Parx, Pennsylvania's top-grossing casino, spoke without notes and said the $425 million Live! Hotel and Casino at 900 Packer Ave. would add to the vibrancy of a city that has "the best orchestra, museums, universities, music scene, and ballet."

The London native said he had called the city home for 25 years. "I wouldn't commit to this project if we could not deliver on our promise," he said, "or to any project that we would not be proud of. Everyone in our group endeavors to make Philadelphia bloom and blossom as a first-class city."

Soft-spoken Procacci, who has dubbed himself "the Tomato King," and Walter Lomax, a partner in $367 million Casino Revolution, touted their rags-to-riches rise in South Philadelphia, which they said reflected how hard work can lead to success. They underscored their deep ties to the area and said their casino would be the least intrusive to neighborhoods because it would be more than a mile from any residences.

"It's by Philadelphians for Philadelphians," said Joseph Canfora of Merit Management Group, which would operate Casino Revolution. "This is a transformational project for South Philly."

But not all were impressed by the presentations. Members of Casino-Free Philadelphia, which has fought the development of casinos here, were in the audience, as were union members, interior designers, lawyers and consultants looking to work for the applicants.

"This morning, the chairman of the [gaming board], William Ryan, said the purpose of these hearings was . . . to hear applicants address community concerns including traffic, crime and compulsive gambling," said Casino-Free Philadelphia member Dan Hajdo. "The applicants apparently didn't get the message. . . . We saw a lot of glitz and glamour and heard of lot of marketing hype, and next to nothing about any of these community concerns."

"We saw next to nothing about any proposed casino's potential negative impact on existing businesses, or about the economic downside of massive gambling losses," Hajdo said. "Not a single applicant mentioned the community impacts of potential crime, or any plan for problem gambling, which is a serious concern."

Gaming board spokesman Doug Harbach said public-input hearings are set for April 11 and 12 in Room 114 at the Convention Center. Those interested can start submitting written comments or register to speak through the board's website ( www.gamingcontrolboard.pa.gov) beginning March 4.


Contact Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2855 or sparmley@phillynews.com.

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