More fans, fewer foes for 2nd Philly casino

The chips were down for Atlantic City last month, with only the Atlantic Club seeing a big boost in revenue.
The chips were down for Atlantic City last month, with only the Atlantic Club seeing a big boost in revenue. (Star-Ledger, File)
Posted: April 12, 2013

After the first of two days of public testimony Thursday, the state's Gaming Control Board heard more comments of support than opposition for a second casino in Philadelphia.

But if there was a message for the seven commissioners, it was to pick a project that did more for the city than just add more slot machines and table games.

Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.) whose district includes the sites for all six casino applicants, urged the board to select a project that would bring the most positive change to the urban landscape.

"If the only mandate you had was to generate gaming revenue from wagers, the board's decision would be relatively easy," Farnese said. "Build the biggest box you could, put in as many slots and tables as you could, and open the doors for business."

Farnese said the board should place a high value on the "context" of a project and whether it would revitalize an area or transform a vacant property. "Where is the casino going and what is happening around it?" he asked. "Will it be attractive to tourists and conventioneers, bringing new money from outside Pennsylvania?"

Farnese stopped short of picking his favorite, saying it would be "difficult, if not unfair" at this stage of the game.

Others were less constrained. Six groups are vying for the second license, and much of Thursday's testimony seemed like a popularity contest, with boosters pitching to commissioners.

Employees of Joseph Procacci, the South Philadelphia produce wholesaler and lead investor behind Casino Revolution proposed for Pattison Avenue at Front Street, packed the audience with matching T-shirts and baseball caps.

Fans of developer Bart Blatstein, sponsor of the Provence casino, hotel and entertainment center proposed for North Broad Street, hailed him for a track record in turning around depressed neighborhoods.

Ken Goldenberg, the developer behind Market8 in Center City, won kudos from the Design Advocacy Group, a professional forum of urban planners and architects that voted his design and siting as having "the most going for it."

The African American Chamber of Commerce gave high marks to Goldenberg and Penn National Gaming, a rival applicant behind the Hollywood Philadelphia project on the 700 block of Packer Avenue, for working with minority businesses.

And Steve Wynn got props from one of the biggest unions representing hospitality workers. Bob McDevitt, speaking for Local 54 of UNITE HERE, said Wynn's casinos are known in the industry for good pay, health coverage, and retirement funds.

But the day did have critics. Of the 20 or so people to testify in the first half of the hearing, several were union workers from the Holiday Inn, who expressed unease at what would happen to their jobs if the board selected Stadium Casino L.L.C. - a partnership between Greenwood Gaming & Entertainment Inc., which owns Parx in Bensalem, and Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. The investors plan to incorporate the hotel into the Live! Hotel & Casino project at 900 Packer Ave. in South Philadelphia.

"If you let Cordish take good jobs away and replace them with fast-food-style jobs, what's next?" said Demetrius Jackson, a hotel union worker.

McDevitt said whoever is selected should be required to sign a "labor peace agreement," which would allow workers to decide on organizing without the threat of retaliation.

Others said there has to be a balance.

George P. Moy, representing the community group, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., was the first of 22 more to address the board Thursday night. He emphasized the need for the winning casino bid to "cause the least impact on the community and hire the most from the Chinatown community."

While Moy made no specific reference to any one project, the Market8 proposal would be within two blocks of Chinatown.

"Once again, you are our first line of defense because we can't stop a casino from being built," Moy said, "but you have a choice of whatever is built and wherever the impact, and that the developer deals honestly with that impact and any demise of a neighborhood."

Michael Davis, a resident who supports PHL Gaming and its Casino Revolution project, said it was close to two main arteries "to generate the most business and cause the least impact on the neighborhood."

"This is the impact you want and a catalyst for additional development in the area," he said.

The gaming board may take as long as a year to select a licensee for the city's second casino.

After Thursday's hearing concluded about 7:40 p.m., gaming board chairman William Ryan said the public input the commissioners heard was key in getting a balanced perspective before awarding the license.

"It's critical because it gives the board the opportunity to hear from the public of what a possible casino site could have on their community," he said. "There's no better way to learn than to hear from those who will be most impacted."

The hearings continue Friday, with 22 people signed up to speak, starting at 9 a.m. in Room 204 A-B of the Convention Center.

Alan Greenberger, a deputy mayor, earlier urged commissioners to select a project that would do the least harm to SugarHouse Casino, the city's sole casino, located on the Delaware River waterfront on property in Fishtown and Northern Liberties.

Philadelphia has a vested interest in the success of SugarHouse: it gets funds for schools and tax relief from gaming revenue.

The city has hired a New York consulting firm, AKRF, to help it to evaluate each of the proposals, including the SugarHouse impact. With a second casino, SugarHouse will face flat or declining revenue, Greenberger said.

But Thomas Updegrove, a restaurant owner in Northern Liberties, said he doesn't favor putting another casino so close to SugarHouse as the Wynn project.

Updegrove said he was born in Fishtown, grew up in Atlantic City, and lives three blocks from SugarHouse.

"I can't see how the Wynn project is going to help us," he said.

Who's got his vote? The Provence.

Blatstein, he explained, helped him develop his burger restaurant, now located at the Piazza at Schmidts and Liberties Walk, which Blatstein owns.


Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @j_linq.

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