The Tomato King goes to war for a casino

Joseph Procacci, who says his firm supplies a fifth of U.S. tomatoes, at a warehouse at Front Street and Pattison Avenue, where Casino Revolution would be built if his $367 million proposal is accepted.
Joseph Procacci, who says his firm supplies a fifth of U.S. tomatoes, at a warehouse at Front Street and Pattison Avenue, where Casino Revolution would be built if his $367 million proposal is accepted. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 26, 2013

When you meet 86-year-old Joseph Procacci - nicknamed the Tomato King of South Philadelphia, since he claims to supply one of every five of the nation's tomatoes - he grabs your hand and tells you how happy he is to see you.

He walks at a slow pace. His voice is so soft you can barely hear him, and a smile, like that from an approving grandfather, never leaves his face.

Such traits made last week's presentation by PHL Local Gaming L.L.C., Procacci's group seeking a Philadelphia casino license, that much more intriguing.

Procacci is hardly bellicose. Yet PHL launched a withering attack on two of its better-known and better-funded rivals for the city's final gaming license - Steve Wynn and Bart Blatstein.

The bombardment came at the meeting of the Pennsylvania Gaming Congress at the Loews Hotel in Center City.

Regarding the $900 million Wynn Philadelphia casino-resort proposed for Fishtown, Robert J. Borghese, PHL vice president of corporate development, asked sarcastically: "In a serious moment, do we as Philadelphians really believe that international high-rollers will be lured to his Fishtown location?

"Do we really believe it won't cannibalize [nearby] SugarHouse? Don't we deserve our own unique, signature, and iconic casino in Philadelphia that doesn't look like casinos in Las Vegas . . . ?"

Borghese then suggested that diehard South Philadelphians, like Procacci and his casino partner, 80-year-old Walter Lomax Jr., were perhaps more deserving of the license than "imperious absentee casino developers comfortably ensconced in their corporate offices in Las Vegas."

That barb was clearly aimed at Wynn and his Wynn Resorts Ltd.

When asked about Borghese's remarks, Gamal Aziz, president and chief operating officer of Wynn Development, ticked off Wynn's credentials as if reading his boss' resumé: "Wynn Philadelphia is designed by Mr. Wynn and his team of architects, who have 35 years of experience in creating successful gaming resorts.

"Wynn has one of the strongest balance sheets in the industry, with $2 billion in cash," said Aziz, who sat and listened to Borghese here last week. "Wynn has more Forbes five-stars than any independent hotel company in the world."

PHL is proposing the $367 million Casino Revolution for Front Street and Pattison Avenue in South Philadelphia. It is projected to be the least-expensive project among the six applicants.

The group believes the scale and cost of the project will allow it to open before any of the other aspirants' developments would, bringing jobs and revenue to the city more quickly.

There are three other proposed projects: Co-developers Cordish Cos. of Baltimore and Greenwood Gaming & Entertainment Inc., owner of Parx Casino in Bensalem. Penn National Gaming Inc.'s Hollywood Casino Philadelphia. And Market East Associates L.P., which intends a complex at Eighth and Market Streets. The first two casinos are planned for the stadium complex.

A decision by the state's Gaming Control Board is still several months away.

Procacci wasn't present for the presentation, but Borghese, like an unrelenting boxer, took jabs at "bloated and overwrought projects" like Wynn's and that of developer Blatstein, who proposes a $700 million casino complex - the Provence - at the former home of The Inquirer at 400 N. Broad St.

Both the Wynn and Blatstein developments, he warned, could bring "the carcass of another Revel on the Philadelphia waterfront, or on North Broad Street." Borghese was referring to the high-style, $2.4 billion Atlantic City casino that is in bankruptcy less than one year after opening.

"Desperate people do desperate things," Blatstein said Wednesday. "It's not worth further comment. The final gaming license for Pennsylvania is a remarkable opportunity for the entire Philadelphia region, but only if we take full advantage of it.

"I took on this project because we can develop something special that will make Philadelphia a destination for the entire East Coast and create an entertainment complex that will excite both gamers and nongamers alike. It's time our entire region dreamed big."

Procacci, who has no gaming experience, confidently told the seven-member gambling board at February's hearings that his group "was here to win."

John O'Riordan, general counsel and vice president of community affairs for the PHL group, described Casino Revolution, which would sit about a mile from the stadiums, "as the most fiscally sound among the half-dozen proposals."

"The project is scaled to market," O'Riordan said in an interview. "Our two owners - Mr. Procacci and Mr. Lomax - weren't successful by overspending or promising things they couldn't deliver, but by being prudent business people.

"We understand that there's a natural tendency to look favorably on brand-name bidders and people who are making promises about very large projects," he said. "People are generally attracted to bigger is better.

"Our project will produce. I think it will be crystal-clear to the eight million customers coming to the stadium complex each year."


Contact Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2855, sparmley@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @SuzParmley.

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