For gaming chair, wide range of criteria for second Phila. casino

William Ryan Jr. and his board could take a yearto decide who gets the second Philadelphia casino.
William Ryan Jr. and his board could take a yearto decide who gets the second Philadelphia casino.
Posted: May 06, 2013

You can excuse William Ryan Jr., a well-known former prosecutor from Delaware County, for not paying much attention to the competition in 2006 for the city's first two casino licenses.

At the time, he was working in Harrisburg as second-in-command to then-Attorney General Tom Corbett, overseeing a staff of 730.

Today, most of Ryan's time is focused on the future of gaming in Philadelphia and the entire state.

In 2011, Corbett named his longtime associate to be chairman of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Ryan and six fellow commissioners already have sat through two days of public hearings on the city's second license, and this Wednesday and Thursday face another round of testimony at Lincoln Financial Field's Red Zone Lounge. The commissioners will then begin weighing what they want from a second casino, which could take up to a year.

When gambling was legalized in 2004, with major adjustments in 2010, the General Assembly set forth guidelines to steer commissioners' decision-making. But Ryan acknowledged there is much room for interpretation. "We have the statute to guide us," he said in a recent interview. "But there is a lot of gray area here to work with."

What will be more important for the board: Generating as much gaming revenue for the state as quickly as possible? Or selecting a project that would give the biggest boost to Philadelphia's redevelopment?

The number-one concern for commissioners, according to the gaming act, is to protect the public. Beyond that, they have the broad mandate to foster economic development, promote tourism, and generate revenue to lower property and wage taxes, as well as to assist the horse-racing industry and its workers.

R. Douglas Sherman, chief counsel for the commissioners, said the gaming act sets forth about 15 criteria for the board to consider. "Each commissioner is going to weigh them differently," Sherman said. "It's the way the statute was designed."

For Philadelphia, investments the size of the six proposed casino projects - ranging from $367 million to $900 million - are rare. Any one could dramatically alter the urban landscape.

But this critical decision that could affect the future look of the city will rest in the hands of seven commissioners, only one of whom - Ryan - is from this area. (James Ginty, of Philadelphia, finishes his second term in July and will not vote on the second license.) Ryan, 63, still lives in Bryn Mawr with his wife, Debra, a human resources executive, and commutes to Harrisburg. Before joining the Attorney General's Office, he was district attorney in Delaware County.

Ryan said the board would listen closely to what Mayor Nutter and his urban planners have to say about the projects. The city has hired an economic consultant to help it evaluate the potential impact of each development. "All we can do is rely on the city," Ryan said, to inform the board "about what they see as a good or not so good issue with a particular casino."

What is clear to Ryan is that the decision today will be made in a very different environment from 2006, when five groups competed for two licenses. Investors behind SugarHouse Casino opened the city's first casino in 2010, but the group backing the Foxwoods Casino lost its license because of repeated delays and setbacks.

In 2006, gaming on the East Coast was largely limited to Atlantic City and casinos controlled by Indian tribes. Today, casinos in Pennsylvania have surpassed those in New Jersey in gaming revenue ($3.16 billion vs. $3.05 billion), and the state is ranked second to Nevada ($10.86 billion), according to 2012 statistics reported by the American Gaming Association.

Competition continues to intensify. Maryland has recently added table games to its casinos. New York might allow for more stand-alone casinos. And New Jersey is weighing Internet gambling and sports betting.

All this, Ryan said, will have "a huge impact" on Pennsylvania.

The six proposals fall into two camps. Three are in South Philadelphia and offer stand-alone, big-box casinos with hotels - much like what already exists in the state. They are Casino Revolution, Hollywood Philadelphia, and Live! Casino & Hotel.

In the other three projects, the sponsors are playing up other amenities such as retailing, restaurants, spas, and hotels. Those are the Provence on North Broad Street, Market8 in Center City, and Wynn Philadelphia on the Delaware River waterfront in Fishtown.

Ryan said he could not say which type would be better for the city "because I don't know enough."

He said that as a commissioner, he needed "a whole lot more information before I could say to myself, I'm starting to get comfortable with this. There's a lot more fact-finding for us to do, certainly for me to do."


Contact Jennifer Lin

at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com. Follow

on Twitter @j_linq.

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