The legal wrangle
By Kellie Patrick Gates
All is quiet at the SugarHouse Casino site - the big earth-moving machinery and the people who ran it are all gone. The silence is the sound of SugarHouse saving money.
"We're a year delayed now and significantly over budget," said spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker.
Until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes the historical review required before it can issue SugarHouse a federal permit to build into the Delaware, "we have done all the work we can do," Whitaker said. It costs money to keep idle equipment and workers on the site, she said, so "we're saving some money in the interim."
Whitaker said costs are at least $100 million over initial projections, all tied to a delay in the start of construction. "Steel costs money, and every month we don't buy steel, it costs more money. Everything costs more money," she said.
Much of the delay has not been accidental. It has been the result of a concerted effort by anti-casino activists who want no casinos in Philadelphia, neighborhood leaders and elected officials who want the slots far from residential areas, and a group of history buffs who want no construction until any relics left by Native Americans, colonists and British soldiers have been removed.
The activists have lobbied state and local politicians to stop or relocate the casinos. The elected officials have filed lawsuits and submitted legislation, which all takes time to work through the courts or city and state government.
And while former Mayor John Street, who agreed with Gov. Ed Rendell that the casinos are necessary to boost the local economy and grant tax relief, advocated for casinos, his successor has not. Mayor Michael Nutter initiated a complete review of all casino-related decisions, and last month withdrew SugarHouse's license to build on the submerged land of the Delaware River.
"Delay is always good for us and bad for them," said Jethro Heiko, a co-founder of Casino-Free Philadelphia. Casino-Free doubts the stats the casinos and governor quote. They point to a study done by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority that says casinos cost a community more than they generate.
But SugarHouse executives are not alone in their displeasure over the delay.
While the Fishtown Neighbors Association does not want SugarHouse in the community, another group of pro-casino Fishtown residents, called Fishtown Action, has lobbied actively for SugarHouse. Members say the casino would bring jobs and more recreational opportunities to their neighborhood.
"I think it's disgraceful that it's been delayed for a year," FACT board member Maggie O'Brien said of the SugarHouse project. "It's so typical Philadelphia - instead of welcoming a business that's going to add jobs and revenue - millions of dollars - we're making it difficult for them, and I don't understand that."
Some casino opponents seem to look down their noses at the kind of jobs casinos would bring, she said, and that angers her. "Some people would love to have a job as a waitress," she said. "We can't all be attorneys."
O'Brien reminisced about the first time she learned casinos might come to her neighborhood - at a community meeting two years ago. She said Councilman Frank DiCicco was there, as were other local leaders. She remembers talking about the importance of getting a community agreement that would outline what the casino would do for the neighborhood. She remembers talk of potential revenues for the city and the state.
"Not one of them said this was a bad thing - not one," O'Brien said. "I thought everybody thought it was a good idea."
Brian Abernathy, DiCicco's chief of staff, said today that his boss was not pleased with the casino proposal - he was neutral. He didn't yet know which of the five proposals for casinos would get approval, let alone what the winning teams would propose to build, Abernathy said.
"We said very clearly in our testimony before the gaming board that if done correctly, casinos could be good for the city. But if done incorrectly, they could ruin the city," he said.
"Under no stretch of our imagination did we think they would propose both casinos for the waterfront. They did, and that changes circumstances a lot," Abernathy said. He also said DiCicco has consistently said he would fight casinos if that's what his constituents want, and that has proven to be the case.
The governor seems to think DiCicco is listening too much to what he hears from some constituents.
At a session with the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce last week, Rendell said Philadelphia city council members were gutless for delaying SugarHouse and Foxwoods, the other casino proposed for the city's waterfront. Philly Metro reported that Rendell "referred to 'a City Council with no guts that can be extorted by community groups.'"
Today, Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo was more subdued. "The governor continues to believe that the projects are important to both Philadelphia and the people of the Commonwealth and would like to see them proceed as quickly as possible," he said.
FACT's O'Brien said if she were the one building a casino, she would be disgusted with the whole mess by now. "I would say, 'Fine! I'll take my money and I'll take my jobs'" somewhere else, she said.
Whitaker said O'Brien need not worry about SugarHouse doing that. "We are moving forward at the current site," she said via email. "We are not moving to another location."