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By Kellie Patrick Gates
SugarHouse and Foxwoods casino interests say they are going forward with plans to build at their riverfront sites. And while they are willing to meet with Gov. Ed Rendell and local legislators to drive home their point that the two designated sites are the most appropriate ones, a group of elected officials and community activists who want the casinos re-sited are not blinking, either.
Be it through legislation or lawsuits, protests or the discovery of protected species or ancient artifacts, they pledge to convince the casino operators that opening day will come sooner and easier if they move to locations in Philadelphia away from Delaware Avenue/Columbus Boulevard.
And while the casinos won't talk of any sites beyond those that they've chosen and the state Gaming Control Board endorsed, lots of other locations have been floated during the past two years by community activists, local and state politicians, and the Philadelphia Gaming Advisory Task Force, which identified 11 locations in 2006 (see PDFs below).
Support for airport site
Among the most popular: The airport, a site that is too close to Harrah's in Chester under existing rules, but would be viable if legislation crafted by Sen. Vince Fumo and representatives Bill Keller and Michael O'Brien is adopted in Harrisburg.
"I think the airport could certainly accommodate the casino - one or both," said Hillary Regan, a neighborhood activist from Northern Liberties. Regan likes the idea for the same reasons the legislators do: It is surrounded by parking lots and industry, not neighborhoods. It is reachable by I-95, I-76 and SEPTA. And people at airports generally have a lot of time to kill.
An airport location would "minimize the cost to local people and maximize revenue coming in from other places," Regan said.
Regan also thinks the former PECO power station in Port Richmond would make a good site. It is at least 1,500 feet from neighborhoods, the building boasts beautiful architecture, and the grounds need to be environmentally cleaned up. "Let's put it in a place that can use economic development," she said.
But the casinos say they have already chosen the best sites, and they intend to stick with them.
"We chose our site based on its size, location, access from I-76 and I-95, visibility from the Ben Franklin Bridge, and the attractiveness of being along the river," Whitaker said. "Locating along the river has enhanced the design of our project by allowing for a public waterfront promenade, public green space, and the ability for Philadelphia residents and visitors to enjoy outdoor activities while taking in a great view of Camden and the Ben Franklin Bridge."
The better the location, the more money the casino brings in, and the greater benefit to the community, Whitaker said. She also pointed out that there are no neighbors on two sides of the project, and said Delaware Avenue would serve as a buffer between the casino and the residential neighborhoods.
Foxwoods' Garrity said that when the casino looked into getting into gaming in Pennsylvania, it looked at sites across the Commonwealth. The proposed South Columbus Boulevard location isn't just the best in the city, she said, it's the best in the state. "It's highly visible, it's on the water between two bridges, it's in a commercial area," she said. "I-95 buffers the community, and it's location is close enough to Center City that there is synergy with other tourist attractions and the sports complexes," she said.
Critics say that if people will travel to Las Vegas to visit casinos that are in the middle of a desert, they would go anywhere to gamble, so the waterfront isn't necessary.
Both Garrity and Whitaker strongly disagree.
Both casinos plan non-gambling destinations - restaurants and cafes, for example.
"In Phase III, we're looking at a spa, a meetings and conference space, and maybe condos," Garrity said. "The waterfront makes these things attractive even to people who don't gamble."
The waterfront also allows any developments on the Philadelphia side to benefit from the ball park, concert space and other attractions on the New Jersey side, said Garrity, who imagines water taxis motoring back and forth.
Many of the people who live in the neighborhoods near SugarHouse and Foxwoods don't see it that way. They fear increased traffic and crime, noise, and depressed property values. And many feel completely left out of the state process that resulted in legalizing casinos and deciding on their locations.
One pro-casino group of Fishtown residents, Fishtown FACT, vocally supports SugarHouse and its chosen location. FACT leaders say the casino will bring jobs and otherwise boost the economy and improve the neighborhood. The neighborhood will profit from the casino's profits through a community benefits agreement, they say.
Garrity, of Foxwoods, said she believes the anti-casino and move-the-casinos crowds are vocal minorities of Philadelphia residents. "We obviously want to have a good relationship with our neighbors, and we believe that is entirely possible," she said. But Foxwoods is more than a South Philadelphia issue, she said. "The number in opposition is far outweighed by the number who would receive tax relief from it," she said. "This is a Commonwealth issue."
The Philadelphia factor
The proposed casino locations have deeply affected how politics plays out in Philadelphia.
Prior to Mayor Michael Nutter taking office, city council and the mayor's office were often at odds on the casino issue. While Councilman Frank DiCicco took developers on tours of alternative sites, former mayor John Street wanted construction to begin as soon as possible. Street agreed with Gov. Ed Rendell that casinos would provide vital tax relief and, in the waning days of his administration, the casinos received permits and reached agreements with the city that in theory would allow them to move forward.
Street preferred sites other than the ones now slated for casinos. But once the current sites were chosen, he did not oppose them. His Planning Commission chair, Janice Woodcock, did not like them. At a heated city council rules committee meeting last June, DiCicco asked Woodcock whether as a planner, she would recommend a waterfront site for the casinos, and specifically whether she would recommend the Foxwoods and SugarHouse sites.
Woodcock said perhaps one waterfront casino would be workable, but not two of them. She could not recommend either Foxwoods or SugarHouse, she said, because both are too close to neighborhoods and Foxwoods has traffic-related issues. The Pinnacle site might have been a good one, she said.
(Pinnacle Entertainment wanted to build on Delaware Avenue between at Susquehanna Avenue and Beach Street. That was one of five sites and five applications that the state's gaming control board considered when it chose the two Philadelphia sites. The other rejected sites: Riverwalk at a former incinerator site on Delaware Avenue at Spring Garden and TrumpStreet at the former Budd site, Fox Street and Roberts Avenue. It should also be noted that the Planning Commission ultimately reviewed and approved the plan of development for both current waterfront sites.)
Soon after taking office, Mayor Nutter ordered a review of all casino-related decisions made by the city that preceded him. His administration revoked a key permit that SugarHouse needs to build on riparian lands along the river (that's now the subject of a state Supreme Court case). His legal team is looking for a way to renegotiate a tax agreement with Foxwoods.
In a recent interview, Nutter said Foxwoods' location problems are much worse than SugarHouse's.
"Sugarhouse has its challenges, but I think that there may be more opportunity to mitigate some of the traffic concerns at that location than at the Foxwoods location," he said.
Nutter would not discuss the airport or any other specific alternative sites for Foxwoods, but he said that his staff has looked at other sites, including some that are owned by the city, or quasi-city agencies. He said it is too premature to say whether the city would put up any money to cover what Foxwoods has already spent on its current site, as a means to persuade them to move.
His team "has not had any conversations or contact with SugarHouse people with regard to siting," he said. He noted that various parts of the administration are dealing with issues related to the site, however, including the riparian rights question.
In part, Nutter said, he's spent more time focusing on the Foxwoods site than SugarHouse's because "they had not been granted anything at the time I came into office. SugarHouse had already received their Supreme Court ruling."
That would be the ruling that awarded SugarHouse the Commercial Entertainment District zoning it needs to build on the site. The state Supreme Court ruled that the city and city council had been stalling on the issue. Since Nutter took office, the Supreme Court also ruled that Foxwoods should have CED zoning for the same reason. City Council asked the court to reconsider, since Council was reviewing a proposal to grant Foxwoods its CED. Last week, the court said it was standing by its decision. Council is reviewing its options.
Can Foxwoods be re-sited? "Anything is certainly possible if people want to work together to accomplish a particular goal," Nutter said. "It has a lot of components and it's immensely complicated. But if an agreement could be reached with the city, the General Assembly, the Gaming Control Board, it certainly seems it would be possible."
Battle of wills
The mayor is talking about persuading Foxwoods to move voluntarily.
Governor Rendell says persuasion is the only way - casinos cannot be forced to move.
A spokesman for the Gaming Control Board also said casinos could not be forced to move. When asked if they could move, with their current licenses, if they chose to, he said it was an untested premise, and the answer would not be clear unless and until one of them tried.
Persuading them to try - with carrots or sticks - has been the method those who want the casinos elsewhere have focused on so far. About a year ago, Fumo offered money. Mostly, though, activists and legislators alike have seized on opportunities to fend off construction.
An entire Supreme Court battle hinges on whether the city had the right to grant SugarHouse riparian rights, or had the right to revoke the permit. Foxwoods says it doesn't need riparian rights, but the waterfront legislators disagree, and promise a battle there, too.
SugarHouse is also waiting on an Army Corps of Engineers decision on a waterway encroachment permit they need. The process requires a historical review, and local historians discovered the site was once home to a Revolutionary War fort. Native American artifacts have been unearthed at the site, and local historians have joined former East Coast tribes in lobbying for more exploration. The historians are not anti-casino. Most do not mind the proposed site, in fact, so long as the artifacts are removed before construction. But others who want the casinos stopped or moved are also advocating for more archaeology.
After a recent hearing at City Hall, Rep. Michael O'Brien noted with obvious delight that the threatened red bellied turtle was entering breeding season. There is turtle habitat on SugarHouse's site and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has told SugarHouse that no work can be done in the water there, with the exception of pile driving, between May and October.
Anti-casino activists with Casino-Free Philadelphia have held protests and other events - even going to the homes of casino investors.
The theory behind all of this, said Daniel Hunter, co-founder of Casino-Free Philadelphia, is that the delays will cost the casinos so much money that they would rather move elsewhere. "There's a unified effort, from government officials to the deep grassroots," Hunter said. "No developer should want to be in a hostile environment. It's bad business."
Whitaker said she understands that some people are unhappy with the way in which casinos were brought to Pennsylvania and the way the sites were selected, but SugarHouse did not make up the rules - it has only followed them.
The tactics aimed at convincing SugarHouse to move may have convinced them to dig in deeper. If they move somewhere else, someone else will be displeased and "it starts all over again," Whitaker said.
Regan agreed that any site near a neighborhood would encounter NIMBY issues and protests.
That's why the airport is a good site, say the local legislators who wrote the bills that would re-open the location issue.
Under the current draft of that legislation, set to be introduced in both the House and Senate this week, the casino developers, city and state officials and neighborhood residents would work together to choose two alternative sites. The Gaming Board would hold hearings, and within 120 days would issue a report containing a list of alternative sites. Foxwoods and SugarHouse would then have 30 days to respond. The bills also would remove the rule that no casino can be located within 10 miles of an ongoing slots operation - that's what would open up the Philadelphia International Airport as a possible site.
The proposal gives the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board a lot of options, including revoking the licenses of SugarHouse and Foxwoods, and re-opening the application process so that any other entity could apply for one of the two licenses, said Christopher Craig, Fumo's senate counsel.
That is not the legislators' intent, Craig said, but was inserted into the bill as a means of forcing SugarHouse and Foxwoods from their current sites.
"This is to give the board a hammer to compel the casinos to be a lot more open minded about moving to a venue with more support from the community," Craig said.
The bill would create a huge legal mess, said Whitaker. When the gaming control board chose the successful applicants, it considered their proposed locations, she said. "There were three unsuccessful applicants. If (the gaming control board) is now coming back and saying those sites are bad sites, but you can keep those licenses and move to another location, that's unfair," she said. "You've now changed the rules." Whitaker predicted lawsuits.
The courts route is always possible, Craig conceded, pointing out that the current sites are also mired in the courts. But Craig said such a lawsuit would not hold up in court, because while site was a factor in the board's decision to pass up the Pinnacle, Trump and Riverwalk proposals, it was not the only factor. The board noted that Pinnacle has a casino in nearby Atlantic City that would compete with a Philadelphia site; that Trump was having financial stability issues; and that the Riverwalk site was small and, as a city-owned site, had other complications, Craig said.
The original gaming legislation said there would be no casino located within 10 miles of any other casino. Moving a casino to the airport would put it closer than that to Harrah's in Chester.
A Harrah's spokesman did not return calls for comment. Craig said that legally, Harrah's would be out of luck. Current legislation promises that the tax structure will not change for 10 years, and that there will be no additional casinos. But it says nothing about changing the mileage preclusion zone, he said. One could argue that such a change is not a good idea as a matter of practice, he said, "but we're not worried about a lawsuit."
"It is a fundamentally bad idea in any circumstance to change the rules in the middle of the game," SugarHouse’s Whitaker said. "It sends a terrible message to any business person looking to do anything in Pennsylvania: If we decide three years down the line we don't like you, we'll just change the law. Why would anybody come here and do business?"
Garrity said that Foxwoods invested "hundreds of millions of dollars, all on the good faith and reliance that the city and state said they would do what the current legislation says they will do."
Casino-Free's Hunter said his group supports the proposed legislation, although it falls short of Casino-Free's goals because it does not require a cost/benefits analysis of casinos.
The governor had promised a quick veto of the proposed bill. Craig and O’Brien aide Mary Isaacson said their bosses are optimistic that they can garner enough votes to override a veto. While the location of the casinos is an especially hot topic in Philadelphia, legislators from across the state are interested in getting them built as soon as possible, for the revenue they will bring, Craig said.
Besides, he said, the legislation will likely be bundled with other proposals that will have enough support to override the governor.