Ronnie Polaneczky: Gambling pays off for riverfront

Daily News -- Ronnie Polaneczky: Gambling pays off for riverfront

Listening to Joe Rafter talk about how much fun he's having these days, sprinkling money over the Penn Treaty Special Services District, I felt jealous.

"This is about the most fulfilling, unpaid thing I have ever done in my life," said Rafter, president of the brand-new SSD. "I feel like Santa Claus."

Two weeks ago, the group cut a check for $20,000 to the Fishtown Athletic Club to help pay for equipment, uniforms and fees for the club's 800-plus kids.

"This is great," said A.J.

Thompson, who pitched the SSD for the money. "We can only hit up the mom-and-pop businesses so many times" for donations.

The SSD also gifted St. Peter the Apostle School, at 5th and Girard, with a $10,000 grant to buy laptop computers to replace the clunkers that teachers have been saddled with.

"We got the check the day after we presented our proposal," school principal Sister Rose told me happily.

Over at the By My Side parenting program, on Montgomery Avenue, executive director Teri Ramsay was pondering ways to spend the $5,000 the SSD had granted her.

"If we get a new stove and wiring in the kitchen, maybe we can rent out the space for parties," she said, which would help her nonprofit generate some income.

And Fishtown's Artie Dolan, who's been working with the city to restore neglected Hetzell Playground, said the SSD's $20,000 grant will help purchase a sprinkler system and Kentucky- bluegrass sod for Hetzell.

"It's awesome," said Artie. "The kids will have one of the best places in the city to play."

All in all, in the last two weeks, the Penn Treaty SSD has doled out $95,000 to neighborhood organizations located within the district, which blankets Fishtown, Northern Liberties, and parts of Kensington and Port Richmond.

Yet that's only about half of the $175,000 the SSD received last October from SugarHouse casino. The payment was the first installment resulting from a community-benefits agreement that SugarHouse negotiated with its Delaware riverfront neighbors.

"We're trying to be conservative, to start," said Rafter, who owns Liberties Restaurant at 2nd and Fairmount, where the neighborhood groups made their grant pitches to the seven-member SSD board. "We want to help as many groups as possible, until the next check comes in."

Ah, yes, the next check. SugarHouse could eventually pay the SSD - which was created specifically to manage the community-benefits agreement - up to $1.5 million per year, to be paid out however the SSD sees fit.

No wonder Rafter is feeling giddier than Santa these days.

"The groups who asked us for money, they're really good people who do good work for the community," he said. "It feels great to give them a hand."

Maybe now that SugarHouse money will support tangible community projects, the rift will begin healing between the area's pro-casino and anti-casino forces.

But I'm not holding my breath.

The SugarHouse deal deeply polarized residents along the waterfront, pitting well-meaning folks against each other in ways that painfully exposed social and cultural biases, personal beliefs and class differences.

A year ago, when the community-benefits agreement was being hammered out by SugarHouse and the pro-casino group Fishtown Action, anti-gambling groups refused even to meet with SugarHouse to hear what the casino might be willing to do for the neighborhood.

How could they possibly accept money now, without feeling like they'd been bought off?

I'm not sure I could.

Still, when I spoke with Matt Ruben yesterday, he told me that the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, which fiercely opposed gambling, had sent copies of the SSD grant form to its members, to make them aware of the money.

"We're certainly considering applying for funds," said Ruben, president of NLNA. "It's important that the money stay in the areas that will be impacted by the casino."

Rafter wants to make sure that all SSD residents - not just, say, parents of Fishtown athletes or elementary-school students - feel like they're benefiting from the money.

So far, most of the grants have gone to Fishtown applicants, since they're the only ones who've applied for it. Rafter thinks that will change once word spreads that the money is now available.

"We're also looking for a big project that would lift the entire community," said Rafter. "We're asking for suggestions, and we are committed to being totally transparent in the process. The last thing we want is for the casino naysayers to say, 'Where did all that money go?' "

About the author

Andrew Goodman, Community Engagement Director, New Kensington Community Development Corporation

Goodman is currently the Community Engagement Director at the New Kensington Community Development Corporation.

Previously, Goodman worked as a city planner and project manager for PennPraxis. His focus was on projects that combined community engagement and public space design, including the Central Delaware Waterfront Planning Process, the Green2015 initiative for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, and the Bartram’s Mile project in Southwest Philadelphia.  Goodman was an early contributor to PlanPhilly and helped shape the site in its first iteration.  As PlanPhilly grew, Goodman represented the publisher and provided professional planning input and project management support as the site expanded its beat coverage, went through multiple redesigns, conducted an internal strategic plan, and researched revenue generation opportunities.

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