Developer Bart Blatstein—whose latest proposal, The Provence, involves a round-the-clock casino, 125-room hotel, restaurants, upscale retail outlets, and a rooftop village in the former home of the Inquirer and Daily News—met with members of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association Monday night to discuss the details of the plan. The site, at 400 N. Broad St., is adjacent to the Association’s western border.
Blatstein spent most of the 90-minute question-and-answer session promising that his proposal would attract wealthy clientele looking for a place to spend some of their disposable income. He said, as he has before, that the plan works only with the financing that would come from the casino, which he also said would account for less than 20 percent of the total development.
He made two admissions upfront. The first is that he is unabashedly marketing to people like himself—well-off folks looking for a good time. The second is that, while he visits casinos in Atlantic City several times a year, he does not throw the dice.
“I’m not a gambler,” Blatstein said. “I do that during the day. That’s what I do for a living.”
The meeting was held at the headquarters of Azavea, a local GIS software company that developed PlanPhilly’s new web tool, License to Inspect. Attendees filled the seats and put questions to the developer for over an hour.
Would he accept tax credits from the city?
He would accept federal tax credits, if eligible, but none from the city or state.
Would the casino be open 24 hours a day?
If the law allows, yes.
Would the plan create a more pedestrian-friendly environment on Broad Street?
It would be “the best [casino] plan for an urban center in the country,” according to Blatstein, with restaurants and stores on the street level. The casino itself would be on the second floor and, Blatstein said, the only casino in the world that visitors to other parts of the complex aren’t forced to walk through.
What if Tower Investments isn’t chosen to receive the city’s remaining casino license?
“There is no Plan B.”
Why the French theme?
They bankrolled the American Revolution.
Would more parking spaces than the 1,700 currently contained in onsite garages be provided?
They would not. “We are in a city,” Blatstein said. “You want to encourage public transportation and not cars.”
How could he be so confident The Provence would attract a high-end clientele that can afford to gamble, and not a less-well-off clientele that cannot?
“We’ll get our target market because we don’t have any competition,” Blatstein said.
The upscale Atlantic City casinos, such as the Borgata, don’t attract the thousands of wealthy Philadelphia-area fun-seekers who won’t travel to the shore just for dinner and a show, Blatstein said. He said that nobody in his target market is visiting Sugarhouse or other regional casinos, but that his proposal would be fantastic enough to attract them.
Attendees to the presentation expressed praise and skepticism.
Jethro Heiko, a co-founder of Casino Free Philadelphia, asked Blatstein what percentage of the casino revenue was planned to come from slot machines. Blatstein was unwilling to disclose that information. To Heiko, that was evidence of magical thinking.
“The notion that all of a sudden he’s going to have a casino operator in Hard Rock Café that’s going to change the rules and not cater to the same clientele—low-income and middle class folks, addicting a certain percentage of it in order to gain profit, giving credit to people who shouldn’t have credit on the floor, access to cash and ATMs on the floor … is bullshit,” Heiko said.
He added, “[Blatstein] is not in the business to solve problems, and the idea that casinos are being proposed as problem-solvers—if that were true, then our world would be a great place, because there’s plenty of casinos.”
Blatstein himself seems remarkably confident that the proposal will be selected by the Gaming Control Board, succeed, and spur more development on North Broad Street. He pointed only to his past success as evidence, even when an attendee pointed out that he’s never built a successful casino.
“Everything I do I’ve never done before,” Blatstein said.
Jared Brey writes about development, zoning policy, and city government for PlanPhilly.com. He wasn't interested in being a reporter until halfway through a master's program in journalism at Temple University that he intended to parlay into an academic career. His work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, City Paper, Business Journal, and Metropolis.