Key players in the proposed Market8 casino say their site, the ability to stimulate growth along the lagging East Market Street corridor, and a commitment to the community make Market8 the right choice for the remaining Philadelphia gaming license.
“This is really a unique opportunity to transform a zone that has so much potential in the way of existing cultural, historic, convention, hotel, retail and restaurant assets. And transportation assets, ” Market8 lead developer and Investor Ken Goldenberg said in a recent interview. Goldenberg said the casino project, with its ground-level restaurants, two floors of gaming, banquet facility/concert hall and hotel would attract about 5 million people a year.
The Market8 project would transform Market East “with all the traffic we're gonna bring, the dollars we'll bring, and our awards program that is unique in the industry and is going to extend up and down the whole corridor.” Millions more would be given to the community through the Market8 Foundation and the Market8 Improvement zone,” he said.
Market8 is competing with four other contenders for the license: The Provence, Tower Entertainment, LLC, 400 North Broad Street; Casino Revolution, PHL Local Gaming, LLC, 3333 South Front Street; Hollywood Casino Philadelphia, PA Gaming Ventures, 700 Packer Avenue and Live! Hotel and Casino, Stadium Casino LLC, 900 Packer Avenue.
Critics of gambling would like none of these. They say however much money casinos bring in, they are not worth the addiction and other societal problems that come with them.
The Market8 team said that through the Goldenberg Group's charitable arm, they are taking steps to help problem gamblers, including finding Mandarin and other Asian-language speakers to provide counseling services for non-English speakers. Services would be housed within the casino if Market8 gets the license, but Goldenberg said the People Helping People Philadelphia charity will provide the help regardless of which casino project the state choses. More on this later.
Mitchel Etess, CEO of Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority and Mohegan Gaming Advisors, said Market8 is the best choice to stimulate economic growth partly because of a loyalty program that will allow customers to cash in rewards points outside the casino project's walls.
“We don't believe in the stereotypical 'Keep them locked in the casino,'” approach, Etess. Mohegan Gaming Advisors, which would manage Market8 and is also an investment partner in the project.
Through the Philadelphia version of Mohegan Sun's Momentum rewards program, customers could use points they amass when they play to pay for goods and services not only on the casino property, but at participating restaurants, retailers, museums and other places along the corridor and elsewhere, Etess said. Market8 will invite retailers to participate, and will honor requests from most businesses that approach them, Etess and Goldenberg said.
“I'd love for the zoo to participate, the art museum, the theaters,” Etess said.
Their Connecticut casino's rewards points can be used at 35 retail stores, including Brookstone and Tiffany, that are on the casino property. “Our stores are often in the top five in sales in their chains in the country,” Etess said.
“Our project is basically the whole corridor,” Goldenberg said. “We're putting some great amenities in our complex, but we're letting the rewards program extend out to Old City, Midtown Village, The Gallery, Chinatown.”
The business corridor and the historical and cultural amenities and restaurants already existing near the corner of 8th and Market are part of why Goldenberg says criticism that the site is too small for a casino is unfounded.
They wouldn't need the space to build as many amenities within the casino to attract people to come, because they already exist outside, he said.
Etess uses stronger words. “It isn't true” that there isn't enough space he said. The vertical casino is more intimate than a “football field type thing,” he said – a reference to Bart Blattstein's blocks-long proposal at the former Inquirer building and adjacent properties.
Verticality brings opportunity, Goldenberg said. “When going vertical (visitors) are closer to any destination within the project,” he said.
It's an urban casino design, unusual compared to the American casino model found in Vegas or Atlantic City, but more common in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Goldenberg said.
Etess calls Market8 a destination casino, but neither he, Goldenberg nor Goldenberg Group Vice President Colin A. Jones think many people would travel to Philadelphia solely to gamble at Market8.
The casino would draw people who live or work in the city, those who live relatively near and come for the restaurants or other attractions, and convention goers from the Convention Center across Market Street, Etess said. Some people debating between a gambling vacation and site-seeing and history excursion will see Philadelphia as a do-it-all destination, he said.
“Another thing we look at closely: We will probably find the Convention Center will do more business because it has another attraction within three blocks of them,” Jones said.
The team spoke often of the symbiotic relationship that would exist between their proposed casino and the Convention Center. But Blatstein does as well. When PlanPhilly pointed out that his Provence proposal for Broad Street would be an easy walk from the Convention Center's Broad Street entrance, Goldenberg quipped, “You mean the back door?”
He said in seriousness that Blatstein's and the rest of the remaining proposals “are all viable candidates ... none of them are bad situations.”
But he said Market8's site is in the center of the city's convention/hospitality/retail/restaurant/commercial zone. “The area is crying out for something like this,” while Provence would have an impact on “schools, synagogues, churches and residential areas.”
The three South Philadelphia locations don't have nearly as many other attractions close by, he said.
Goldenberg noted that it was Steve Wynn's intent to build a casino resort that would bring people from elsewhere just to go to Wynn Philadelphia. Wynn recently withdrew his application, saying that especially with New York's recent decision, there would be too much competition from other states.
When asked about Wynn's competition concerns, Goldenberg said there may be “too much competition for what he was proposing to do – create a resort. Aruba in Philadelphia,” but that is not Market8's model.
All the casino candidates tout their commitment, attention and donations to the communities surrounding their sites – some of which the state requires.
Goldenberg called attention to his team's inclusion program, saying that the team itself is diverse, and its hiring practices will reflect a commitment to inclusion that is appropriate especially in a city as diverse as Philadelphia. The hotel operator is a minority company, the casino operator is a Native American company and the inclusion in hiring strategy was “put together in cooperation with Urban Affairs, the Urban League, the African American Chamber of Commerce and the NAACP,” he said. These groups recently endorsed the project.
Some Asian-American groups have rallied against the casinos, saying addiction is a big concern in their communities. Market8 would be very close to Chinatown.
When asked if there would be any programming at Market8 specifically designed to be attractive to Asian people, Etess said, “Aside from the fact there is actually gambling there? No. We have no plans for an Asian-themed area.”
“We've specifically not done things like put a big noodle bar on the game floor,” Jones said. He said groups in Chinatown have specifically noticed the lack of a noodle bar and said thanks for that .
“As a gaming operator, we take problem gambling seriously,” Etess said. “The vast majority of our patrons consume gambling responsibly, but there is always a small number with a problem, and it is important to have policy in place ... for people who need to get help.”
Etess turned the question over to Goldenberg at that point. “This guy here, he takes it to a new level in terms of what they are doing, especially in Chinatown. I'm proud of what they are doing.”
Goldenberg, who is by training and previous experience a civil rights attorney, said he founded the Goldenberg Group to “create a financial platform to do public interest work.” That platform has lead to several chapters of People Helping People, here and abroad.
Goldenberg said he spends two- or three- months annually in Kenya, and his work there includes the development of a rehab center. He's worked closely with Alcoholics Anonymous there, he said. “When we got involved with the casino, we became quickly aware of the compulsive gambling problem, particularly, unfortunately, as it exists in the Asian community,” he said.
Goldenberg said he's worked with the Chinatown Development Corporation, the Chinese Benevolent Association, and other individual business and community leaders, and through People Helping People Philadelphia has created a Problem Gambling Task Force, with an office on Cherry Street.
One problem soon discovered is that while compulsive gambling hotlines exist, there is often not anyone available who speaks Mandarin or other Chinese dialects. He said the program will continue whether or not Market8 gets the license, he said. If Market8 does get the license, “the project would include a dedicated space where gamblers can take a ‘time-out’ and, if necessary, be connected directly to counseling services,” said Ellen Rosenberg of People Helping People Philadelphia.
Rosenberg said the Task Force is “working with local and national leaders in the field of problem and compulsive gambling” as well as other leaders in the local Asian American community.
The group is now working to identify all gaps in services available to problem gamblers, those at risk, and their families, she said. In addition to working to increase the workforce of culturally appropriate and Asian language speaking counselors, the goal is to “partner with local organizations to provide alternative forms of entertainment for problem and at-risk gamblers,” she said.
The gaming control board is expected to award the license sometime in the first part of 2014. The Market8 team anticipates lawsuits would be filed, and it would take six months to a year to resolve them. If Market8 gets the license, Jones said it would take about two years, post-legal battles, to open the first floor restaurants and other amenities and the casino floors, with the hotel that sits on top of the plan opening 10 months to a year later.
Kellie Patrick Gates writes about planning, neighborhood development and the Central Delaware Waterfront. A journalist for more than two decades, she worked for daily newspapers in Central Pennsylvania, Upstate New York and South Florida before coming to Philadelphia in 2003 to write for the Inquirer. Her work has appeared on PlanPhilly since 2007, and she also writes Love, the Inquirer's weekly wedding column. A native of Elk County, Pa., Kellie lives with her husband, Gary, and their dog and two cats.