Philly casinos fight returns to Harrisburg

April 9, 2009 4:16:10 AM PDT
Even as the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board approved a small slot-machine casino in suburban Philadelphia, the agency's chaotic public meeting Wednesday signaled that the fight over the construction of two other casinos in Philadelphia has landed back in their lap. Officials from SugarHouse Casino and Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia were heckled and shouted down by several dozen Philadelphia residents as they told the gaming board of changes to their construction plans that are designed to break a two-year stalemate with city officials that has stalled the projects.

Foxwoods official Brian Ford said the casino group has decided to move its location about two miles from the Delaware Riverfront into Center City. SugarHouse chairman Neil Bluhm said the group is making design changes that include a temporary facility that could open next spring.

"Since the board approved our application in December 2006, this has not been an easy journey," Ford told the board.

Residents holding signs and standing among the seats of the Pennsylvania State Museum auditorium not more than 15 feet away had ready responses.

"It's going to get harder," warned one. Another said, "You're dead in the water, everybody knows it."

The changes in both plans will require approval by the gaming board and city officials, who are pledging cooperation. If the facilities are built, Philadelphia would become the nation's largest city with casino gambling.

Before the casino officials spoke, the gaming board voted unanimously to award a 12th slot-machine license, this time to a partnership that owns the Valley Forge Convention Center in suburban Philadelphia. The license is a relatively minor one - it allows up to 500 slot machines, compared with the 5,000 allowed by the 11 other licenses the board has awarded.

With the support of Gov. Ed Rendell, the state Legislature in 2004 legalized slot machine gambling as a way to cut taxes and pay for civic development projects. The law allowed licenses for slot machines at up to seven horse-racing tracks and while the seven other licenses were opened to competing applicants.

The gaming board originally approved licenses for SugarHouse and Foxwoods in December 2006, along with nine other locations across Pennsylvania. But legal battles with city officials and residents have led several times to the state Supreme Court and left the Philadelphia casinos as the only of the 11 original licensees that are either not open or not expected to open this year.

As a result, Rendell has been unable to fulfill his promise of $1 billion in gambling-financed tax cuts across Pennsylvania a full five years after the law passed.

In the meantime, the economy's downward spiral has made it more difficult and costly to borrow money for major development projects, including casinos.

Ford, Bluhm and the others who spoke gamely delivered their reports, pausing occasionally while board Chairwoman Mary DiGiacomo Colins pleaded for quiet or until the shouting subsided.

As Bluhm, a billionaire real estate investor from Chicago, left the auditorium, the crowd chanted "shame" and both Lai Har Cheung and Eric Joselyn of Philadelphia shouted at him, asking how much more addiction he was willing to create.

Foxwoods officials spoke second, and opponents grew louder and came closer. Worried about a confrontation, Colins allowed Foxwoods officials to exit backstage, instead of through a throng of opponents.

"Get ready for a long fight," Brendan Walsh of Philadelphia warned as they left. "It's going to be expensive."

The board had asked SugarHouse and Foxwoods officials to appear Wednesday to give them a status report. In a last-minute change of plans, the board allowed opponents to speak at the microphone after casino officials had finished and left.

Walking to a waiting car, Bluhm told reporters that he believes the majority of Philadelphians support his project but otherwise would not criticize the opponents.

"People have the right to express themselves," Bluhm said. "I think they should try to do it in an orderly and courteous manner."

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