Source: LifeStyle Magazine
Date: March 11, 2008
Byline: Angelina Sciolla
Squabbling over slots
Waterfront casino plans seem like a done deal, but the unending arguments over them may prove otherwise
In late January, as one of his first and more newsworthy orders of business, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter revoked a building license given to the SugarHouse Casino. Issuing the license was one of former mayor John Street's last orders of business, quite nearly at the 11th hour of his tenure. As such, Mayor Nutter viewed the action as "rushed and not properly vetted."
According to Mayor Nutter, the casino, which is being built on 22 acres along the banks of the Delaware River near Fishtown, may well interfere with "riparian land" — environmentally vital portions of vegetation that help maintain the ecological processes of that body of water. Of course anyone who has seen that stretch of the Delaware riverbank north of Center City may wonder if any ecologically vital processes are sustained in the first place. For years the area has been a neglected wasteland of highway, unused edifice, and overlooked nature. The underlying reason for the license revocation may have been the fact that the mayor promised the city transparency with such issues, plus the fact that, as a candidate for mayor, he opposed waterfront casino development. By revoking the license, he signaled to both Harrisburg and the city of Philadelphia that a new sheriff was in town, the kind who follows procedure and takes his time in allowing constituents in on the plans for their city. Nutter asked new Licenses & Inspections Commissioner John Elfrey to review the process by which SugarHouse Casino received a rough grading permit, alerting SugarHouse that the company could reapply for the permit after 30 days.
In early February, following Nutter's decision, SugarHouse suspended all work on the site until all necessary permits are obtained. SugarHouse bosses are hoping that is soon and charge that the city doesn't have the authority to revoke a license which is the subject of pending litigation.
We were shocked, said Leigh Whitaker, Communications Director for SugarHouse. "We didn't have any indication that would happen. We immediately filed a motion in the [Pennsylvania] Supreme Court...ultimately they will decide."
Yet, permit setbacks are based on more than Nutter's decision. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has still not completed its survey of the area in order to issue the casino a federal permit. So far SugarHouse has only obtained a gaming license from the state Gaming Control Board.
But slot machines need a home. Already a year behind schedule and $100 million dollars over the initial budget, the casino project is being strangulated by a number of forces who either don't want SugarHouse in their backyard or in the city, period.
It was clear that former Mayor Street was pro-casino and that Governor Rendell and State Senator Vince Fumo vigorously championed legislation in 2004 that opened the door to SugarHouse and Foxwood Casino, which is slated to be built in South Philadelphia. Some feel their lobbying efforts were too vigorous. (Interestingly, Senator Fumo has since voiced his opposition to building casinos along the Philadelphia waterfront.) But with the Pennsylvania legislature's approval and support from many neighborhood associations such as the Port Richmond Community Council and the Fishtown Neighbors Association, casinos will likely be a part of Philadelphia's commercial environment. Exactly where they belong in that environment and when they might be completed is the subject of ongoing — and often contentious — debate.
Mayor Nutter's anti-casino allies, including members of Casino Free Philadelphia and the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, have protested the casinos by offering historical, social and economic arguments. City Councilman Frank DiCicco, whose district will be the home of Foxwood, has protested the construction of a waterfront casino on aesthetic grounds. Why, he has asked, mar the beautiful Delaware riverbanks with "windowless boxes, towering concrete garages and caravans of cars?"
The litigious back-and-forth is dizzying and it is easy to become immobilized and confused by the minutiae of all the legal haranguing. Senator Fumo, the author of pro-casino legislation insists that the awarding of a gaming license to SugarHouse is premature since there are no facilities — i.e, an actual building — to satisfy the conditions they need to operate. Fumo's battle with the Philadelphia Commerce Department is just another thorn in the side of SugarHouse officials who paid $50 million for the gaming license last year.
Matt Ruben is the co-chair of the casino committee for the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association (NLNA), one of 27 organizations that make up the Philadelphia Neighborhood Alliance, which is dedicated to moving the casino sites away from the waterfront. The NLNA is appealing the zoning and grading permits for SugarHouse, which are granted by Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections.
"This is a long struggle, to implement casinos in a fair and proper way," he said. "We're not anti-casino; we're for moving them and sparing Philadelphia."
Philadelphia would be spared, Ruben argues, the "significant negative impacts on cities and communities." Those impacts are more difficult to endure the closer a casino is to a densely populated residential neighborhood.
The NLNA advocates moving SugarHouse — or any proposed casino — to sites farther away from schools, homes and houses of worship.
"Right now," he pointed out, "the site of the casino is 190 feet from the nearest house in the neighborhood around Delaware Avenue and Shackamaxon Street.
In addition to ticking off the often-touted negatives of casino development such as increased traffic and crime, Ruben noted the residual effects — social impacts that might include gambling addiction, bankruptcy, substance abuse, and domestic problems. "No reasonable person can say that casinos don't exacerbate these issues," he said.
Yet the Philadelphia Gaming Advisory Task Force, which was responsible for picking the site on which SugarHouse would be built as well as assessing the public impact of casinos, ended their hearings and study on casino development in June 2006, well before SugarHouse and Foxwood were finished revising their proposals. Ruben says such a move shows "contempt for the public."
A few miles north in Fishtown, the site of SugarHouse, some residents have also felt their contempt bubbling over. Theirs, however, is not for the casino but for anti-casino advocates such as Ruben who, they feel, bullied their argument, squashing the voices of those who see a waterfront casino as a much-needed economic asset for the community.
"The people who supported the casino were not being heard," said Maggie O'Brien, founding member of the Fishtown Neighbors Association (FNA) and an enthusiastic supporter of the SugarHouse plan.
"I was on the board of the FNA when the casino issue was brought to our attention," O'Brien said. "And many people in the community felt that they had lost their voice on this issue."
O'Brien invited SugarHouse representatives to her home to speak to community members, many of whom remembered the problems that arose from the string of nightclubs that used to populate the northern Delaware Avenue waterfront.
They talked about alleviating traffic issues and whether SugarHouse would be amenable to holding job fairs in the neighborhood. O'Brien says the SugarHouse people indicated their willingness to sign a community development agreement wherein they would contribute $1 million to a "Special Services" fund for the neighborhood. The money would be managed by a board of community members who could spend it on neighborhood needs as they see fit. That agreement is still being negotiated.
As for Matt Ruben's charge that the casino is too close to residences, O'Brien argues that a casino that attracts a "different demographic" would be a vast improvement over the nightclubs and their often-inebriated patrons who plagued the neighborhood in the past.
"When you think about the people who go to casinos, it's usually the 30 and older crowd. Plus, there are six lanes between the casino and the neighborhood."
SugarHouse communications director Leigh Whitaker confirmed that the casino will not house any nightclubs or entertainment facilities. "We will have an upscale sports bar and six restaurants, including waterfront patio dining."
Whitaker has had a tough job lately. While promoting what she sees as the positive attributes of SugarHouse, (such as the 3,000-car parking garage, for example) she has had to answer questions about the impact of the casino on the community. The SugarHouse Web site cites numerous independent studies, including the one from the Philadelphia Gaming Advisory Task Force, which provide favorable statistics regarding the occurrence of crime and unemployment.
"I get many e-mails," Whitaker said, "telling us we're horrible people. Still we have a significant support in Fishtown among neighborhood groups. They look at this as an opportunity."
Yet, recently it has been noted that nearby Atlantic City casino business has declined by nearly 6 percent. Some reason that the casinos already open in the Philadelphia region have siphoned away customers. Others point to an overall economic downturn in the country. For Governor Rendell and legislators, who saw potential revenue in those Pennsylvania slots, such news does not strengthen the argument of pro-casino forces in the city.
Whitaker has also had to deflect accusations that SugarHouse has moved prematurely to begin construction instead of waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to finish its survey and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to determine the historical relevance of the grounds. While the Army Corps of Engineers claims that SugarHouse is not proceeding with construction, the PHMC deems the archeological survey as incomplete and, at best, inconclusive.
"The activity going on that the site is site prep work," Whitaker said. "We're removing trees and stumps. We're not doing anything wrong."
In accordance with federal historical requirements, SugarHouse hired A.D. Marble Company to conduct archeological excavation. Officials at the PHMC want SugarHouse to cease all activity not related to archeology until a historic review of the site is completed. When SugarHouse suspended work last month, historians got their wish. They believe that that, beneath SugarHouse, lie the remnants of a British fort that dates back to 1776. The A.D. Marble report concluded that while they did not doubt the existence of a fort, they found no evidence of it and recommended no further investigation.
One man thinks they just didn't look hard enough.
While a nest of red-bellied turtles couldn't derail the SugarHouse project, Torben Jenk just might.
Jenk, who restores homes and does far more than dabble in American history, has lived about a half a mile from the site since 1983. He's been documenting the history of the area for more than 15 years and has published books and worked with local organizations to understand their history.
"This is an ancient neighborhood with roots since 1664 when the Swedes settled," he said. "Many prominent families were here so original manuscripts and maps survived."
Some of those maps–the ones dating back to the 18th century — point to a fort built by the British.
"After the battle of Germantown, Washington was routed," Jenk said. "But he tried to make a final push back into Philadelphia. The British had built 10 forts with stockade lines around the city to prevent Washington from coming back. Fort One was built at the location of the SugarHouse site. It was manned by Simcoe's Queens Rangers — Americans who remained loyal to the crown."
There is no doubt Jenk is well-informed about area history. His breathless description of the significance of the SugarHouse site and, indeed, the neighborhood, makes the building of a casino sound like a kind of historical sacrilege, a crass dismissal of American military history, which Jenk believes has been given short shrift in Philadelphia. The main attractions — the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and Carpenters Hall — recount the political underpinnings of America. But there is little, he says, on the actual war that took place in Philadelphia.
Like Ruben, Jenk doesn't oppose casinos. But, please, he implores, not on historical ground that was the site of early Pennsylvania settlement and part of the long historic trail from Rhode Island to Yorktown where Washington ultimately marched his troops to victory. Jenk even suggested the site was akin to Jamestown, Virginia in its significance to early Pennsylvania and early American history. "Archeologists would be most interested in the period when Europeans came here to deal with the natives...15 years before William Penn arrived.
"People are cheap and lazy," Jenk said, referring to the archeological dig commissioned by SugarHouse. "They missed the fort," he charged, even though Jenk and his fellow local historians offered maps and guidance on where the firm might conduct excavation. He said the story that they've looked "is ridiculous."
"What they're trying to say is 'well, we dug there.'"
Jenk's harsh words include an indictment of Governor Rendell's insensitivity to the issue. "He doesn't give two hoots about history. He's only seeing potential revenue. He doesn't understand the significance of the site.
The fight on this front shows no signs of ending either. According to Jenk, federal historic preservation always trumps the state.
"If the state chooses not to see the potential then I will lead our group to the federal level. This is a site of national importance."
SugarHouse was slated to open in February 2009. Ongoing delays will like force that date to change. And while Leigh Whitaker "acknowledges" the historical importance of the site, she stated flatly that it is not the duty of SugarHouse to preserve history.
"Why all this interest now? Why is there an obligation for us to preserve history from 200 years ago?"
SugarHouse, in her words, is contributing to an area that had nothing going for it. Architecturally, she added, it will provide an improvement to the local vista.
Maggie O'Brien might agree with that sentiment. As longtime observer of economic hardships in her neighborhood, she is interested in the present and the future. "Our community has been neglected by the city and state for decades," she said. "The casinos can bring us jobs. Let's get people employed and give them health insurance."
People such as Matt Ruben and Torbin Jenk continue to fight the placement of casinos on the waterfront. They see Mayor Nutter's actions as fulfillment of the promise he made to make Philadelphia city government accountable for decisions and practices. Indeed their actions could slow the development or simply exhaust casino developers and advocates so much that they throw up their hands and move away.
In her line of work, Whitaker must remain the champion of the project, eternally positive and able to field a volley of questions and criticisms that might make one of the current presidential candidates start to cry.
"I don't believe there are any issues we can't resolve," she said.
As time goes on, that statement may also go the way of SugarHouse's original opening date.