Something truly amazing is happening this month in Pennsylvania. It’s something few thought would ever happen.
One of the Philadelphia casinos is opening.
Yes, SugarHouse is actually opening for business. Looking at the comical history of the startup of gaming in Philadelphia, I must say, I thought there was a better chance of giant purple monkeys terrorizing the Las Vegas Strip.
First, citizens threatened to lay down in front of the bulldozers because they didn’t want casinos. Next, Philadelphia City Council tried to pass ordinances to prevent the casinos. One ordinance would have banned any casino within 1,500 feet of a residence. (In other words, the entire city of Philadelphia.) City council vowed to fight the waterfront casinos. The state Supreme Court issued two separate orders to city officials to quit stalling and approve the zoning. City officials, including the new mayor, ignored them. The mayor wanted the casinos to follow a private company’s plan for the waterfront—a plan that recommended no casinos.
Just before council could pass an ordinance banning casinos within a mile of the surface of Earth, or a law restricting casino ownership to Lithuanian conjoined twins, state lawmakers stepped in. They told Philly officials they were going to stop giving them their municipal cut of state slot revenues unless these casino projects got going.
Suddenly, every Philadelphia official was Frank Fahrenkopf. Support for the casinos gushed from city government. That was when the state pulled the old switcheroo.
Before city officials experienced their fiscally induced epiphany, they had been joined by state officials in harassing the two developers that had been awarded licenses for casinos in Philadelphia. Everyone wanted them to move their projects off the riverfront. State lawmakers threatened to pass a law that would eliminate all the tax breaks the licensees got under the gaming law unless they moved off the riverfront. SugarHouse refused to move. Foxwoods caved, and moved its project downtown to please the state officials.
It was a move that would eventually plant a big, stinking heap of egg on their faces. Residents in the Chinatown neighborhood were picking up pitchforks and forming a lynch mob, so Foxwoods moved the project several blocks away, to a couple of floors of a shuttered department store. But one of that building’s owners objected, and the lease negotiations bogged down.
So, state officials—this time, the Gaming Control Board—ordered the project back to the riverfront. Then, the Foxwoods partners couldn’t finance their project. Then Steve Wynn stepped in. Then he stepped out. Now, Harrah’s may step in. The original Foxwoods partners, who went out of their way to please the state, are now the sad-sack losers of this whole affair.
Meanwhile, SugarHouse was dealing with problems of its own. After its owners refused to move from the riverfront, the city unleashed its vicious archeologists. The scientists insisted the SugarHouse site was on top of the remains of a British fort from the Revolutionary War. You know, before they made it into a sugar refinery, which it was for decades, without a peep from a single preservationist. Before SugarHouse owners could break ground, they had to wait for the archeologists to sift through the site looking for Hessian latrines. They didn’t find any.
It was all part of the general hilarity of the Pennsylvania casino experience, which, of course, was borne of the hilarity of Pennsylvania politics. The lawmakers, after all, had bent over backwards to create a particularly goofy gaming law, with provisions like this: No convicted felons with gaming licenses, unless your felony conviction is more than 15 years old.
That provision has since been repealed, but I find it comforting to know that Charles Manson would have qualified to own a Pennsylvania casino under the original law.
Well, that’s all behind us now, because SugarHouse is opening. Roll out the Ben Franklin impersonators, Betsy Ross and her flag, a neon Liberty Bell, and anything else you can think of that would add some irreverence to get on the nerves of the anti-gaming forces. (You’ll find them under the bulldozers when construction crews leave.)
One down, one to go. At this writing, no one knows what’s going to happen with Foxwoods Philadelphia. The last I heard, Harrah’s officials were in discussions about the project, and in fact had written off the Foxwoods partners’ debt, incurred when they bought the land for the project from that very same Harrah’s.
You know, the riverfront land. The land city officials would rather see occupied by weeds and field mice than a casino.
In any event, there is officially a casino in Philadelphia. Eventually, there will be two. Just after the parade down Broad Street by the giant purple monkeys.