I wouldn’t normally get jazzed about an invite to a Sunday Mass blessing of a church’s new elevator. I mean, unless that thing includes a recliner, plasma TV, and wet bar, I’m sleeping in.
But the story behind the elevator at St. Anne Parish is so much better than the elevator itself (which, for the record, is a keeper). That’s why I happily hustled to the church this month to watch the Rev. Skip Miller sprinkle holy water on the lift and thank God for the forces that brought it into being.
One of which was casino money. Who knew God was into craps and slots?
St. Anne’s was founded in Port Richmond in 1845 by Irish worshipers who must have loved staircases, because they placed its grand sanctuary two stories above street level.
For 173 years, the staircase was the bane of those who can’t climb steps. Luckily, St. Anne has a lower, albeit plainer, worship hall at street level that mobility-impaired people could access via ramp. But they were still excluded from the fancy events — weddings, funerals, concerts — in the sanctuary, a soaring marvel of marble and stained glass.
In 2014, St. Anne’s decided to install an elevator to the second floor. By last December, thanks in great part to a few very generous donors, they’d raised the $35,000 they believed it would cost, only to discover that the estimate covered just the apparatus. They’d need tens of thousands more to install the thing.
“We couldn’t go back to the big donors again,” says parish member Theresa Stahl, who helped spearhead the project.
Enter the Fairy Godfunders at Penn Treaty Special Services District, which ponied up $41,000 to get the project done.
The PTSSD is bankrolled by SugarHouse Casino, via a community-benefits agreement that calls for an annual million-dollar donation from the casino to fund community projects in surrounding Fishtown, Northern Liberties, South Kensington, and Old Richmond.
When Fishtown’s historic Palmer Cemetery needed a new fence to replace the torn-up cyclone one on the blighted site at Palmer and Memphis Streets, the PTSSD came through with a classy wrought-iron version.
At Columbia Avenue and Thompson Street, the once dried-out, rock-studded Hetzel Athletic Field is now — thanks to the PTSSD — a lush, sprinklered haven where kids no longer twist their ankles in the ruts.
And the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association on North Third Street used PTSSD money to renovate its community center into a lovely gathering spot, and to renovate an adjacent property into revenue-generating rental units.
In just ten years, the PTSSD’s all-volunteer board has funneled more than $6 million into hundreds of big and small projects in one little stretch of this always-broke city.
Granted, the creation of such community-benefits agreements were required when, in 2006, Pennsylvania’s Gaming Control Board approved the state’s first casino licenses. Still, it wasn’t easy to set this one up.
Residents of Philly’s river wards were appalled to learn that SugarHouse planned to build a gambling palace on the Fishtown site of the old Jack Frost sugar refinery. Neighborhood associations, convinced that crime, prostitution, traffic, and trash would overrun their communities, refused to meet with the SugarHouse executives to discuss anything related to gaming, let alone a community-benefits agreement.
But a band of residents calling themselves Fishtown Action (FACT), seeing the inevitability of the project, began negotiating an agreement with SugarHouse that would support neighborhoods directly impacted by the casino.
“They needed our backing, which gave us leverage,” says Maggie O’Brien, a FACT founder.
The anti-casino crowd accused FACT of consorting with the enemy, and a rift wider than the Delaware opened between them. By the time SugarHouse put a shovel in the ground in 2009, the bitterness was at an all-time high.
It eventually softened, hastened by a) the fact that the doomsday casino scenarios never materialized, and b) the realization that the agreement negotiated by those crazy FACT people could fuel long-needed neighborhood improvements.
The truce was cemented when the PTSSD board — run by both anti- and pro-casino volunteers — began dispersing all those SugarHouse dollars. They didn’t finance just big-ticket dreams. They also picked up the tab for activities that strengthen a community’s connective tissue.
Like Shissler Rec Center’s Great Fishtown Spelling Bee, whose organizers once had to beg local businesses to pay for T-shirts, trophies and snacks. Now, the PTSSD just cuts a check to fund the annual, beloved mainstay.
And Kensington’s Rock to the Future after-school program, where kids get free music lessons and homework help.
And the annual Memorial Day barbecue outside the American Legion’s Elm Tree Post No. 88, whose military-veteran organizers once collected donations outside the supermarket to pay for all the hot dogs.
“We gave one of the organizers a check for $700," says PTSSD board chair Rich Levins. “I said, ‘You’ll never have to beg outside Thriftway again.' He started crying.”
Ironically, many of these projects are being pitched to the PTSSD by people who once felt betrayed by those who negotiated the agreement that’s now funding everything.
That’s not to knock them. SugarHouse presented a scary unknown in a town not far from Atlantic City, whose casinos had promised more than they delivered. It wasn’t irrational to fear the same would happen here. Hey, it still might. The casino industry is not immune to the vagaries of the economy.
Others were — and probably still are — repulsed by the wallet-robbing industry itself. All the better, then, to stick it to SugarHouse by using its dough to fund noble causes, like the installation of St. Anne’s elevator, as blessed so eloquently by Father Skip.
“Christ came into the world to gather those who were scattered,” he said. “May those who are separated by mountains, oceans, great distances, and even stairs be brought nearer to each other."