Long burdened by parking woes, traffic, and noise from nearby stadiums, the residents in South Philadelphia’s Packer Park neighborhood are now facing another battle: Will a sports betting parlor be allowed to operate inside a popular restaurant?
On Wednesday, Parx Casino and Racing, which owns the off-track wager Turf Club, is set to appear before the Zoning Board of Adjustment, to seek permission to move its Turf Club operations from its current location near the new Live! Casino to Chickie’s & Pete’s restaurant in the 1500 block of Packer Avenue.
Many neighbors oppose gaming inside Chickie’s & Pete’s. On a petition circulated by the Packer Park Civic Association, 1,067 residents were against it, while 27 supported it.
“I’m appalled that you would consider doing this in this strictly residential neighborhood,” said Lou Tumolo, a civic association board member.
About 40 people came out on a recent snowy evening for a community meeting at the Philadium sports tavern. An additional 145, including Parx officials, attended by Zoom.
Civic association President Barbara Capozzi began the meeting saying: “It should not be up to a small civic association to defend and protect the community. But when the influence of gambling dollars come to play, our elected officials run and hide.”
She called Packer Park one of the “last, best neighborhoods” in the city.
Birthday parties, crab fries, pizza, and sports bets
For years, Chickie’s & Pete’s has been that familiar place to take families, including children, for meals, crab fries, pizza, and birthday parties.
Now, residents said they fear an increase in petty crime and gambling addiction.
Three generations of the Cimadamore family have lived in Packer Park, which stretches from Packer Avenue on the north to Pattison on the South, and from Broad Street to 26th Street.
Ernie Cimadamore, 59, worried especially about the impact on young adults.
“All this gambling, all the fantasy football, these kids think they‘re professionals,” he said. “They’re gambling at a very young age, and it’s getting out of hand.”
Greg Gentile, another neighbor, also blasted Parx officials.
“It doesn’t bring in the millionaires,” Gentile said. “This brings in people betting this month’s rent, or next month’s mortgage. And when they leave, they’re going to be walking out of there looking in cars, looking for change, and they’re going to break windows.”
A business decision and a pandemic, amid stiff competition
At the community meeting, Parx officials talked about security plans.
Parx would reduce its footprint from the 36,000 square feet, at its current location, to 2,600 square feet at Chickie’s & Pete’s, said Michael Mattioni, a lawyer for Parx.
There are 138 seats at the current Turf Club, but only 59 seats are planned for Chickie’s & Pete’s. Parx began a business relationship with Chickie’s & Pete’s more than a decade ago when it brought the restaurant into its Bensalem Parx Casino. Parx opened a Turf Club inside Egg Harbor Township’s Chickie’s & Pete’s and has proposed similar operations in Chester and Montgomery Counties.
The sports-book betting operation in South Philadelphia would be behind glass doors, with a security podium at the entrance, and someone to make sure no one under 21 enters.
‘You can sit in church and bet on your phone’
Parx said its Turf Club customers at Chickie’s & Pete’s could use cash to bet on sports events, or a credit card to create an online account and use a Parx app on their phones.
Paul Boni, the lawyer for the neighbors, asked whether someone could go into the Turf Club area, install a Parx app, then go back out where he was having dinner with his wife and children and gamble at the table.
”You can sit at your table right now at Chickie’s & Pete’s and do bets on your phone, right Matt?” Mattioni asked Matthew Cullen, another Parx official.
“You can sit in church and bet on your phone if you want to,” said Cullen, Parx’s senior vice president for iGaming & Sports.
The Turf Club as an amenity for Chickie’s & Pete’s
Pete Ciarrocchi owns 17 Chickie’s & Pete’s in the region.
Ciarrocchi attended the Zoom meeting and said his business in South Philadelphia has been hurting, from the pandemic, and from newer competition from Xfinity Live!, and the new Live! Casino.
“I just need the shot in the arm,” Ciarrocchi said. “I cometh with my hat in my hand.”
Shortly after the Feb. 1 meeting, lawyers learned the city of Philadelphia is now describing the Turf Club proposal as a “casino.”
It’s a designation Parx will challenge at the zoning hearing Wednesday.
“We believe the city’s calling it a casino is incorrect under the zoning codes and under the state gaming act,” said Mark Stewart, another Parx lawyer.
The city’s legal department told the Department of Licenses and Inspections it should have issued a “refusal” to Parx last August, rather than a “referral” to the zoning board.
A “refusal” means Parx must seek a “zoning variance,” generally harder to receive than a “special exception.”
Neighbors’ complaints: We like you Pete, but ...
On the Zoom meeting, Ciarrocchi came face to face, by computer, with residents lodging complaints about late-night nuisances from his sports bar.
Arthur Novello, vice president of the civic group, said: “My vehicles have been broken into several times behind my house.”
Another man spoke of drunken customers “engaging in, let’s just say, adult interactions” inside cars outside his home.
On the chat side of the Zoom meeting, a woman listed as Mary wrote in support of Ciarrocchi: “when homes are listed for sale in the area, one of the overviews is USUALLY ‘walking distance to Chickie’s and Pete’s,’ Pete has always given back to the community year after year. Excited to see what the future has to bring for Chickies and Pete’s!”
Ciarrocchi said the neighbors cannot be sure whether his customers are responsible for the problems.
There are so many people leaving the stadiums — the Wells Fargo Center, Lincoln Financial Field, and Citizens Bank Park — and from other sports bars, he said.
“We have a very good client base,” Ciarrocchi told The Inquirer. “I don’t think there’s that many incidents there at all, and we’ve been there for 17 years.