With anti-casino activists threatening to put continued pressure on state and city lawmakers to prohibit two casinos along the Philadelphia waterfront, groups in favor of building the slots parlors pulled out their own artillery in a rally across from City Hall yesterday.
The noon event attracted several hundred participants, most of them members of the city's labor and trade unions in a coalition called Build Them Now! Many held up signs that read "Labor Wants Casinos" and "Casinos = Jobs."
Speakers touted casinos and their expected economic and tax windfalls to the city, and they said delays in getting them built would hurt funding for the expansion of the Convention Center, the school district, and police hiring.
"The reason we're so supportive of gaming is, it gives visitors another entertainment choice, and, more importantly, it will fund the expansion of the Convention Center," said Ed Grose, executive director of the 87-member Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. Grose, who served on the Philadelphia Gaming Advisory Task Force in 2005, spoke at the rally.
"An expanded Convention Center will mean more visitors," he said. "Since it opened in 1993, it has become the economic engine of the city."
The Convention Center's scheduled $700 million expansion is expected to be completed in 2010.
Since they were awarded coveted city licenses Dec. 20, the operators behind the Foxwoods and SugarHouse casinos say it has been a frustrating game of wait-and-see. Issues that have delayed construction included a possible referendum on Tuesday's ballot that would have asked voters whether to allow casinos within 1,500 feet of churches and schools. The state Supreme Court issued a preliminary injunction last month prohibiting the ballot question.
Also, the state Supreme Court still must hear final appeals over the licensing decisions. Oral arguments on the lone Philadelphia licensing appeal, filed by Riverwalk Casino, are scheduled for Tuesday. The court will hear three other appeals filed by losing applicants in other parts of the state. Board spokesman Doug Harbach said all four appeals would be heard Tuesday, but there is no timetable as to when the court must rule on these cases.
The team behind the proposed $550 million SugarHouse Casino at North Delaware Avenue and Shackamaxon Street on the waterfront said they were eager to move forward.
"My sense is, if we don't have any more external delays - like with zoning and permitting, or the state Supreme Court - we could have a shovel in the ground by late summer," said Greg Carlin, chief executive officer of SugarHouse Gaming, the casino company controlled by Chicago billionaire developer Neil G. Bluhm.
Foxwoods Development Co. held a vendor fair last month in South Philadelphia for businesses interested in serving as vendors during the construction of its proposed $560 million casino at Columbus Boulevard. It hoped to break ground in July.
"Every time City Council throws up another roadblock, it's costing Philadelphia $85,000 a day in revenue and thousands of jobs," James L. Dougherty, director of operations for Foxwoods Development, said, alluding to the referendum.
"There's no equivocation about it. We want those two casinos," Patrick B. Gillespie, business manager of the Building & Construction Trades Council of the AFL-CIO in Philadelphia, said yesterday to boisterous applause. "They can generate up to 5,000 jobs."
The state has a 54 percent tax on the parlors' gambling take. The gaming board has estimated that the two city casinos, when fully operational, will produce about $342 million a year in tax revenue.
Philadelphia's share would be about $25 million annually. The 2004 Gaming Act stipulates that the first $5 million of the city's share must be distributed to the Philadelphia School District.
Residents who believe their quality of life will be diminished by the two casinos near their homes vow to continue to fight their development.
"We really don't have a disagreement with the pro-casino forces," said Paul Boni of the Society Hill Civic Association, whose neighborhood is equidistant between the two proposed casinos. "It's a matter of finding an appropriate location.
"This city should be able to find two sites that work for the casinos, and which spare the residential communities the negative consequences," he said.